Conference Confusion Continues

Published 11:22 pm Saturday, June 12, 2010

Nebraska bolted for the Big Ten, Boise State took a spot in the Mountain West and the Big 12 rallied for a last-ditch attempt to stave off its demise Friday, a tumultuous day that pointed toward a massive reconfiguration of college sports.

Nebraska regents voted to sever the Cornhuskers’ 100-year relationship with the Big 12 and its predecessors and join the Big Ten, which along with the Pac-10 is expanding, possibly to become a 16-team mega-conference.

Meanwhile, regents at Texas prepared for a meeting next Tuesday that figures to be the pivotal moment for the future of the Big 12.

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“I don’t think anyone could read all the commentary around the country and not think the Big 12 hasn’t felt under siege the last couple of months,” commissioner Dan Beebe said.

Also on Friday, Colorado regents rubber-stamped the school’s decision to be the first to bail from the Big 12 for the Pac-10.

Seeing a college landscape that might no longer include his conference, Beebe met with the remaining 10 teams, making the case that they are more valuable in their current conference than as add-ons to a different one.

“If it’s about value and money, if that’s the issue, that shouldn’t be part of their equation,” Beebe said. “If it’s about other factors outside of our control, that’s not something I can do anything about.”

Many people think it is, in fact, all about the money, and the decision Texas makes next week will play a huge role in deciding where that money flows.

Top officials at Texas A&M have been meeting with counterparts at UT to jointly discuss the future, while Oklahoma State’s athletic director wrote in an e-mail to a Texas regent that his school simply hopes to end up wherever the Longhorns are “when the dust settles!” Those three, along with Texas Tech and Oklahoma, are considered candidates to turn the Pac-10 into a 16-team conference.

If that happens, it would leave Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Missouri and Baylor scrambling for new homes.

Missouri had been viewed as a strong possibility for the Big Ten, but no official offer had been made as of Friday, leaving the school in limbo.

Kansas, meanwhile, may have the most interesting situation, and one that speaks to which sport really drives the business of college athletics — football. One of America’s basketball stalwarts with a much less successful football program, the Jayhawks have not been linked to either the Pac-10 or Big Ten plans.

The Boise State move from the Western Athletic to the Mountain West Conference gives one of the country’s best small schools — a participant in BCS games two of the last four seasons — an improved platform. Big 12 teams that don’t get snapped up could get offers from the Mountain West, which could expand further and turn out to be a winner — maybe even with an automatic BCS slot.

“It’s my No. 1 goal. We want to play at the BCS level,” MWC commissioner Craig Thompson said.

There are currently six automatic qualifiers, though for obvious reasons, the Big 12’s long-term status is in limbo. Colorado is slated to move out in 2012, and Nebraska will start play in the Big Ten in 2011.

With all the moves going on, the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast and Big East Conferences have been relatively silent, though it’s no sure thing they’ll stay on the sideline for long.

The ACC poached teams from the Big East seven years ago, while the SEC started the mania for conference title games back in 1992, after it added Arkansas and South Carolina to reach 12 teams and split into two divisions.

The next big move came in 1996, when the Southwest Conference disintegrated and four Texas teams joined the Big Eight to make it the Big 12. The change was not wildly popular everywhere in the conference — most notably, Nebraska.

“Sometimes, change has to come, but all change is not necessarily progress,” said former Auburn athletic director David Housel. “It sure makes for some pretty big conferences and big travel budgets. Hate to say it, but bottom line, it’s all about money.”

For instance, Nebraska received about $10 million from the Big 12 in 2009, while Big Ten members — many located in large TV markets — got about $20 million, thanks in part to a bigger TV contract and the startup of its own network. SEC schools received $17.3 million each this year from their revenue-sharing plan.

What’s playing out this summer is essentially a survival game. Conferences that stay in the BCS and hold a football playoff generate more money for all their schools, which is why getting bigger is in vogue.

“I’m presuming there will be” a title game starting in 2011, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. He said the conference was studying further expansion, possibly up to 16 teams.

Drawbacks to expansion include longer and more expensive travel (especially important considering all the non-revenue teams), the loss of rivalries, tradition and the regional distinctions of the conferences. If the Texas teams join the Pac-10, the conference would span three time zones and be spread from College Station, Texas to Seattle.

“The future of college athletics appears to be less about academics and competitive success and more about money, as measured by television viewership and the associated revenues,” officials at Iowa State wrote in a letter sent to boosters.

Beebe agreed, while conceding his comments weren’t purely objective, coming as they are in the midst of an attempt to save his conference.

“If the future of college athletics is going to be four 16-member conferences, there’s going to be great risk,” he said, “especially if significant institutions in the history of college athletics find they’re disenfranchised.”