All Shook Up

Seismic shifts are altering the sport's landscape
August 25, 1991

It will be years before college football seismologists can fully evaluate the tremors that have rocked the sport in the past couple of years, leaving it in a strange and unsettled state as the 1991 season begins. The rumbling began early in 1990 when Notre Dame bolted the College Football Association television package to cut its own $38 million deal with NBC. Soon after, the Big Ten decided to admit independent Penn State to its ranks, beginning with the 1993 season. Next thing you knew, Arkansas was ending its 76-year affiliation with the Southwest Conference in order to join the wealthier, more powerful Southeastern Conference, and three other major independents, Miami, Florida State and South Carolina, were scrambling to join the Big East, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the SEC, respectively. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the bowls and the TV networks were twisting arms and slapping backs, each working hard to maintain toeholds in terra that was becoming increasingly less firma.

"Everybody is looking for an insurance policy against the uncertainties of the '90s," says Chuck Neinas, executive director of the CFA. He ticks off a laundry list of questions that athletic directors and coaches are confronting: Can they live with the cutbacks mandated by reform-minded presidents while still generating wins and income? Is it fair to expect football to support the entire athletic department, as it does at most universities? How do you deal with increasing governmental scrutiny of the sport? And—though it seems unlikely now—what if television revenue is cut back? "A lot of athletic directors are feeling financial stress, and the hope is that bigger will be better from a conference standpoint," says Kentucky's C.M. Newton.

Whatever takes place in the next few years, ultimately there may be far fewer schools playing at the highest level as the poorer, weaker schools finally decide that the cost of trying to keep up with the Michigans and Nebraskas is no longer worth it. A look at some of the more earthshaking developments and their possible repercussions:

•The game's hottest new player is the Big East Conference, which is finally adding football to its sports lineup. Although the conference has yet to play its first official football game, it is already partners with four other major conferences (SEC, SWC, Big Eight and ACC), four major bowls (Sugar, Orange, Cotton and Fiesta) and Notre Dame in a complex alliance that is designed to produce the most desirable bowl matchups as well as to maximize the likelihood of having a No. 1-versus-No. 2 game on New Year's Day.

For decades, the major independents in the East have been talking about forming some kind of a football conference. Penn State, for example, would have been interested in a Big East tie-in but became increasingly frustrated with the inability of the conference to embrace football. When Penn State and the Big Ten finally worked out their deal, it created much anxiety about scheduling and bowl affiliations at Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College, the only Big East schools that played Division I-A football. "Those three felt they might have to leave for another league to protect their football bases," says Mike Tranghese, the commissioner of the Big East.

Fortunately for Tranghese, the league's need to come up with a plan to hold on to the three football-playing members dovetailed nicely with Miami's desire to join a conference. Sam Jankovich, then Miami's athletic director, wanted a solid base on which to upgrade his men's basketball program. And he understood that Miami, which won three national football titles in the 1980s, would be better equipped to ride out a down cycle in that sport in the shelter of a major conference. Miami settled on the Big East over the established SEC and ACC.

"A conference affiliation is so necessary nowadays as far as TV and the bowls are concerned," says Miami assistant athletic director Larry Wahl. "Once we started doing the demographics, it was clear to us that the Big East was the best way for us to go. Other than the state of Florida, most of our students, alumni, donors and athletes come from the Northeast."

After landing Miami, Tranghese had no trouble persuading four other Eastern independents—Rutgers, Temple, West Virginia and Virginia Tech—to join the Big East as football members only. The conference will name its first champion at the end of this season, although its football members won't play a full seven-game league schedule until 1993.

With the Big East up and running, it will be interesting to see what happens to Penn State. Will State be able to sell the Big Ten to athletes in its traditional recruiting areas of the Northeast? If not, it could be in trouble, because Penn State doesn't figure to have much of an impact in Michigan, Illinois and the other Big Ten states. They must be having some second thoughts in State College about the wisdom of joining the Big Ten instead of waiting for the Big East.

