The Colossal Conference Grind-up

May 02, 2010

The Big Ten is on the verge of adding one, three or possibly five members, setting off a chain reaction that will remake the landscape of college sports. But what schools will join the Big Ten, and how will other schools and conferences respond? Here are three scenarios and the likely outcome

It may not have been on the agenda, but the subject of conference expansion was very much in the air at last week's BCS meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. When the roughly two dozen athletic directors and conference commissioners broke for lunch on April 21, queuing up at an opulent buffet across from the reflecting pool at the Royal Palms Resort, it was tempting to divide them into two categories: predator and prey.

While Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany may not have been the most powerful man at the meetings—his SEC counterpart, Mike Slive, presides over a formidable empire of his own—Delany was arguably the hungriest, and we're not talking about his appetite for the buffet's superb salmon risotto. It's been four months since the Big Ten fired a shot across the bow of its fellow conferences by announcing in a statement from its presidents that the "timing is right" to explore the possibility of expansion over the "next 12 to 18 months." On the eve of last week's meetings the Chicago Tribune reported that the Big Ten was poised to adopt an "accelerated timetable" and might make up its mind sooner, rather than later.

At the Royal Palms, Delany denied that expansion had been fast-tracked, but he did nothing to dampen speculation that it will eventually happen. Not only might the conference expand, he said, but it might also expand by "more than a single [school]."

Two decades after Penn State became the Big Ten's 11th member and seven years after the ACC raided the Big East, poaching Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech, plans are in the works to dramatically rearrange the landscape of college athletics. In addition to Delany, first-year Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott has made no secret of his interest in expanding his conference.

By announcing their intentions, Delany and Scott have ushered in a period of high anxiety, forcing commissioners and ADs throughout Division I to prepare contingency plans for when the dominoes start falling. Many of the Scottsdale attendees "have known each other for 30 years," Mountain West Conference commish Craig Thompson said. "But now it feels like one of those cocktail parties where everyone's watching whom everyone else is talking to."

The driving force behind the Big Ten's desire to get bigger? Television revenue—from both Delany's baby, the Big Ten Network, and the conference's contract with ABC/ESPN to televise football games. The country's first conference-run national network, the Big Ten Network launched in August 2007 and is already available in 73 million homes. One of the quickest ways to increase that number, thus widening the revenue streams flowing back to the schools, would be to expand the network's footprint in the population-dense tristate area of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. The Big Ten could accomplish that by peeling off Connecticut, Pitt, Rutgers and Syracuse, or some combination of those four.

Just as potentially lucrative is the renegotiation of the conference's TV contract (a 10-year, $1 billion deal with ABC/ESPN that expires after the 2016 season). Delany's hand should be strengthened by a recent precedent: the NCAA's 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner to broadcast the men's basketball tournament. And if the Big Ten were to belly up to the negotiating table with new members in, say, New York and New Jersey, the conference would be poised to reap a windfall even more eye-popping.

Yet, there was Big East commissioner John Marinatto, in just his ninth month on the job, projecting a kind of serene defiance at last week's BCS meetings. A former seminarian, Marinatto was an associate commissioner for the Big East in 2003, when the ACC staged its raid. Rather than curl up and die, the Big East expanded to 16 schools, transforming itself into, arguably, the nation's toughest hoops conference.

The Big East didn't merely survive, "it thrived," notes Marinatto, who believes it would be a mistake to underestimate the loyalty of the presidents, ADs and coaches "who made it work and have ownership in it."

It might also be a mistake to underestimate the allure of $22 million. That king's ransom is the amount of football TV dough the Big Ten distributes to its members each year. The most generous cut given out by any conference, it comes in at a cool $16 million more than the Big East pays its top schools, a gulf that's only going to grow once the Big Ten expands.

Still, Marinatto's larger point is well taken. Right now, no one knows how this is going to shake out. But we can make some educated guesses. Herewith, SI's three expansion scenarios, in ascending order of impact.

SCENARIO 1

JUST A TREMOR

If there's one school Delany covets for his trophy case, it is Notre Dame, which last spurned the Big Ten's advances seven years ago. The cachet of the Golden Dome would go a long way toward persuading cable carriers outside the Big Ten's eight-state area—those in the northeast, in particular—to add the Big Ten Network to its basic-cable package.

