Just get it over with, college presidents.
We know a lot of you want to reshape the conferences, so just do it already. Unleash your inner Charles Darwins, fire up the Conference Natural Selection Machine and go crazy. You're going to consolidate anyway, so why drag it out?
Tuesday, after a four-hour executive session, the assembled muckety-mucks at the University of Missouri emerged from their cocoon to tell the world that the school's board of curators had unanimously empowered chancellor Brady Deaton to take action regarding Missouri's athletic conference affiliation. In English, that means Missouri wants out of the Big 12, and Deaton's job is to send as many boxes of chocolates as it takes to the SEC office to get the Tigers the hell out of their current conference. The SEC wants Missouri for its two decent-sized TV markets (St. Louis and Kansas City) and because adding a 14th school would eliminate the potential nightmare of scheduling with 13. Also, Missouri is a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, so it would academically class up a league that would only have three AAU members (Florida, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt) otherwise.
But the SEC isn't going to just sniff the roses Mizzou sent, blush and invite the Tigers to share in its overflowing honey pot. SEC presidents are as worried now about potential litigation from Big 12 leftovers as they were when they began their forbidden dance with Texas A&M this summer. This is not a done deal yet.
It should be. All this saber rattling is stupid and pointless. If a school wants to move, let it move. Let every school take the best conference deal it can get, sign some new media rights contracts and let the rest of us enjoy what's left of this football season before the world changes next year. If presidents really wanted, they could hammer this out by the end of next week. If a conference gets consumed or implodes, so be it. No matter how the presidents try to portray it so programs can keep their tax-exempt status, this is a multibillion-dollar business. Companies go belly-up or reposition themselves at a lower level all the time. Fans, coaches and misguided sports writers* need to quit being so sentimental about all this movement, because the university CEOs certainly aren't sentimental about it.
*Before we go any further, here's a public-service message to the fans, coaches and misguided sports writers who still fail to grasp why all of this is happening. Schools aren't conference-jumping to win football or basketball national titles. This is about money and security. Yes, Missouri would find winning at football in the SEC to be quite difficult. But its options are to not win conference titles for a lot of money in a completely stable league or to not win conference titles for less money in a relatively unstable league. If this were only about winning at football, the SEC already would have booted Vanderbilt and brought in Boise State.
The return to sanity can start in the Big 12. League presidents hired interim commissioner Chuck Neinas to stabilize the ship. He can do that by bidding Missouri good riddance and by ordering any potentially litigious members -- cough, cough, Baylor, cough, cough -- to stand down and allow Missouri to move to the SEC. Neinas, who is much smarter than he has let on in his most recent interviews, knows full well that as long as the Big 12 has Texas and Oklahoma, the Big 12 is a relevant, commercially valuable league. It doesn't have to blow up. Texas and Oklahoma already have agreed to equal revenue sharing for Tier I and Tier II media rights -- meaning Texas and Iowa State get the same amount from the league's deals with ESPN and Fox even though Texas is far more coveted by those networks than Iowa State. Essentially, Texas and Oklahoma are offering to donate to the other schools to ensure the stability of the conference. On top of that, the schools are willing to grant their Tier I and II rights to the league for six years. That would make them worthless to any other conference and guarantee stability until after the league signs its next Tier I rights deal.
This works as long as Oklahoma wants to stay. The SEC would love to have the Sooners, and president David Boren also has been empowered to handle conference affiliation, but so far Oklahoma has shown no interest in the SEC. As long as that doesn't change, the Big 12 is perfectly viable. If it does change, forget everything you've read in this column. Something is going kablooey. But that would require some firmly entrenched people in high places to change their minds. So let's assume for the moment that the Sooners are quite content in the Big 12.
Obviously, the Big 12 couldn't stay at eight schools. It would have to expand. For security purposes, it probably would have to expand back to 12 members. It can take BYU, an independent, without upsetting anyone else's apple cart. Unfortunately, it also would have to raid another conference. That conference probably would be the Big East, which has the next most valuable set of programs. (The Big East could attempt a pre-emptive strike by courting current Big 12 members, but if Texas and Oklahoma are in for a penny and a pound, the others aren't going to leave their side.) If the Big 12 swiped three Big East programs, the Big East -- which already has lost Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the ACC -- probably would cease to exist as a BCS automatic-qualifying league when the next BCS cycle begins in the 2014 season.
And that's OK.
It might mean a salary cut for the people in the biggest offices, but the Big East could survive quite nicely either as a league of Catholic schools without football teams -- or, in Notre Dame's case, an independent football team -- or as a souped-up Conference USA in football with a still-formidable hoops roster. Businesses re-brand themselves constantly. The Big East could re-brand and thrive at a different level.
College athletics could get along just fine for a long time with five power conferences. The Big Ten seems perfectly content with 12 members. The Pac-12 has expressed its happiness with its current 12-school alignment. The SEC and the ACC would have 14. The Big 12 would -- math teachers rejoice -- have 12. Notre Dame would remain independent and far more relevant on the balance sheet than on the football field.
In a decade or two, something would happen that would prompt schools to begin conference-hopping again. That's the nature of the business. The Pac-12 was the Pac-8 until it became the Pac-10. The Big Six became the Big Eight, and then it joined with some Southwest Conference refugees to become the Big 12. The SEC once counted Sewanee -- now known as the University of the South -- as a member.
There is no need to prolong the agony of this particular set of conference corrections. Make your deals. Sign your new TV contracts. Count your money. The rest of us are tired of watching board meetings. We'd like to get back to watching football.