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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

More on Conference Realignment

I edited my post from yesterday about collegiate conference realignment to add some links to items about the Big Ten's plans to expand. I've read them all and spent some time thinking about it all, and more generally how things might affect the world of track & field. I suggest you read them as well if you really want to get an idea of what's likely to happen. Because things will happen by the end of June.

It's become obvious to me that the two schools the Big Ten wants the most are Texas and Notre Dame. Not only does the Big Ten gain much from them, but they both have much to gain from joining the Big Ten in terms of athletics and finance and--most overlooked--academics. The Big Ten schools are all highly-rated research institutions, and are joined (with former member Chicago) in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which shares research and resources among each other for academic purposes. So joining the Big Ten is a Joe Biden style Big F***ing Deal across the board. And while it doesn't seem to make much sense from a geographic standpoint to bring Texas in, it also doesn't make sense for Boston College and Miami to be in the same conference, or Boise State and Louisiana Tech. Geography doesn't mean anything anymore. So be aware that the Big Ten very much wants Texas, and knows there are ways Notre Dame can be convinced, and commissioner Jim Delany sees no reason why he only has to choose one. It could very realistically happen.

Note that when the Big Ten divvies up its TV money, each member gets $22 million. A year. That's more than the SEC schools get, it's double what Texas gets from the Big 12, and it's nearly 2.5 times what Notre Dame's NBC contract is worth. Broadening both the reach and the ratings of the Big Ten Network would increase that even more. So as long as the right schools are brought in, not only does the sum total of money go up but the average per school does as well.

While the Big Ten shares its money equally, and always has and always will, the Big 12 does not. The power members of Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Nebraska get more than the others because they're on TV more and drive the ratings--and the other eight don't like it. It only requires four votes of the 12 for it to remain this way...meaning that if just one of those four jumps for the Big Ten, the other three stand to lose out on a vote. So it's entirely possible that all four could jump to the Big Ten.

It's also entirely possible that the Big Ten could force Notre Dame's hand by taking in four schools from the northeast and eviscerating the Big East. That wouldn't change the landscape of college track one iota, because none of those schools would change the Big Ten. Big 12 schools, on the other hand, would eventually have a huge impact on Big Ten track and the national scene as well, especially if Texas and Texas A&M are among them.

The Big Ten hasn't been a national power in track & field basically since the southern schools integrated. As with football, the conference has been OK with it, had some semblance of balanced competition among its members, and figured that being the champion team of the Big Ten was really meaningful. But it's not. Minnesota, this year's indoor champ, probably couldn't crack the top three in the Pac-10, Big 12 or SEC, and probably not even the top half-dozen in the latter. Women's champ Penn State fares a little better against its rivals from around the country, but still would have no chance at winning any of the other three major conferences. For a conference with such vast resources at its disposal, the state of its track programs and facilities is remarkably poor.

If Texas and Texas A&M come into the Big Ten, then the current members will be relegated to perennial second-class status. If Oklahoma and Nebraska come as well, then these are your top four teams year in and year out for the forseeable future. That is, of course, unless the rest step up their game. Which is what competitors do, and I'm sure they would. New blood from the Big 12 would be the kind of shake-up the conference hasn't had (and seriously needs) since its track & field championship meet became a members-only affair in the mid-1920s. The schools would certainly have the money available to make serious upgrades (although the coaches' ability to convince their ADs to part with said lucre is another issue entirely).

There are other ways in which Big 12 schools joining the Big Ten would benefit collegiate track & field in general. For one, the Texas Relays would be on the Big Ten Network and reach nearly half the TVs in America. Another is that Ohio State men's coach Robert Gary would have increased contact with UT coach Bubba Thornton and TAMU coach Pat Henry. The latter two are major power players in the sport's organizational structure, and the former is one of the few guys who really understands the challenges facing collegiate track & field and how to approach them (and is in no way shy about sharing his thoughts). But mostly, I'd be happy because I've been surrounded my whole life by major athletic powerhouses with lame track programs and that would undoubtedly change for the better.

The SEC would surely respond by bringing in a few new members of its own, although which ones are even more speculative at this point than with the Big Ten. The PAC-10 is a little further down this road, and for various reasons the two schools it wants most are Utah and Colorado. The former isn't important in track & field, but the latter would make the Pac-10 cross country championships an amazing race. Oregon, Stanford, Washington and Colorado combine for seven of the last nine NCAA men's team champions and seven of the last eight women's team champions.

Other possible results of the forming of three or four Super Death Star Conferences might be a change in the method of qualifying to the NCAA championships towards something more based around conference championship meets, but that's mostly wishful thinking on my part.

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