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Conference Realignment: Idaho, New Mexico State and Creative Destruction

Idaho is on the way out so that everyone else can have a better college football experience. We think.
Idaho is on the way out so that everyone else can have a better college football experience. We think.

The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation -- if I may use that biological term -- that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one.--Joseph Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy

They've been playing football at the University of Idaho for more than 111 years. For New Mexico State University, it's somewhere around 117 years.

It's important to know that. It's also important to know that the split between the Football Bowl Subdivision, or Division I-A, and the Football Championship Subdivision, or Division I-AA, is a relatively new phenomenon. (It happened in 1978, for those wondering.) For most of their history, Idaho and New Mexico State have played at the highest level of college football, even if they have not played particularly well at the highest level of college football.

That's likely about to change. The college football world is rapidly shifting -- the latest examples being the flurry of activity around midnight Sunday, when Missouri and Texas A&M joined the SEC; TCU and West Virginia joined the Big 12; Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada joined the Mountain West; Temple rejoined the Big East; Denver, Seattle and the three Texas Locational teams joined the WAC; and UMass joined the MAC in a development that seems to have so far gone unnoticed on the conference's website.

The WAC moves will prove short-lived. Almost all of those schools, at least the ones that play football, are going to leave for the Sun Belt or Conference USA next year. Idaho and New Mexico State are the only ones that are going to be left, and it's hard (not to mention against the rules) to have a football conference with only two members.

And given their stature and the challenges already facing football independents, it's hard to imagine either school surviving as an FBS independent. It's easier to see them quietly slipping out of the FBS entirely and back to the subdivision they recently left.

If you've been paying attention to the presidential campaign at all this year, you've probably heard the term "creative destruction" more than once. It's mostly associated with allegations about what Mitt Romney's former company, Bain Capital, did or didn't do when it comes to various businesses it acquired. (As with Year2's Overon post, I'm going to ask that you refrain from actually discussing the politics of this in the comments section. In return, I'm going to try to limit my own comments on the parallels as much as possible.)

The idea of creative destruction, a term that's often traced back to Schumpeter's work, is that the progress of a capitalist economy requires an occasional convulsion that displaces industries and workers. That destruction is then followed by new industries and economies emerging that, the theory goes, will create a better world for society as a whole.

It is the economic equivalent of the old saying that to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs. And there is a healthy discussion back and forth in economic circles about whether creative destruction is entirely good, entirely bad or somewhere in between.

But when you see the ads about Bain Capital, it's hard to ignore the people in front of you and think only of the greater good that some economists say creative destruction brings about. It seems a bit cold to turn to a 50-year-old factory worker with a kid or two in college who has just been laid off and start talking about the works of Joseph Schumpeter.

In other words, it's all well and good to make an omelet -- unless, of course, you happen to be the egg. And Idaho and New Mexico State are looking a lot like eggs right now.

* * *

There's no question that we're moving into a new era of college football history. The last two years seem to be perfectly described as a process that is "incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one." We're headed to a college football playoff at the sport's highest level for the first time in history. By the time Pittsburgh and Syracuse join the ACC -- whenever that is -- the lineup of literally every BCS automatic qualifying conference will have changed since the end of the 2010 season.

And it's that process that has New Mexico State and Idaho on the brink of disappearing from the ranks of the FBS.

It started when the Pac-12 plucked Utah from the the Mountain West, and both the Pac-12 and the Big 12 made it relatively clear that BYU was in neither conference's long-term plan. Knowing that the Cougars were unhappy being left behind and sensing an opportunity, the WAC began making overtures about hosting BYU's non-revenue sports should the school decide to go independent in football.

Once the news broke, the Mountain West made a pre-emptive strike that essentially destroyed the WAC -- thus the moves by Fresno State, Nevada and Hawaii. That prompted the ill-considered and haphazard WAC expansion, which proved to be little more than forming a farm team for Conference USA and the Sun Belt.

So the WAC is in a way a victim of its own attempt to destroy another conference, which would make the whole thing acceptable if all or even a majority of the old members of the WAC were also going to be done in by their own greed. But most of the old and new members of the WAC are going to be rewarded for that greed; only Idaho and New Mexico State look likely to bear the brunt of the conference's miscalculation.

They're being destroyed for what we are assured is a better future for college football. And it might be. But that doesn't make it any easier to look at two storied programs and tell them that, like the 50-year-old factory worker, they just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and that they should somehow feel less pain knowing that they are victims of progress.

* * *

Some people -- some of the members of academia who don't much like college football to begin with, but also some college football fans -- will say that's fine. There are, we're constantly told, "too many" FBS teams. Better to begin culling the ranks now through the realignment process, while the major conferences seem to move closer and closer to splitting off and creating a third tier of Division I at some point in the future.

For the life of me, I can't figure out who gave those people the right to determine who should and shouldn't have an FBS team. If Idaho and New Mexico State want to spend their athletic departments into oblivion to support a football program at that level, that's for the administration of Idaho and New Mexico State to decide. If taxpayer money is involved, then the people of Idaho and New Mexico should also have a say. But it's really no one else's business.

Is it really better to be a dominant team in the FCS than to be a permanent also-ran in the FBS? I don't know. But Idaho and New Mexico State should be free to make that decision on their own terms, not because a few ego-driven conference commissioners decide to kick over the chess board and scatter the pieces all over the room.

Idaho and New Mexico State are essentially having their football programs capsized so that the rest of us can have a better omelet, assuming that a four-team playoff that continues reducing the sport to one all-important game and the creation of conferences that stretch from Tampa to San Diego are really parts of a better omelet. I'm not sure that meal, which no one has actually tasted yet, is worth it.

Because just like the factory workers who get laid off as part of creative destruction in the economy, these programs are not nameless and faceless statistics. They're players who have committed to a program, coaches who have worked to mold young men, communities who have rallied around their teams. They are the students who go to the Kibbie Dome on a Saturday and the alumni who trek to Aggie Memorial Stadium week after week, year after year.

And maybe they'll still do all that in the FCS, and no one will really notice any difference other than the school names on the opponents' jerseys. And maybe the rest of college football will move boldly into its new future, no worse for the wear.

Maybe. But what happens if all that turns out to be wrong?