Aftershocks of Big Ten expansion could alter entire landscape

Thursday April 22nd, 2010

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany broke his silence concerning conference expansion Wednesday and said almost nothing during a 30-minute chat/filibuster with reporters. A few hours later, SEC commissioner Mike Slive needed about 30 seconds to speak volumes.

Slive poured himself a cup of coffee, took his seat, unfolded a slip of paper and began to read.

"Given the success the SEC has experienced over the past decade, we are very comfortable with the position in which we find ourselves today," Slive said after a day of BCS meetings. "Having said that, if there is going to be a significant shift in the conference paradigm, the SEC will be strategic and thoughtful to make sure that it maintains its position as one of the nation's pre-eminent conferences."

Declarations of war have been less emphatic. Translated, Slive's statement means this: If the Big Ten expands into a superconference, the SEC will make itself just as super. Just listen to Slive himself, from a more off-the-cuff moment Wednesday. "I won't just sit back," he said, "and ignore what is going on around me."

Meanwhile, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said his conference should decide by year's end -- before it begins its next round of television negotiations -- whether it will expand. If it does, Scott said, the conference will use the "Noah's Ark philosophy, two-by-two." The plan, it seems, would be to add just two. But if the Big Ten and SEC supersize, who knows?

Get ready, college sports fans, because everything is about to change.

If the Big Ten expands to 14 or 16 teams and prompts the SEC to expand, everyone will go looking for shelter. If you didn't like the idea of six conferences controlling everything before, just wait until four conferences have all the power.

Big East commissioner John Marinatto and Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe are understandably nervous. Their conferences stand to be annihilated if the Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10 move simultaneously. Judging by Slive's pledge to be proactive, that's exactly what would happen if the Big Ten decides to go really big.

"It would be irresponsible of me not to be concerned about all of that stuff," Marinatto said. "It's not the elephant in the room anymore. Everybody talks about it -- although it's not on our agenda. We're all concerned about it. Not only the Big East, but everyone. How will -- if they do anything -- it expand or contract the marketplace for intercollegiate athletics?"

Moments before Delany met reporters Wednesday, the Big East e-mailed a release that former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had signed on to provide strategic assistance. Tagliabue's main role, in the long run, may be to help the Big East pick up the pieces for the second time in less than 10 years after another raid. Marinatto and former commissioner Mike Tranghese did a brilliant job reinventing the league after the ACC snatched Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech. The job could be considerably tougher if the Big Ten takes Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse.

Before you deluge me with e-mails about how some team would be a better choice for the Big Ten because of its football record the past few years, remember one thing. Despite the commissioners' collective ability to rattle off the number of championships their conference's teams have won, this has little to do with what happens on the field. This is about money and power and the accumulation of both.

The Big Ten has a hammer. It's called the Big Ten Network, which allows the conference to distribute $22 million to each school in the league each year. That's why even Notre Dame, which cherishes its football independence more than it cherishes money, could become a candidate for the Big Ten if that league smashes up the Big East, of which Notre Dame is a non-football member. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick has maintained that the program will do everything to protect its independence, but if everything changes, can the Fighting Irish afford to?

The SEC also has a hammer in the form of a pair of monster deals with CBS and ESPN that allow the SEC to pay out $17 million a year to each team and -- unlike the Big Ten -- still allow teams to negotiate their own local rights deals. The Pac-10 doesn't have as much leverage, but it owns the Los Angeles and Bay Area television markets, and that's a very big deal.

So while expansion wasn't on the agenda for the BCS meetings, it hangs over the proceedings. Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione said that while he understood everyone wanted a sound bite to encapsulate the mood, he couldn't provide one. A few seconds later, he produced the perfect one.

"It's a little complicated right now," said Castiglione, who could find himself reporting to Slive instead of Beebe if realignment gets radical.

It's fitting that Castiglione used the phrase any Facebook member would use to describe a confusing courtship, because that's essentially what this is. Just ask Delany. "You're not trying to find somebody you're going to spend a year with," he said. "You're trying to figure out what you're going to be for the next 25 or 50 years."

Delany isn't going to propose this week, but he could propose soon. Big Ten athletic directors and presidents will do their homework. They will crunch the numbers. They may even go on a few dates. Then they'll authorize Delany to drop to one knee and invite one, three or five lucky schools to live in the mansion of a conference that boasts its own television network that could soon appear on the expanded basic cable systems in more than a third of American homes. That may not sound sexy to you, but to an athletic director and a university president, it's the equivalent of a flawless three-carat, round-cut diamond.

Delany said little of substance, but one nugget stood out. "It's possible," Delany said, "that we may act in a way that it would be more than a single member." That's his first public acknowledgment that the league might expand beyond 12 teams. Delany also said Big Ten presidents might not approve expansion at all, but why would the league put out a release in December announcing its plan to examine expansion without having some ducks already in a row?

As Delany spoke Wednesday, two non-media folks hung near the front of the room. The first was Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary who now serves as the chief spin doctor for the BCS. The second was WAC commissioner Karl Benson, who, like all of his colleagues, wanted to hear what one of the guys with a hammer had to say.

Because once Delany or Slive takes that first swing, the blow will reverberate through all of college athletics.

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