The Great Conference Realignment Begins: Nebraska to the Big Ten and the Fallout

So here we are. After months of speculation, the die has been cast. Nebraska will announce on Friday that it is leaving the not-quite-so Big XII for the ever-more-ridiculously-named Big Ten, likely setting off a chain reaction that will reshape college football forever. (University denial here, an unconvincing one given that the purpose of the conference call in question was to add realignment to the agenda.)

The Pac-10 will respond with invitations to Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and (in all likelihood) Colorado. Those offers will almost certainly be expected, causing the Big XII to spin out of existence, throwing off the five remaining teams -- with Missouri having a chance at the Big Ten -- and marking the final chapter in the death of the Southwest and Big 8 conferences, a process that started when the Big XII formed.

Big XII officials -- including Commissioner Dan Beebe, who should be sued by the remaining schools for gross incompetence -- will likely try to hold the conference together by proposing offers to a couple of Mountain West outfits and letting Colorado join Utah or another team in creating a Pac-12. The Texas Legislature will make one last try at convincing the Pac-10 that Baylor belongs in their conference. Members of Congress will arrange for hearings so that they can fulminate against the changes sweeping college football and pick up a few extra votes back home.

And nothing will change. Well, nothing will change about the changes. At this point, conference bureaucrats (the unlucky ones, anyway), state lawmakers and even federal authorities are powerless to stop what's coming.

I have no problem with conference expansion in the abstract. I personally have long wanted the Big Ten to add a 12th team (and maybe change its name, which might be possible now that there will be no other contender for "Big XII / 12 / Twelve") and the Pac-10 to do the same. Even a 12-team Big East and a 10- or 12-team Mountain West are good ideas if done correctly.

But this is different. Not just because of the teams or the level of money involved -- though both are far larger than most of the conference realignments in the past. It's also different because we are changing the very concept of a conference, and I don't think it's necessarily for the better.

Conferences used to be relatively geographically distinct groups of teams who got together more out of convenience than anything else, then gained indentities through years of back-and-forth rivalries and hatreds that worked as an odd sort of glue. But they were regional. The Southeast had the SEC. The Upper Midwest had the Big Ten. Texas and Arkansas had the Southwest Conference. The rest of the Plains States, as well as Missouri and Iowa State, had the Big 8. The West Coast had the Pac-8, then the Pac-10. The Mid-Atlantic region (and later Miami) had the Big East, and the Southeastern coast had the ACC.

Previous conference expansions built on that. The SEC added two teams from the Southeast -- one of them, in fairness, from the dying Southwest Conference -- and the new Big XII was still a conference defined by Texas and the Plains. Even the ACC's raid of the Big East included teams -- Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech -- that were in states on the Atlantic Coast, which was after all the name of the league.

But now we're creating leagues that are nearly transcontinental. The distance between Austin, Tex., and Seattle, Wash. -- in other words, between the University of Texas and the University of Washington -- is 1,770 miles. The distance from Fayetteville, Ark., to Gainesville, Fla. -- from the University of Florida to the University of Arkansas -- is less than half that. In fairness to the Big Ten, even a scenario in which they take Rutgers is unlikely to result in any trip longer than 1,200 miles. But what possible connection can there be between State College, Pa., and Lincoln, Neb.?

None except money. And money would be a fine excuse to do something if these were for-profit leagues. After all, that's the entire reason that for-profit entities exist. But these conferences are supposed to be about something different. They are supposed to be about friendly competition between schools in the same region. They're supposed to be about a mix of athletics and academics and tradition. But this is less about athletics than television contracts, not at all about academics and certainly not about tradition.

Of course, there are valid arguments that we will gain new traditions in whatever comes next, ones that will become as cherised and valued as the ones we have now. That might be true, though I'm skeptical. First, because the tradition of the regional conference is dead. But I'm also skeptical that anything born out of this chaos can ultimately replace something that took years to create and perfect. This is not a school moving, or a few schools moving -- this is not rearranging the pieces on the chess board. This is kicking the board in the air and waiting to see what it looks like when all the pieces hit the ground.

And I have to pause a moment to ask, "For what?" Just to be able to say your conference has the biggest television contract? Not that there's anything on the surface wrong with that, and not that schools don't have very good reasons to do that -- the "college football arms race" we all hear about, the drive to have the most modern facilities and the biggest head-coaching names. Just another marker on the road to the corporatization of college football, I guess. One for which we in the SEC are hardly blameless after endless boasts about $3 billion contracts and record revenues.

I just wonder if we aren't changing the character of the sport in ways we can't fully anticipate yet. Sure, you'd have to be hopelessly naive to not see that college football has been about business for a long time now, but until now it was easier to maintain the illusion, to suspend disbelief on an autumn Saturday and just enjoy the games. It will be harder now.

And I wonder if we aren't becoming more like the NFL -- where the business model drives the football, not the other way around. The bland sameness of the NFL is one of the reasons that I prefer college football, with its parade of different teams and, yes, different conferences. For as much fun as we have on this blog at the expense of other leagues, I have a tremendous amount of respect for them.

I'm more optimistic, perhaps, than I was a few days ago. At that point, I worried that we had created a monster. I'm still not sure that we haven't -- after all, it will take years to sort out what the effects of all this will be. Despite the air of finality that will come in the next couple of weeks, I can't help but think we're still not that much closer to knowing what college football will look like in 15 years.

Whatever that is, it is our creation -- yours and mine. Because we've contributed to the winning-first attitude, the cottage industry that is recruiting and the demands that money should be no factor in the hiring of our new offensive coordinator or head coach. The Great Conference Realignment is just a means to fulfilling those ends.

So here we are. The new world is about to begin.

I hope we're as smart as we think we are.

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