•The folding of so many independents into the Big East, along with South Carolina's jump to the SEC and Florida State's to the ACC, means that independents have become the dinosaurs of college football. The only independent with any clout is Notre Dame. The best of the others—Louisville, Southern Mississippi, Tulane, Memphis State, Cincinnati and East Carolina—will see a further erosion of their identities and will have problems in scheduling and grabbing a share of the TV and bowl revenue.

"The only one that can survive as an independent today is Notre Dame," says Wahl. "The others are going to have a harder time getting home games."

Louisville coach Howard Schnellenberger disagrees. He points out that if his team can sustain the success it enjoyed last season (10-1-1), it will have a strong chance every year of getting one of the three at-large berths in the new bowl alliance.

Perhaps, but the truth is that for the foreseeable future, Notre Dame is the only remaining independent that will consistently be in the Top 10 and have a shot at the national championship. Says Tranghese, "I don't think Notre Dame will ever align itself with a conference in football. They view alignment as narrowing and not in their best interest, and they're probably right."

"Only a fool would say 'always' or 'never,' " says Notre Dame athletic director Dick Rosenthal. "But we've got strong and marvelous intersectional rivalries, plus the ability to play some of the other great names in football, and that means a lot to us."

•The age of the superconference is not far off. For years, the major football programs, convinced that they have little in common with lesser NCAA members, have tried and largely failed to get the NCAA to grant them virtual autonomy. Their inability to control their own destinies is what led in 1977 to the formation of the CFA, which includes all the NCAA Division I-A schools except those in the Big Ten and Pac-10. Now, besides Notre Dame, which is almost a super conference unto itself, there are four emerging power groupings: the expanded SEC; the Big East-ACC, a sort of unofficial Eastern cartel; the Big Ten-Pac-10 alliance; and the Big Eight-SWC, a potential Midwestern entity.

Of these, the most vulnerable is the developing partnership between the Big Eight and the SWC, which are exploring what SWC commissioner Fred Jacoby calls "more of an alliance than a merger." The two leagues have some of the game's biggest names, but they are challenged by the NFL in their biggest TV markets.

"What we want to do is enhance both conferences as best we can, perhaps with more crossover scheduling," says Jacoby. "We want to strengthen both leagues without hurting any of the traditional games. But the Big Ten is the key."

Indeed, the SWC and the Big Eight fear that the Big Ten, which will have an unwieldy 11 teams with the addition of Penn State, might look to expand by adding one or more teams from their leagues. The Big Ten might be interested in inviting either Missouri or Kansas to jump from the Big Eight. In addition, both Texas and Texas A&M have considered options that include moving either to the SEC, which would then have 14 teams, or to the Pac-10, which is also in an expansionist frame of mind.

Both Texas president William Cunningham and Texas A&M president William Mobley have said that their universities intend to stay put for the time being. But they've also said they expect to see the SWC deliver 1) better fan support; 2) more flexible intersectional scheduling, especially in basketball; 3) more competitive women's programs; 4) improvement in conference basketball administration; and 5) possible alliances or expansion that could enhance TV opportunities.

The members of the lesser Division I-A conferences—Big West, Western Athletic Conference and Mid-American—are in limbo, dangling somewhere between the superpowers and Division I-AA. As the haves consolidate their power, the have-nots will be all but shut out of any shot at the major bowls or TV exposure, begging the question of why they simply don't drop back to I-AA or split off and form an entirely new division. The WAC in particular will be diminished if Brigham Young leaves for the Pac-10, as some envision, even though the WAC will add Fresno State to its ranks in '92. "The powerful will survive, and the less powerful will struggle," Tranghese says.

•Beginning this season and continuing through 1995, ABC will have first call on televising everything in the regular season except the Notre Dame home games that will be shown on NBC. That's because in January 1990 ABC was able to add the CFA television package to the Big Ten-Pac-10 package that it already owned. This season the network has scheduled 24 "windows" for college football. About half will be national telecasts, and the rest will be regional. All told, 56 or 57 games will be shown on ABC this fall.

