MORE PERFECT UNIONS

September 18, 2011

I don't know why so many people are opposed to conference realignment in college football. Because the potential shake-up is motivated by greed, dismissive of tradition and marked by geographic absurdity? O.K., there is that. But the configuration of the leagues isn't sacred. There's only one Big Ten that's written in stone, and it doesn't say, "Thou shalt not add Nebraska." In theory, there's nothing wrong with re-arranging the landscape so that similar programs are grouped together. It's just that college administrators and conference commissioners are basing their realignment plans on the wrong criteria. If they really want to bring together like-minded institutions, they should consider forming confederations like these.

ACC (ALL-CHEATERS CONFERENCE)

How about a league that allows all the programs that just can't seem to follow those pesky NCAA rules to compete exclusively against each other? Conference motto: "No transcript? No alibi? No problem!" Parents of recruits wouldn't face suspicion of soliciting payment under the table—like Cam Newton's dad did at Auburn—because they could post their kids' services right on Craigslist. Miami not only wouldn't have to worry about distancing itself from Ponzi schemers, but the Hurricanes could also play in Nevin Shapiro Stadium and have fans pay $10,000 for a seasonlong parking pass (only to discover that the lot doesn't exist).

The league could also sell television networks on additional conference-related programming. Imagine a poignant reality show that follows a blue-chip recruit as he makes the selfless decision to bypass a lifetime of free tattoos at Ohio State in order to sign with USC, where an L.A.-based agent has promised to provide his parents with the same 3,000-square-foot house where Reggie Bush's family once lived. Best of all, players would be more likely to stay all in school all four years because, unlike the NFL, the ACC would have no salary cap.

CONFERENCE USA (UNUSUAL SCHOLASTIC APTITUDE)

There ought to be someplace other than the Ivy League for players with high-functioning cerebral cortexes to ram them into each other on a regular basis. Schools such as Duke, Northwestern, Rice, Vanderbilt and Stanford should battle each other for something besides Fulbright scholarships.

You think that wouldn't be high-stakes football? Part of these schools' cachet is that they don't win often enough to be considered something so déclassé as a football power, but some team might be saddled with that title if it wins a few USA championships in a row. And consider how much harder it would be to accept being a perennial also-ran. Alumni could no longer console themselves with the thought that the tailback who just ran for three touchdowns against their team will one day be running to fetch their coffee.

SEC (STYLISH ENSEMBLE CONFERENCE)

Teams with similar sartorial senses could form their own union, so fans will know where to go for the latest in football fashion. Judging from the new fall designs that were unveiled during the season's first weekend, there are plenty of potential members. Maryland's helmets, which look like they were made of pieces from different jigsaw puzzles? Very avant-garde. Oklahoma State's gray jerseys, with darker gray patches under the arms and on the belly and back? They grew on me—once I realized I wasn't watching the guys from Mad Men sweating through their business suits.

Teams in the new SEC—Arizona State, Boise State and Georgia are also sporting futuristic new duds this season—could push each other creatively. Always cutting-edge Oregon, which has duck wings on several of its myriad helmet-and-uniform combinations, might come out in jerseys that actually quack on contact. Why not go even more fashion forward? Have referees call penalties not with flags but by tossing silk pocket squares. Decide overtimes on the basis of which coach struts the sideline with the best supermodel pout. The league could even negotiate an exclusive TV contract with Bravo and air the games immediately after Project Runway. Boom—a whole new demographic!

THE BIG MOUTH CONFERENCE

Forget the Big East and Big West. The Big Mouth would draw a ton of media attention because it would be made up of the teams whose coaches give the best sound bites. South Carolina would be a member because of the way Steve Spurrier needles opponents as if he's hosting a celebrity roast. Penn State would be in because Joe Paterno finds a new way each week to tell everyone calling for his retirement to shove it. Former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden would be the commissioner, just so he could stop by and say "I reckon" a lot. The press conferences in the Big Mouth might be as entertaining as the games.

You see? There are any number of ways to reconfigure conferences for fun and profit. For a moment, I was even considering suggesting a nine-team league of schools located in the neighboring states of Texas and Arkansas that would play each other every season and build up powerful rivalries and traditions. I even had a name for it: the Southwest Conference. But who would ever buy that?

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IN THE ALL-CHEATERS CONFERENCE, PLAYERS WOULD BE MORE LIKELY TO STAY IN SCHOOL ALL FOUR YEARS BECAUSE, UNLIKE THE NFL, THE NEW ACC WOULD HAVE NO SALARY CAP.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

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