In the summer of 1990, the SEC did something it had never done in its first 58 years of existence: add new members. The conference had lost members before, notably Georgia Tech in 1964, and for a quarter-century afterwards, the SEC was content to play as a ten-team league. That began to change in December 1989, when the Big 10 sparked the Great Realignment of 1990 by pursuing Penn State as its 11th member. Less than ten months later, the SEC found itself with two new schools in Arkansas and South Carolina.
The foundation of SEC expansion was actually laid several years earlier, in 1984, when the U.S. Supreme Court ended the NCAA’s monopoly over college football television broadcasts. A group called the College Football Association (CFA), which included the SEC schools, sued the NCAA to in effect “deregulate” television rights. The CFA’s legal victory enabled the group to negotiate a single-network contract with ABC in the late 1980s.
But in February 1990, Notre Dame withdrew from the CFA and signed its own exclusive contract with NBC. Shortly thereafter, the Federal Trade Commission challenged the CFA’s contract as a violation of federal antitrust law — a dramatic twist, given the CFA previously won its freedom by arguing the NCAA had violated antitrust law. The FTC lawsuit never went anywhere, but by the spring of 1990, it was becoming clear to all the major players in college football that the days of organizing TV rights along national lines was over, and going forward it would be up to the conferences to maximize their television exposure and dollars.
At the same time, a number of eastern schools were still independents in football. In addition to Notre Dame and Penn State, there was Boston College, Cincinnati, Florida State, Louisville, Memphis, Miami, Pittsburgh, South Carolina, Rutgers, Syracuse, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Most of those schools belonged to either the Big East or Metro conferences in other sports, and both leagues were eyeing an expansion into football. College football writer Keith Dunnavant said that Mike Tranghese, who became Big East Commissioner in the summer of 1990, got the job after “bluntly” warning league presidents that football was no longer an option, but a necessity. “If they weren’t prepared to get Miami,” Tranghese said, “and build a base for other football schools, we were going to be out of business. It was that simple.”
For its part, the SEC wasn’t going to sit idly on the sidelines. On May 31, 1990, the SEC presidents voted to authorize expansion, identifying six schools as potential members: Texas, Texas A&M, Florida State, Miami, South Carolina and Arkansas. Ole Miss President Gerald Turner headed the conference’s expansion committee. He told the Washington Post that the CFA’s inevitable decline meant the SEC would negotiate its own television contracts in the future and that the “first step in that direction is minimizing the force of competing conferences in our geographic area.” In other words, the SEC wanted to keep the Atlantic Coast Conference and a potential Big East football conference out of the State of Florida.
But SEC Commissioner Roy Kramer also wanted to go on the offensive. Keith Dunnavant noted, “The SEC’s area of dominant influence fell short of the footprint desired by many consumer-oriented companies,” which Kramer sought as sponsors. To make the “footprint” more sponsor-friendly, Kramer wanted to move into South Carolina, Arkansas and especially Texas. By targeting Texas, Texas A&M and Arkansas, Kramer had effectively declared war on the Southwest Conference, where all three schools were members. It was one thing to recruit independent schools; the SEC was contemplating an unprecedented raid on a fellow conference.
Yet the time was ripe to strike the SWC, which then consisted of seven Texas schools and Arkansas. The SWC’s small footprint meant it wasn’t a terribly lucrative conference. Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles said his school would make $1 million more a year by switching to the SEC. And the SWC was rocked by a series of scandals that enveloped most of its Texas members, notably Southern Methodist University, which the NCAA shut down in 1987. Arkansas was also eager to swap the low-level competition in the SWC — e.g., Rice and Baylor — for stronger SEC foes like Georgia and Tennessee. When the SEC formally approached Arkansas, there was no hesitation: On August 1, 1990, the school’s trustees unanimously voted to join the SEC, effectively the following July.
SEC expansion, however, meant adding at least one more school. The SEC planned to take advantage of a little-known NCAA rule that allowed a conference with 12 members to organize as two divisions and play a separate conference championship game. The rule was originally adopted for the benefit of a Division II conference, and no Division I-A conference had ever invoked it. Kramer and the SEC presidents quickly realized that a championship game would make a future television package far more attractive to the networks.
The magic 12th school would not come from the State of Texas. Although Texas and Texas A&M were on the SEC’s original expansion wish list, politics made either a non-starter. With Arkansas’ likely departure, the SWC would collapse without its two biggest Texas schools. That was unpalatable to Texas legislators — many of whom were alumni of the other five SWC members — and Texas and A&M were publicly threatened with retaliation if they left. Eventually, the SWC did dissolve, with most of the Texas schools merging with the Big Eight into the Big 12.
That left Florida State, Miami and South Carolina vying for the second invitation. Florida State was clearly the SEC’s first choice. The major roadblock was scheduling. On August 3, Bobby Bowden admitted to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, “I like to win games, and I can’t think of a tougher place to do that than the SEC.” Under the proposed division alignment, Florida State would face Florida, Auburn and Alabama every year, which raised objections from FSU Athletic Director Bob Goin. “Most conferences have got two really strong programs,” Bowden continued, “but top to bottom there isn’t one close to the SEC.” Another report, by Mark Maske of the Washington Post, suggested Florida State refused to be in the same conference as Florida because the Gators “once fostered an SEC blackballing of the Seminoles.” In 2001, a Florida Times-Union retrospective quoted a FSU booster as saying, “There was quite a bit of feeling that we didn’t want to be entrapped; a feeling that among some fans that if we go into [the SEC]…we’d be kind of a stepchild.”
Things came to a head in September 1990. The ACC had dithered for months on the issue of expansion. On July 26 ACC Commissioner Gene Corrigan said there was “no rush” to expand, yet behind-the-scenes, he was fervently working to lure Florida State away from the SEC. On September 2, Corrigan made his presentation to FSU officials in Tallahassee. Nine days later, the SEC’s Kramer made his final push. The next day, September 12, things nearly blew up in Corrigan’s face when only three of the ACC’s eight athletic directors voted to expand at all. Corrigan needed at least six votes, and while he knew two members (Duke and Maryland) would vote no, three of the North Carolina schools had surprisingly abstained.
While Corrigan lobbied the three abstainers to agree to a second vote later that evening, Kramer quickly arranged a own conference call of SEC members to vote against inviting Florida State. Whether this was a face-saving move or an attempt to spite FSU (in the event the revote went badly) is unclear. But the SEC decided to move on. Corrigan got his revote and won, and on September 13, FSU officially joined the ACC.
Four days after spurning Florida State, Kramer met with Miami, one of the two remaining expansion candidates. South Carolina’s trustees had preemptively voted to accept an SEC invitation should one come. Miami was decidedly less enthused. Unlike the mostly public universities in the SEC, Miami was a private school that drew its student body in large numbers from the same geographic area as the Big East. Miami officials were also more interested in using Big East membership to improve its fledgling basketball program.
South Carolina was the last school standing. Kramer met with officials in Columbia on September 20, and on September 25, the Gamecocks received their official invitation. The SEC got its 12th member and a championship game — and in 1995, its own television contract with CBS — while South Carolina, which as an independent faced a $300,000 deficit the previous year, received a measure of financial security. When Miami officially joined the Big East on October 9, the Great Realignment of 1990 finally came to an end.