Not many folks can harken back to four score and 10 years ago when our collegiate forefathers brought forth on this continent a new alliance, conceived in freshman ineligibility, and dedicated to the proposition that all athletics conferences are not created equal.
It was called simply the Southern Conference and started modestly enough in 1921 by a splinter group of 14 schools (Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi State, North Carolina, N.C. State, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech and the vaunted Washington & Lee) previously affiliated with the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.
Within a year, expansion fever gripped the Southern and it added six more schools – Florida, LSU, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tulane, and Vanderbilt. Over the next seven years it gobbled up three new members (Sewanee, Virginia Military Institute and Duke) to peak at a robust 23 member schools.
This was, in effect, the nation’s first super-conference. But it wasn’t too big to fail. By 1933 it began breaking apart into the more manageable entities of major-college sports we can mostly recognize today (the Southeastern and eventually the Atlantic Coast conferences).
This trip down memory lane is brought to you by today’s major-conference leaders, who are on the brink of letting greed further muddle the traditions we’ve come to know and love. Unlike the collegiate fathers of yesteryear who were forging alliances based on common interests and geographic necessity, these guys are only in it for the money. Expansion is about drawing new markets and not creating better rivalries, cross-country field hockey and wrestling road trips be damned.
This latest wave of super-conference hysteria comes courtesy of our beloved SEC, which has extended an invitation to Texas A&M to join its ranks as the lucky 13th member – provided the rest of the Aggies’ former conference mates drop lawsuits impeding their departure. The sticking point there is that some of those nine remaining schools in what was once the Big 12 are trying to mandate that league powers Oklahoma and perhaps Texas don’t follow Colorado to what’s now the Pac-12 or Nebraska in the 12-team Big Ten. Both those power conferences have their own eyes on far-flung markets that could juice their next TV deals.
Don’t think for a minute the SEC is going to stop at 13. An odd number above nine doesn’t make any sense in the long term and creates scheduling headaches. The conference might look to find another partner west of the Mississippi River (Missouri) or closer to the Mason-Dixon Line (West Virginia, Virginia Tech or North Carolina), raiding the territory of perhaps two more BCS partners along the way.
Why the SEC – winner of five consecutive BCS football titles – feels the need to broaden its base is a mystery to me. Messing with a good thing for a few more television dollars seems like folly. But I’m not the commissioner of a billion-dollar sports league or the president of a university. What do I know?
In their eyes, this seems to be the next logical progression of the last expansion frenzy in the 1990s. The Big Ten added Penn State, prompting the SEC to absorb South Carolina and Arkansas, the football-challenged ACC to accept Florida State, the old Big Eight to merge with four Texas defectors from the crumbling Southwest and the Big East to become a football entity.
The success of the SEC’s divisional model prompted much of this movement. It certainly drove the ACC to get greedy in 2003 and steal three programs from the Big East. All that did was ruin a great close-knit alliance and thriving basketball tournament to add a championship football game that nobody cares about. How ironic that the ACC and Big East might eventually have to join forces to stay competitive in the TV negotiations.
The direction this is heading is toward six super conferences made up of 16 or more programs. It’ll be great for football, likely establishing a de facto playoff that is less exclusive to outsiders since there’ll be fewer significant outsiders. But it will be lousy and cost ineffective for non-revenue sports and potentially destroy some revered rivalries that have defined college sports for more than a century.
Does it matter what we, the fans, think about all of this? Not in the least. We’re as powerless to stop this moving freight train as we’ve been to have our desire for a meaningful football playoff implemented.
The expansionists obviously know better than we do. The super conferences are coming. Who will land the big whales like Texas, Oklahoma and W&L remains to be seen.