How can Nebraska upset the apple cart when Nebraska is the apple cart? More than any team in the country, Nebraska epitomizes college football. Oh, there are more successful programs (though not many). But if you wanted to find one team that explains what made college football special over the last 100-plus years, you could start in Lincoln, Nebraska -- and end there too.
There aren't many players in Nebraska. There aren't even many people there. Nebraska football is a giant cornfield and a dream -- and for years, that was enough. There are no pro teams there, no other college teams that really matter. Nebraskans built themselves a college football superpower simply because that is what they wanted to build. The only team in American sports that even compares to Nebraska football, for uniform statewide devotion, is Kentucky basketball.
With even normal fan support, Nebraska football is just another program.
And now look:
The Big Ten wants Nebraska because people outside of Nebraska watch Nebraska on television.
Think about that. If this deal happens as expected, it happens because the Big Ten wants to attract people in Denver and Dallas and New York to its television network.
I'm sure some Nebraska fans welcome the move, and good for them. But let's understand: they are afterthoughts here. All the local fans are, because in the new math, local fans are the constant. The conferences assume they will always be there, and they're probably right. The Big Ten wants to expand so that the Big Ten Network is more attractive nationally. The Pac-10 just added Colorado, which brings in the Denver market. If the Pac-10 follows up by adding Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas Tech, it will do so because of TV.
Still, the question must be asked:
Does anybody think this makes college sports better?
It makes the Big Ten and Pac-10 bigger and stronger. It makes most of the schools that are involved wealthier.
But better? Are we better off with Nebraska playing Iowa and Michigan instead of Iowa State and Oklahoma? Who wins when Texas, Arizona State and Stanford are all in the same league? How can it be good that Kansas, one of the top five basketball programs in history, is scrambling to find a league, any league?
Fault (or credit, if you prefer) is hard to assign here -- so many entities are acting out of self-interest. Nebraska didn't just decide to get up and bolt and Oklahoma and Texas aren't trying to screw Kansas basketball. But I will say this: when this all ends, Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe might not have a conference to run, which is just as well, because he has shown no ability to run one.
There has been a lot of conference realignment over the last 20 years, and it's tempting to say that this is just another shuffling of the deck. But it's not. It's bigger. The implications are greater.
The other moves all fell into at least one of the following three categories:
1. Somebody needed a conference.
The age of independence ended (for all but one big-time school; more on that in a minute). Penn State needed a league so it joined the most obvious choice: the Big Ten. Miami needed a league and got a cushy deal to join the Big East. Florida State needed a league and found the ACC.
When you give up independence for a league, then you're not really giving up that much tradition. Oh, sure: you give up a matchup here and there, the ability to set your own starting times. But you gain more than you lose.
2. The team that joined a new league had natural rivals in that league.
When the Southwest Conference ran out of wads of hundred dollar bills and blew up, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor turned the Big 8 into the Big 12. One of Texas's biggest rivals, Oklahoma, was already in that league. There were no strange newcomers to the Big 12, because the newcomers all knew each other.
When South Carolina and Arkansas joined the Southeastern Conference, they were in SEC territory already. (South Carolina had bounced around and falls into the Needed A League category, too.) When Miami left the Big East for the ACC, it got into a league with Florida State.
3. Fallout from Nos. 1 and 2.
This is what sent Boston College to the ACC, Marquette and Louisville to the Big East, and Rice, TCU, Houston, Baylor and SMU off to whatever conferences they're in.
There were other factors that caused the shifts -- the desire for 12-team leagues (and conference championship games), TV money, etc. But I'm not talking about the causes, I'm talking about the effects. In almost every case, you could at least argue that college sports were more fun after the shift than before.
But now? I don't see it. I don't see how college sports are better when Nebraska has to start new rivalries so it can get a bigger chunk of TV money. I don't see how putting Texas and Washington State in the same league makes this enterprise more compelling for anybody.
And since this is all being done for TV money, it is all about football. It is telling that in the last two decades, no league went after Kansas, Kentucky, Duke or North Carolina. College basketball, a national obsession every March, is not even part of this discussion. And if the school presidents aren't giving a thought to basketball, you can be sure they don't care a bit about the various soccer players, lacrosse players, sprinters and swimmers who will be going pro in something other than sports.
Adding to the strangeness: this is all happening because of one school that actually heeds the wishes of its fans. Late in the 20th century, which now feels like it was the 18th century, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany very publicly courted Notre Dame to join his league. But most Irish alums value their school's football independence -- they seem to think that anything that makes Notre Dame different should be treasured, and there is some merit to the opinion. So Notre Dame said no -- and presumably, will keep saying no.
If Notre Dame had said yes then, Delany would not be going through this right now. With Notre Dame in the fold, Delany would have almost everything he wants: a league with regional travel and national television appeal, institutions with similar academic interests, an even number of teams (which would help with scheduling) and the option of having a football championship game. Delany would not need to flirt with the likes of Missouri or Nebraska. And if Nebraska stayed put, the Big 12 would probably remain intact.
By trying to stay the same, Notre Dame inadvertently has changed the entire landscape of college sports.
It's a new world. In the next few years, you'll have to decide for yourself if it is a better one.