It is New Year's Day 1998. You're comfortably settled into your favorite beanbag chair (they're back in vogue). Time to take in a little football. You click on the tube and get the Cotton Bowl on PBS, featuring SSWC (Streamlined Southwest Conference) champ SMU against Penn, the Ivy League titlist. Yeech! So you switch over to ABC, where the Sugar Bowl is about to kick off with Miami, champion of the Southeastern Conference, going up against Notre Dame, the country's sole remaining independent, for the right to face Rose Bowl winner San Diego State in next week's national championship game.
"You know, Jim," an announcer says, "this one could harken back to some of those epic games these two teams had back in the '80s, when they were still deciding the national championship by looking at wire-service polls."
If you think this scenario is farfetched, you're right—beanbag chairs will never make a comeback. Everything else about it is perfectly plausible. College football as we have known it is about to change drastically. In a dominolike sequence of changes that is part power grab, part defense mechanism and at least part greed, a number of sprawling superconferences are expected to be created sometime from five weeks to five years from now. Most, if not all, of the superconferences will get rich. Some traditional conferences will merge, shrink or eventually become defunct. Some bowls (Rose and Sugar, most likely) will prosper, and some (probably Cotton and Orange) will go into decline. And the inevitable arrival of a national-championship playoff game will be hastened.
The upheaval in college football has already begun. In February, Notre Dame, which had been part of the CFA's TV package with CBS, cut its own deal with NBC. Last month Penn State forsook its independence and formally took up with the Big Ten (soon to be called the Big Eleven or the Big Twelve or the Big...), beginning in the mid-1990s. In recent days officials at Miami, Florida State and Arkansas have expressed interest in talking with the 10-team SEC, which is considering expansion into East and West divisions of eight teams each. And last week the eight-member Metro Conference, which is currently organized for basketball and other sports but not for football, invited eight independents to help it form a 16-team, two-division league for football (chart, page 28). Other mega-conferences may be in the offing. For example, the ACC could expand to a 12-team, two-division format. Miami is also being eyed for that one.
"The '90s are predicted to be moving in the direction of three superconferences, each with a major network," says Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles. Some would quibble with Broyles's arithmetic—the outlines of at least four super-conferences have appeared on the horizon—but there's no missing the gist of his message. Super-, maxi-, mega-, cosmic-conferences are the wave of the future.
Division I-A football could be transformed by quicky divorces and hastily arranged marriages. The day after Arkansas raised the possibility that it may not be a member of the Southwest Conference much longer, that conference's executive committee met to map out contingency plans—foremost among them a merger with the Big Eight. Of course, by the time that union could be arranged, Colorado might have bolted to the Pac-10. The Pac-10—or Packed Tent, as it may come to be known—has been rumored to be interested in at least three teams besides Colorado (chart).
What's next, an alliance of Atlantic powers from Miami to Boston? Well, as a matter of fact, there is an Eastern Seaboard League (ESL) under discussion that would include Boston College, the ever-present Miami and eight other independents if—a big if—it sees the light of day.
While the aforementioned realignments are all just in the talking—or dreaming—stage, Division I-A has already been thrown into mild disarray by Notre Dame's decision to cut its own TV package and Penn State's abandonment of the independent ranks. In addition, the Federal Trade Commission has been investigating possible restraint-of-trade violations in the 63-member CFA's new $300 million, five-year TV package with ABC that is scheduled to go into effect in 1991. Should it find the contract anticompetitive, the FTC could void it. If that happens, there would be a rush of conference commissioners to cut the best possible deal with the networks.
The battle over conference realignment has pitted punchers against counterpunchers: The Big Ten and the SEC have taken the initiative to expand, while some Southwest Conference and Big Eight officials are talking merger in hopes that their conferences won't be left behind. Memo to schools that can't find a chair in the superconferences when the music stops: Scrap those stadium-expansion plans and report immediately to Division I-AA.
Suddenly, being an independent has lost some of its cachet. If most big schools join megaconferences, independents will discover it will be difficult to find opponents for games after the end of September, when conference play begins. Of course, by the time the realignment shakes out, there may not be too many independents left. For example, the independents envisioned for the proposed ESL are Miami, Boston College, Florida State, South Carolina, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, Temple, Rutgers, Syracuse and Pitt. The burning question of where Miami will end up aside, the Big Ten could throw a monkey wrench into the ESL's plans because it, too, has evinced interest in Pitt, Syracuse and Rutgers. "Big Ten officals have declared a moratorium [of four years] on expansion," says a Big East athletic director, "but who knows if they'll stick to it, once they see the writing on the wall."
Not to be outdone, the Big East, which now sponsors no competition in football, has been involved in low-level negotiations with the ACC. The Big East would like to know if its three members that play Division I-A football as independents, BC, Syracuse and Pitt, could join the ACC for that sport while remaining in the Big East for basketball. "It's logical," says the Big East athletic director. "The ACC needs to jazz up its football, and it would get great football coverage in New England. What the hell would it want with our basketball? It already has the world."