This will be a crucial time for assessing college football's TV future. The most important question is whether in 1995, at the end of the current CFA contract—which recently survived an antitrust challenge from the Federal Trade Commission—the conferences will elect to continue working within the CFA or will break away to cut their own deals, as Notre Dame did with NBC. "That's a possibility," says the CFA's Neinas, "but I think all of our 66 members are happy with the TV package." The key player is the newly constituted SEC, which, because its schools have little or no direct competition from pro franchises, now has enough exclusive TV markets to go off on its own.

"I think this is the last TV contract the CFA will have," says Texas A&M athletic director John David Crow. "It'll serve no purpose after the '94 or '95 season. When the SEC goes on its own, it'll fall apart—and the SEC was almost gone the last time [in 1989]. To keep them, the CFA had to guarantee them as much money as they would have gotten on their own and a certain percentage of all the ABC exposures. The only way the CFA will stay in existence is if the rest of us give in and give the SEC more and more of the pie."

But ABC vice-president David Downs takes a different view. "There are not too many conferences that can stand on their own right now," he says. "We're hoping that, by the end of the contract, the conferences will realize that we've put on a tremendous college football package, and that we've helped increase the popularity of college football."

Even so, conferences will use the next five years to test the waters about cutting their own deals, as they have in college basketball. For example, the Big East, centered in the heavily populated East, may become as strong and independent as the SEC.

"TV already is playing a big role for us [in basketball]," says Miami's Wahl. "No conference has put together a better package than the Big East TV network. All that money will go to the conference to help the conference market itself better. At some point it might be to our advantage to package football and basketball together."

•The one thing all the moving and shaking won't provide, at least for now, is what college fans say they want the most—a postseason playoff to determine a national champion. The university presidents are opposed to it on the grounds that it would lengthen the season and impose even more of a hardship on the athletes, and these days the trend is toward the presidents' getting what they want. Says one athletic director, who asked not to be identified, "We've got a large group of presidents who say they're concerned about the perceptions of college football, and yet they talk out of both sides of their mouths."

A case in point is the SEC. With the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina, the presidents approved a plan to split the conference into two six-team divisions and have a postseason playoff to determine the league champion and Sugar Bowl representative. "We've had pretty tough league schedules the last few years," says Tennessee coach Johnny Majors, "but now we're going to have one more [regular-season] league game and another one after that to go to the Sugar Bowl. I'm not excited about that, but that's what the higher-ups have decided." If the SEC is successful, look for the other conferences to follow suit.

Interestingly, the college game eventually may be forced into some kind of a national playoff to maintain a competitive position against the NFL. "As the NFL enlarges itself and takes up more dates, it's a monstrous threat to college football," Tranghese says. "If they're going to continue doing that, a playoff could be our only tool to hold our own."

Texas A&M's Crow doesn't disagree, but he also raises some important points. "That puts you back to asking about what college football should be," he says. "Are we intercollegiate athletics or semipro? Do we really want to compete with the NFL for the TV dollar and the commercial dollar? On the one hand we're supposed to highlight the university and be a rallying point for students. But on the other we have to look at it from a business standpoint, dealing with dollars and cents and TV. I'm not sure where we are, to tell you the truth."

Crow, who won the 1957 Heisman Trophy while playing at Texas A&M for Bear Bryant, was asked what the legendary coach would think of how the college game has changed since 1982, the last season of his career. Snorting derisively, Crow said, "A lot of people think he got out of coaching because he knew he was dying, but I think he just figured he couldn't put up with all the bull that you have to put up with these days. I'll bet he's turning over in his grave."

Which, of course, could be another reason for the tremors shaking college football.

ILLUSTRATIONMARK MAREKWHILE LESS SECURE INDEPENDENTS SCURRY FOR THE SHELTER OF CONFERENCES, NOTRE DAME IS ABOVE THE FRAY ILLUSTRATIONMARK MAREKCAN THE BIG EAST FIND STRENGTH IN UNITY? ILLUSTRATIONMARK MAREKSOME HAVE-NOT SCHOOLS ARE FACING THE ABYSS

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