How I learned to stop worrying and accept conference realignment
Hang around long enough, and being a college football fan starts to feel a little like living in a hometown that has slowly but surely become a different place from the one you grew up in — undeniably changed, yet still deeply familiar. A few local institutions have survived; most others bit the dust ages ago, squeezed out by national chains. There are the storefronts that have seen a long, sad line of new occupants come and go, some of which you can recall and some of which you can’t, and the ones that have long since been abandoned. You’re constantly pointing out what used to be where, and where it’s built up in places where there was nothing at all except pasture.
Consider the changes in the conference landscape just in my lifetime, since 1982. (Not that long ago, thank you very much.) In 1984, a Supreme Court ruling against the NCAA’s longstanding monopoly on television rights initiated a gold rush that saw dozens of independent outfits scramble to join existing conferences or band together to form new ones. The Big East, comprised entirely of former independents, kicked off in 1991. The junior version, Conference-USA, followed in 1996. In between, the SEC and Big Ten expanded their ranks for the first time in decades by adding Arkansas and South Carolina, and Penn State, respectively. The old Southwest Conference, diminished by Arkansas’ exit, ceased to exist in 1994. The top half of the former SWC fused with the Big 8 to form the Big 12; the bottom half was scattered to the wind, exiled to various second-tier leagues. The Big West folded, leading to the Western Athletic Conference’s bet on an ambitious, doomed 16-team model that quickly collapsed, forging the Mountain West Conference in its wake.
By the 2000s, the Big East was proving to be little more than a farm league for the ACC, which poached Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech in one round of expansion and Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse in the next. The Big East responded by preying on C-USA, which by 2013 retained only one of its original members (Southern Miss). In 2010, the Big Ten proactively poached Nebraska from the Big 12, launching a spasm of realignment that saw more than a dozen programs in every region of the country — including Boise State, Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, Rutgers, TCU, Utah, West Virginia, and, most melodramatically, Texas A&M — land in new leagues, leaving no conference untouched. The Big East, exhausted by attrition, finally decided to give up the football ghost altogether, retreating to its core membership of urban Catholic basketball schools and spinning off its gridiron acquisitions into an entirely new league, the American Athletic Conference. The Mountain West’s bellwether program, BYU, bailed out in 2010; the Cougars’ ancestral home, the WAC, dropped football entirely two years later.
In fact, of the 10 conferences that sponsored Division I-A football in 1991, 4 of them are no longer in the football business. (Five if you draw a distinction between the Big 8 and the Big 12.) Of the 107 programs with I-A status at that time, more than half — 56 — have changed affiliations at least once in the subsequent 30 years. A few, like Louisville and TCU, have played under so many different banners only the true diehards can keep track.
All of this, again, in the past three decades alone — a relatively short span in a sport with roots in the 19th Century, and which has altered its landscape so many times the original maps are barely legible. Zoom out far enough, and the long-term trend is obvious: Constant revision to the status quo is the status quo. Conference realignment is not a shock to the system so much as conference realignment is a predictable part of the system.
And over the course of those decades of plate tectonics, amid the collisions and chasms and ruins of past generations, what has that system wrought? An ascendant sport that is more popular, profitable, and relevant in the broader ecosystem of American sports than it has ever been.
All of which is worth keeping in mind over the next few days and weeks — and, well, let’s face it, years — as the fallout from Texas and Oklahoma’s pending defection to the SEC reignites the realignment wars and the inevitable angst that comes with them. Change is disorienting, and all on its own the annexation of two of college football’s most prestigious brands by what was already its most prestigious conference is the single most momentous, destabilizing shift in the prevailing order in a generation, at least. It’s a direct challenge to the balance of power among the major conferences, which up to now have always operated on essentially equal footing. The logistics are exhausting, and the long-term implications for the sport as a whole loom even larger — all the more so for being, at this point, strictly hypothetical.
Taken with the ongoing retreat of NCAA oversight, the death rattle of “amateurism” and the proposed expansion of the College Football Playoff, the move arrives at a watershed moment for the entire enterprise of college athletics. No one really knows what the landscape is going to look like 3 years from now, much less 3 decades. There are no rules and almost anything can conceivably happen.
In the really long term, though, maybe the ever-shifting lines defining conference borders aren’t the most useful tools for understanding a map that, in many other important ways, hardly changes at all. When the dust settles, maybe the gambit to add the Longhorns and Sooners will fold seamlessly into a long, ever-unfolding tradition of upheaval that’s as basic to understanding college football as any other.