But Notre Dame has a deeply held attachment to its football independence that, according to Jack Swarbrick, the school's AD, began with Jesse Harper, the Irish coach from 1913 through '17. In those days Michigan coach Fielding Yost despised Notre Dame. Not only did he refuse to schedule the Irish, but he also vowed retribution against any conference school that did. (That early incarnation of the Big Ten was called the Western Conference.) Rather than plead for games, Harper decided to play a barnstorming national schedule. The Irish boarded trains for Nebraska, Syracuse and Texas. They took on Army and Penn State. Notre Dame won many of those games and caught the nation's fancy. Thus did a run-of-the-mill Catholic college become a national icon. That helps explain, as Swarbrick says, why football independence is "central to the roots of the university."

According to Swarbrick, Notre Dame would join the conference of Yost, Woody and Paterno only under certain, dire circumstances—namely, if its nonfootball partner, the Big East, were pillaged to the brink of extinction by the Big Ten. In other words, if the Big Ten adds just a single member, it won't be Notre Dame. Besides, says one former high-ranking network executive, "I'm not sure Notre Dame's the prettiest girl at the party anymore. I think there are other schools that would give the Big Ten better exposure."

So Delany moves on to his next candidate: Missouri. The Tigers have been feeling like a bit of a stepchild in the Big 12 of late. For three straight years they've been shafted by the conference's oddly random bowl-selection process. (Recall how, after beating Kansas in the final game of the 2007 regular season and winning the North division, Missouri looked on as the BCS selected the Jayhawks to play in the Orange Bowl. One year later, the Gator Bowl bypassed the Tigers for a Nebraska team they beat by five touchdowns. And last season the Insight Bowl took a 6--6 Iowa State squad ahead of 8--4 Missouri.)

Like many of their conference brethren, the Tigers are irked by what they perceive as the Big 12's Longhorn-centrism and how it distributes (or, more accurately, fails to distribute) its football TV revenue. Where the Big Ten and SEC dispense equal shares, the Big 12 has a weighted formula favoring its strongest teams. While the gentry rakes in $10 million, bottom-feeding Baylor must settle for $7 million—well shy of the $22 mil that its Big Ten analogue, Indiana, is pulling down.

While he has grumbled publicly about the inequitable distribution of funds, Tigers football coach Gary Pinkel says he prefers to stay put—not a surprising opinion from a man who has worked tirelessly to cultivate relationships with high school coaches in the talent-rich Lone Star State. Last year's Missouri roster featured 32 players from Texas. Pinkel's staff is coming off its best recruiting year, with a class that includes nine Texans. If Mizzou bolts for the Big Ten, that pipeline figures to dry up.

Build some new pipelines, the coach is told by his unsympathetic superiors, who are swayed by the Big Ten's bigger bucks and academic reputation. So suppose the Tigers take the leap. Surprisingly vulnerable, the Big 12 loses a second member when the Pac-10 steals geographically attractive Colorado. And in keeping with what he described as his conference's "Noah's ark strategy—if we add, it's going to be two-by-two," Scott then lures Utah from the Mountain West, a cruel blow to an up-and-coming conference that had been on track to earn automatic qualifying status from the BCS. The Mountain West gets further weakened when the Big 12 plucks two of its marquee schools, BYU and TCU, to restore its membership to an even dozen. Thrilled though they are to have the Horned Frogs, Big 12 officials won't accommodate the wishes of TCU football coach Gary Patterson. Asked in January if he'd consider a move to the Big 12, Patterson joked, "Only if they let us play in the North"—the conference's weak-sister division.

SCENARIO 2

SEISMIC SHIFT

After all that time spent wrangling Big Ten presidents and chancellors into the yes-on-expansion camp, it seems a shame, Delany decides, to stop at one. The Big Ten becomes the Big Fourteen, welcoming Mizzou, Rutgers and ... Nebraska.

Sorry, Pitt. The Big Ten's already got the Nittany Lions, and that's enough of a presence in the Quaker State. No offense, Syracuse, but there are serious doubts about how much of the New York City market you actually bring in. Besides, the Orange has won 30 games in the last eight seasons. You're not Big Ten timbre and haven't been for the better part of a decade.

The easiest call here is Rutgers. A state school with a large enrollment (40,500 undergrads), Rutgers is a natural. It's also a member of the Association of American Universities research consortium—something the Big Ten presidents want to see in all new members. No less important to Big Ten bean counters: The Scarlet Knights give the Big Ten Network a foothold in the New York City metro area.

If television households are so important, how do the Cornhuskers make the cut? "It's not just about how many people are in a certain state," says Mark Silverman, president of the network, who was speaking in general terms, not about Nebraska. "It's also important to have programming that's relevant across the country. Having a popular school playing helps you do that."

