When the giant vacuum cleaner known as the Big Ten Conference rolled through two weeks ago, sucking up Maryland and Rutgers, the dust was knocked off the dominoes.
Conference stability — expansion, realignment and otherwise — seemingly had taken root after a few years of seismic shifts in the bedrock of college athletics.
Then, the Big Ten triggered conference insanity again.
Which raises questions that make experts such as former Iowa State president Gregory Geoffroy and Big12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby curious: Is the roam-happy conference done — and if not, where might it look next?
The Big Ten-inspired chaos sandwiched around Thanksgiving alone: Maryland left the ACC and Rutgers walked out on the Big East. Louisville committed to the ACC. Tulane and East Carolina (football only) said sayonara to Conference USA for the Big East. Middle Tennessee State and Florida Atlantic split with the Sun Belt for Conference USA.
Undoubtedly, more affiliation frenzy is yet to come, which begs something: What if the Big Ten isn’t done?
What if, when the domino dust settles again, the Big (insert real number here: 14) wants to become one of those 16-team super conferences we’ve heard so much about the last few years? Where would the Big Ten look?
Geoffroy was involved in meetings with other Big12 leaders when the shifting winds carried Nebraska to the Big Ten, Missouri and TexasA&M to the SEC, and TCU to his conference.
“You could start by narrowing it down to AAU universities, first of all — then look at who, in that group, expands their TV footprint,” Geoffroy said.
AAU is the Association of American Universities, a group of the 62 leading research universities in the U.S. and Canada. Other than Nebraska, which lost its AAU status after joining the conference, all members of the Big Ten, including the in-bound Terrapins and Scarlet Knights, belong to the organization.
That means, in non-athletic speak, that a university is an important fit beyond the field and court.
The TV footprint Geoffroy mentioned is code for the Big Ten Network, which has become the conference’s winning Powerball ticket — with more money still to come from the addition of Rutgers (New York cable subscribers) and Maryland (Washington D.C., Baltimore).
So, if Geoffroy’s right, who fits that model?
Georgia Tech, for starters. AAU university? Check. TV market potential? Check. The Atlanta area is second only to New York in total college football fans according to numbers crunched by influential New York Times blogger Nate Silver, best known for presidential election number-crunching. That means Atlanta has more college football customers available than Los Angeles, Chicago and Dallas.
Who else fits? North Carolina, Geoffroy said.
“They’re one of the top 10 public universities in the country,” he said. “Maybe Duke, but they’re fairly small and don’t have a big reputation in football — though, obviously they do in basketball.
“Maybe Pittsburgh. And a university like Georgia Tech gets you south (Atlanta TV market). There aren’t many options if you limit it to AAU schools and market extension. That’s if you rule out the SEC, since it’s not likely someone would pull somebody out of there.”
Geoffroy said using TV and AAU members as barometers makes sense, “because that’s how presidents are likely to look at it.”
Some national experts believe the Big Ten has started to lure cash-strapped universities who are weaker athletically. Those types of pick-ups would allow scheduling options that ensure top teams are kept apart until the end of the season with relatively few losses.
That could position conference teams more consistently for BCS-level football bowl games (and the upcoming playoffs), as well as basketball’s financially lucrative NCAA Tournament.
No matter the goal, all this conference hubbub has taken on the feel of kids on a playground, hasn’t it?
One of the big kids has plenty of marbles at recess, but wants more. He takes a marble from a smaller kid, who turns around and takes a marble from an even smaller classmate.
Few if any in college athletics have found a foolproof way to stop the moving marbles. The ACC steeled itself for defectors by implementing steeper hit-the-road penalties — such as the $50million exit fee Maryland is now faced with paying. The Big Ten barely broke a sweat, assuring Maryland it could pay that off quickly with money promised from the conference with deepening pockets.
So the shuffling continues with conferences tripping over each other to make moves.
“I don’t think there’s any question that panic is prevailing,” said Bowlsby, the Big12 commissioner who has served as athletic director at Stanford, Iowa and Northern Iowa. “As a result of that, I feel like bad decisions will be made.”
The Big 12 is happy with its current 10-member format — and even happier about revenue pieces in place, including its TV deal with ESPN/Fox, that will soon deliver $30million annually to each university. That total is set to grow to about $40million each by the time the deal ends in 2025-26.
Universities that remain in the Big12 are guaranteed unprecedented financial stability this decade — and well into the next.
“I don’t think anyone knows at this point if bigger is better or smaller is better,” Bowlsby said. “I’m not sure there’s empirical evidence to support one argument or the other.
“We don’t want to add anybody that isn’t going to significantly move the needle.”
Still, Bowlsby laments what he sees around the rest of the country, including the potential for entire conferences to vanish.
“I think it’s a possibility. And I don’t think it’s a positive trend,” he said. “Aggregating schools sometimes makes perfect sense. But any time one of those moves is made, there’s a trickle-down effect.
“Is college athletics better if the Big East goes away? No, it’s not. Is it better served if the ACC is carved up? I don’t think it is. There certainly are consequences of aggregation — and I think most of those consequences are probably negative.”
Geoffroy, the former Iowa State boss, said his Big12 brethren worried little about a midnight raid from the Big Ten.
“No, not really,” he said. “The Big Ten made it clear they didn’t have enough interest in Missouri and we didn’t feel like they were chasing other schools.”
Where might the Big Ten’s eyes wander next? Georgia Tech? North Carolina? Pittsburgh? And what would a bomb like that set in motion?
The possibilities stagger both brains and bean-counters alike.
The Big Ten, it seems, still has the most marbles. But before this is all over, will we lose ours?
Bryce Miller can be reached at 515-284-8288 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @Bryce_A_Miller
ESPN’S HOWARD: BIG TEN MARCH SOUTH ‘WOULD MAKE SENSE’
ESPN college football analyst Desmond Howard played at Michigan, in the heart of the “old” Big Ten.
Howard said the recent moves to add Maryland and Rutgers cause him to think more moves are likely.
The possibility of courting universities in the southeast region of the country — such as Georgia Tech or North Carolina, for example — would be less far-fetched than some might think.
“It surprised me. I didn’t see it coming,” Howard said of the Maryland, Rutgers additions. “(Commissioner) Jim Delany is really stealth-like in what he’s doing. But it makes perfect sense to extend the viewership of the Big Ten network.
“When I was at Michigan, we had players on our team from North Carolina, Virginia — so it would make sense for them (to look south). I could see it.”
— Bryce Miller
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football