The realignment skeptics do have legitimate concerns: The trajectory, glacial as it may be, clearly points toward a) A widening gap between the sport’s Haves and Have-Nots as the former continues to consolidate at the expense of the latter, and b) A culture that’s increasingly oriented around national stakes and narratives — read: Playoff tunnel vision — at the expense of regional rivalries and rituals. ESPN, for years the closest thing college football has had to a central organizing force, is growing bolder in its willingness to flex its power. The worst-case scenario at the end of this timeline is a single, breakaway super conference with the Worldwide Leader at the center of its orbit that functions more like a semi-pro league than anything resembling a traditional conference, relegating the rest of the country to permanent second-class status.
The prospect of an obscenely capitalized behemoth that functions as a de facto NFL farm league feels like a traditionalist’s worst nightmare, and you don’t have to squint too hard to see the SEC positioning itself as the imperial power that brings it into being.
But seriously now: “An obscenely capitalized behemoth that functions as a de facto NFL farm league” also more or less describes the existing reality of upper tier of college football for decades. In certain ways, it’s actually a more honest reflection of the way the sport has always functioned than increasingly quaint appeals to regionalism. There has never been anyone in a position to make decisions in the best interest of college football as a whole. The resources/recruiting gap between Haves and Have-Nots is not new; it’s a firmly entrenched factor in every region from the beginning. Top programs have never made any bones about selling recruits on their capacity to develop them for the next level or touting their success. Maneuvering in anticipation of the next big TV deal has driven every realignment cycle of the past 40 years.
As dramatic as each of those battles seemed at the time, who is in a worse situation today than they were in 1982 or 1991 or 2011 as a result?
Take the remaining members of the Big 12, who were apparently blindsided by the prospect of their two most valuable members jumping ship. Collectively, the leftovers have almost no chance of surviving as a “power” conference on their own, or of attracting any new members that would salvage that distinction. Their fate is either to be snapped up one by one by other leagues or hang together as a second-tier operation on par with the AAC and Mountain West. (A course which in fact may involve poaching schools from the AAC and Mountain West.) Financially that might amount to a relevant distinction. As far as the product on the field is concerned, though, it’s negligible.
A future where, say, Texas Tech and Baylor are massively outgunned in in-state recruiting is … the same as it ever was at Texas Tech and Baylor. A future where, say, Kansas State and Iowa State must bank on developing 3-star projects and JUCO transfers who fall through the cracks is … exactly how they’ve always operated at Kansas State and Iowa State. A future where, say, TCU and West Virginia are afterthoughts in the national conversation is … a fact of life at TCU and West Virginia. And a future where Oklahoma and Texas expect to compete for higher stakes with vastly superior resources than all of the above is, frankly, business as usual regardless of which office they’re pledging allegiance to as they conduct it.
The same goes for every other conference, where the year-in, year-out pecking order is just as entrenched and the competitive realities are not necessarily dictated by conference prestige. (The fact that Oregon State, Wake Forest and Vanderbilt are in Power 5 leagues doesn’t actually distinguish them competitively from many programs that aren’t.) A world where the top recruits flock overwhelmingly to a relatively small handful of teams with high national visibility and a realistic chance to win a national championship is the basic outline of college football as we know it. Conferences evolve, expand and occasionally implode as a matter of course. But within the chaos, the food chain from the sport’s elite on down to the bottom feeders has remained intact for generations.
On the field, at least, a structure that tends toward consolidation at the top of the chain doesn’t really stand to upend that ecosystem – especially if an expanded Playoff remains accessible to the middle-class leagues via auto bids for conference champs. More likely, in the same way that the Name/Image/Likeness revolution and the loosening of transfer restrictions are concrete steps toward acknowledging the dead-obvious fact that “student-athletes” are a professional labor force in a billion-dollar industry, realignment will serve mainly to better reflect the food chain as it already exists and always has.
And on the other side of the turf wars, the politics, the acrimony, the legal wrangling, and the fear of the unknown, there will still be the things that fundamentally bond people to the sport: The mass pilgrimages to sleepy campus towns, the familiar sense of anticipation on Saturday mornings, the communal thrill of the crowds passing down the local rituals to their children in century-old stadiums, the day-long TV marathons spanning every time zone. There will still be the games, which will go on meaning as much as ever and bringing fans together in the same ways they always have. There will be triumphs and heartbreak, big years and bad ones, thrillers and blowouts, heroes and goats, old rivals and new. Intriguing freshmen making a first impression and seniors running out of the tunnel for the last time on surgically repaired knees. Incurable optimists and permanently fed-up dudes demanding the coach’s head after every loss.
If there’s anything the experience of being a college football fan should assure us of, it’s that college football is not in any danger of suddenly feeling like a foreign country. It’s grown. It’s evolved. It doesn’t look exactly like it used to when we were kids. But it’s where we live. It will be fine.