So the Pac-10 adds to the ark with Colorado and Utah, and the Big 12, now having lost three members, and Mountain West find themselves in intensive care.

With Delany at center stage during the BCS meetings, it was easy to forget that the teams over which he presides are still playing catch-up to those from the SEC. It was easy, that is, until Mike Slive, the SEC's amiable commissioner, pulled up a chair and read a prepared statement summing up his thoughts on expansion:

"Given the success the SEC has experienced over the past decade," during which time the conference has won five national championships to the Big Ten's one, "we are very comfortable with where we find ourselves today. Should there be a significant shift in the conference paradigm, the SEC will be strategic and thoughtful to maintain its position as one of the nation's preeminent conferences." Translation: We like the view from the top, and think we'll stay here awhile.

SCENARIO 3

THE BIG ONE

Having heard Swarbrick repeatedly insist that the Irish could never join the Big Ten unless its partner, the Big East, was reduced to a smoking ruin, Delany decides to oblige them. In addition to coaxing Missouri and Nebraska to the altar, the Big Ten cherry-picks Pitt and Rutgers. With the Big East tottering on the verge of extinction, Notre Dame has no choice but to become the 16th member of the Big Ten. Fielding Yost and Jesse Harper perform simultaneous barrel rolls in their graves.

Not above shopping at a fire sale, the ACC gobbles up Cincinnati, Louisville, Syracuse and West Virginia, forming the nation's second 16-team superconference, thus meeting SEC commissioner Slive's threshold for significant paradigm shift.

His hand forced, Slive wins a bidding war with the Pac-10 for Texas, which has no interest in remaining in the suddenly second-tier Big 12. To ease the Longhorns' transition, Slive invites along Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, forcing the Big 12 to reconstitute itself with a dog's breakfast of remainders from the WAC and the Mountain West.

Emboldened by their new power, the remaining superconferences—the self-described Gang of Five—vote to jettison the NCAA and form their own league. Suddenly redundant and unfunded, that now sclerotic body dies a slow death, like the "withering away of the state" in Marxist doctrine. The Gang continues to work with the BCS, after wresting one key concession: From this point on, the national championship will be decided by a plus-one national championship game.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN

SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN

Back in the real world, a plus-one is at least five years away. Expansion will happen, with conference realignment announced before the 2011 season. Delany isn't one for half measures, but it seems unlikely that his bosses, the staid and august Council of Presidents/Chancellors, will countenance the demolition of college football as we know it.

So they will split the difference. The Big Ten will go to 14 teams, and Notre Dame will not be one of them. The Big East will survive. Again. Casting a covetous eye to the east, Larry Scott will launch the Pac-12 Network. It will succeed, but on nowhere near as spectacular a scale as the Big Ten Network, which kicked off this arms race in the first place.

And Swarbrick will continue to be inspired by Harper, who, like him, arrived in South Bend at a time of ferment and flux. "Who knows?" says the AD. "Three years from now, maybe Google will be in the rights-acquisition business."

Having quickened so dramatically, the pace of change isn't going to slow down. Whenever it arrives, Swarbrick predicts, "the status quo won't last for a decade. Those days are gone." That train has left the station.

Now on SI.com

Stewart Mandel answers the FAQs about conference realignment at SI.com/cfb

Notre Dame would join the Big Ten only under certain, dire circumstances, namely, if its nonfootball partner, the Big East, were pillaged to the brink of extinction.

No offense, Syracuse, but there are serious doubts about how much of the New York City market you actually bring in. The easiest call here is Rutgers.

SCENARIO 1

The Big Ten adds only one team, Missouri, while Colorado and Utah jump to the Pac-10. The Big 12 fills its two openings with BYU and TCU.

SCENARIO 2

The Pac-10 still takes Colorado and Utah, but the Big Ten steals three—Missouri, Nebraska and Rutgers. All of the moves leave the Big 12 and Mountain West on life support.

SCENARIO 3

Welcome to conference Armageddon. The Big Ten expands by five teams—Missouri, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Pitt and Rutgers—and the ACC scoops up the remnants of the Big East. The SEC takes Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas A&M, making three 16-team conferences. With the power of college football centralized, the conferences have no need for the NCAA, form their own association and institute a plus-one championship game.

ILLUSTRATIONIllustration by JASON LEE PHOTOMATT CASHORE/US PRESSWIREIRISH PRIZE? A longtime target of the Big Ten, Notre Dame may not be "the prettiest girl at the party anymore," says one former TV exec. PHOTOJIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGESSEEING RED Adding the Scarlet Knights would help the Big Ten get its cable network into more homes in the New York City area.

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