What does all this wooing of independents mean to Notre Dame, the mightiest independent of them all? Might the projected scarcity of independent opponents force the Irish into joining a conference as a football-only member? No way. "We've been an independent for 148 years," says Notre Dame athletic director Dick Rosenthal. "We are independent by desire." But won't the shrinking number of independents make scheduling difficult? "Right now, we're scheduled through 2004," says Rosenthal. "Conference teams have open dates later in the season. We've played USC the last game of the year every other year since 1956. We're playing Tennessee late in the season this year. I'm sure it will be more difficult to schedule, but it shouldn't be impossible."
For independents, the downside of forfeiting their bachelorhood would be the requirement that they divvy up their bowl money with their new conference mates. On the other hand, they presumably would get a cut of other conference members' bowl proceeds. The lost revenues would be further offset by the colossal rights fees a superconference could command. For example, the SEC currently encompasses 15% of the nation's TV households; with Arkansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Miami and Florida State in the conference, that figure would be 25%. "Yeah, but they have to divide that revenue among that many more teams," says Southwest Conference commissioner Fred Jacoby. Still other, less partial, voices urge caution. "Has anyone seen any of these big dollars yet?" asks former ABC executive Donn Bernstein. "People start talking superconferences, and their eyes get bigger than their stomachs. We're already wall-to-wall football on Saturday. We're reaching a point of oversaturation."
And superconferences will generate more games, not fewer. By adopting divisional play—six, seven or eight teams to a division—the superconferences would be able to take advantage of a long-ignored NCAA bylaw that permits an extra game, beyond the annual limit of 11, to determine a conference championship. A logical subsequent step would be to take the four superconference champs and hold a national-championship playoff; this would involve two more postseason games. "The machinery would be in place," says Miami athletic director Sam Jankovich, who happens to oppose a national playoff. "It's closer than any of us realize. The bowl people are antsy as hell, and they have every reason to be." Concerns about how the extra games might interfere with young Joe Bob's preparation for final exams seem destined to be drowned out by the ring of cash registers.
The biggest losers could be the Orange and Cotton Bowls, which have agreements with the Big Eight and the Southwest Conference, respectively. Neither bowl is expected to take this lying down. Says Orange Bowl president Arthur Hertz, "I'm told by our legal people that if the Big Eight is not constituted the same as it was when we signed the contract [in 1988, with NBC, for six years], then we have the right to reevaluate"—that is, to forgo its automatic bid to the Big Eight champion and invite the two best teams available.
CBS says that it can escape from its deal with the Cotton Bowl if the Southwest Conference changes shape. "No question, [the loss of Arkansas, and possibly Texas and Texas A&M] could affect us pretty severely," says Cotton Bowl executive vice-president Jim Brock. On the bright side, both the Cotton and Orange Bowls have sterling pedigrees and excellent reputations as smoothly run events. Says CBS's vice-president of programming, Len DeLuca, "They could compete very well without conference alignments."
"The irony of it is that, in the 54 years we've had the Cotton Bowl, we've had a representative from the SEC 21 times," says Brock. After Arkansas announced it would talk to the SEC, South-west Conference officials argued that the Razorbacks were acting rashly. Their travel expenses would skyrocket, said one. (Not so, says Broyles.) They would have problems recruiting in Texas, said another. (Remains to be seen.) Most laughable were the appeals to Arkansas's sense of loyalty and tradition. Most Southwest Conference schools showed their respect for the conference's good name in the 1970s and '80s, when they raised cheating to an art form and made the conference a national laughingstock. Arkansas was one of three Southwest Conference schools (Rice and Baylor were the others) whose football programs were not on NCAA probation in the '80s.
Broyles said that in entertaining overtures from the SEC, "money is no issue," and, indeed, he has done a wizardlike job of bringing financial security to the athletic programs of a school with limited means. Yet he knows that turning down the SEC would be bad business. Arkansas no longer sells out all its Southwest Conference football games. "You trade Rice, SMU and Texas Tech for LSU, Tennessee and Auburn," says one Razorback athletic official, "and you don't have to worry about selling out the stadium—you have to worry about expanding it." Conference-wide, Southwest Conference stadiums were 32% empty last year, while those in the SEC were 95% full.
What's the timetable for all the changes? "Over the next 60 or 90 days, you'll see the conference structure as we know it begin to unravel," says Jankovich. Adds Broyles, "It's in the interest of a school moving from one league to another to move quickly. The speed of transition is important."
What some Texans fear is that if Arkansas goes, Texas and Texas A&M will follow closely behind, effectively gutting the Southwest Conference. The athletic directors at those schools haven't exactly been rallying around the conference banner. Says Texas's DeLoss Dodds, "Each institution should take stock of its own situation and ask, Where will we be 10 years from now? Either you grow with the market—or you get left out." John David Crow, the Aggies' athletic director, asks, "What if Arkansas jumps? Can we survive in tomorrow's atmosphere in a one-state conference?"
"Here we are, a school of 14,000 in a state of 2.29 million, and which direction we go on this will have this enormous effect," says Arkansas sports-information director Rick Schaeffer, somewhat giddily. "It's sort of like Europe waiting to sec what Luxembourg is going to do."
Not that the SEC will have any problems finding willing new members, should the Razorbacks not join up. The revolution has begun, and there appears to be no putting it down.
A SNEAK PEEK?
How the divisions of four superconferences might stack up
NORTH CAROLINA ST.
SAN DIEGO STATE
Note: Some schools are being considered by more than one conference.