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In mid-August, as the Texas A&M Board of Regents mulled the move to the Southeastern Conference, the axis of the college football world (and sports commentary in general) went on tilt. The Texas A&M Aggies, of all people (things?), seemed poised to violate the sanctity of the Big Six power conferences.
But a closer look at the conferences in question offers some perspective on all the hysteria.
We take issue with the reasons behind the latest realignment (never that noble historically, much less today), and would rather focus on root causes and leave the hand-wringing to others.
Besides, it's not as if the regents nailed a list of grievances to the Big 12 headquarters, although it's possible A&M just didn't have a printer big enough enough to handle the task.
We wish the Aggies all the best, although the consensus around the water cooler paints a bleak picture for their prospects against the likes of LSU, Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida. Yikes. Why would anyone willingly walk into that lions' (and Volunteers, and Bulldogs, and Gators . . . ) den? We have a theory - see below.
The Long (somewhat) and Illustrious (kind of) History of the Big Six, CFR Edition
The Atlantic Conference: Of the eight founding schools, seven remain. The ACC has added five programs since 1978, and three (Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College) as recently as 2004-05. Last Saturday, in the midst of the latest upheaval, the conference approved the formal applications of two new members as a bulwark against any further sallies from fellow conferences. Welcome, Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC. We are glad you're here.
The Big East: Anchored in the East Coast and along the Atlantic seaboard, the Big East formed in 1979 when a group of schools renowned for hoops banded together. (This is good. We like hoops that band things.) The founding universities included the likes Syracuse, St. John's, UConn and Georgetown. The Big East did not have much of a reputation for football until 1991, when the conference pursued several southern teams - like Miami and Virginia Tech - to join. Full league play didn't start until 1993 and despite this rich and storied history of gridiron glory, six football programs have seen fit to switch allegiances in the past 18 years. The Big East has managed to stay afloat, despite perpetual threats from neighboring conferences like the ACC, and recently (2005) added another three programs followed by TCU effective in 2012. The Big East: like that girl you dated but never took out in public.
The Big Ten: Arguably the most stable conference, membership in the Big Ten remained unchanged (more or less) from 1912 (with the addition of Ohio State) through 1950 (Michigan State) until 1990. At that point, the Nittany Lions of Penn State joined, raising the total to eleven. Further confusing the matter, Nebraska joined effective for the 2011 season making the Big Ten the Big 12 although still called the Big Ten, for obvious reasons. Is it just us, or does the new conference logo look a little like . . . the Big 16?
Little known fact: The University of Chicago was a founding member and remained in the conference until 1946. Probably just as well. We doubt the Maroons would stand up well to the likes of Wisconsin and Ohio State.
The Big 12: The powerhouse conference, bookended by Texas and Oklahoma, didn't exist prior to 1996. In 1994, the Big Eight members joined with four Texas schools from the (now defunct) Southwest Conference. The Big 12 does not claim any of the history or prior records of the Big Eight although traditional rivalries (and ill-will) have stood the test of time. With Colorado (Pac-12) and Nebraska gone, and A&M slipping out the back door, nine of the Big 12 remain. The conference intends to add a tenth, possibly BYU, TCU or Louisville, although the latter doesn't seem to make much sense from a geographic perspective.
The Pac-12, formerly the Pac-10: We have to give respect to the Pacific-12 Conference - while every other league has kept the traditional nomenclature in place, the Pac-12 simply added two. Although we understand the Big Ten/Big 12 predicament. Then again, that is why we called in the Free Range Chicken last week!
The SEC: The "chinstrap conference" dates to 1932 when 13 members of the Southern Conference formed what is now the Southeastern Conference. Ten of the original group persist, joined by Arkansas and South Carolina in 1991. SEC fans take pride in the cohesive nature and geographic proximity of the league - as the story goes, every campus (but Arkansas) can be reached in an afternoon's drive from the conference headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama. After adding A&M, SEC fans will put a lot more miles on their campers - College Station is 683 miles from Birmingham. That sounds like an all-day trip to us. Cletus, to the Tailgatemobile!
The Aggies cited a number of reasons for their departure from the Big 12, but the largest figure hasn't been mentioned in press conference or interviews: $220 million. That is the amount the Southeastern Conference distributed to member schools for the 2010-11 fiscal year. While Texas A&M needs to resolve some paperwork to make the move, most reports seem to agree that the Aggies are all but gone from the Big 12. We assume the school presidents of the SEC won't need to convene for long before making matters official.
Bonus: Founding member Sewanee dropped out of the SEC in 1940. That's right, the University of the South couldn't hack it. Ah, Sewanee, home of "serious intellectual pursuit, collaborative learning, community outreach, and spiritual growth." And Confederate belt buckles. You can't forget the Lost Cause. God knows Sewanee hasn't.
Texas, Oklahoma, To Take Their Ball And Go Home
In the wake of A&M's departure, Texas and Oklahoma, the mainstays of the Big 12, flirted briefly with the Pac-12. Despite any statements to the contrary, the two schools did not stay based on the 100+ years of conference rivalries.
For example, Texas can't be bothered to continue the annual game against A&M which has played every year since 1894.
No, instead the Big 12 powers stuck together for two reasons: The BCS and cash - of the cold hard variety.
Regarding the former, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops spoke for . . . well, the Sooners of course, but also presumably Texas as no one else in the remaining Big 12 has a reasonable shot at a BCS championship: "[T]he way it's been structured has been good for football and all of the teams."
Well, no. It's been good to UT, OU and Nebraska, and the Huskers are gone. So, that leaves you two. As for the finances, the nine remaining programs signed a binding six-year agreement leashing every member to the conference with golden handcuffs. Remember those?
Well, the Big 12 poobahs resurrected the idea, constructing a stiff set of penalties that would force schools to return all revenues from games broadcast by ABC, ESPN and Fox to the Big 12 upon departure from the conference. Presumably, that means all the cash over the course of the agreement, not just the season prior to leaving. Ouch.
What does it all mean? On the one hand, not much. The status quo - the rule of big money and hubris - has not changed. As Pete Thamel of the New York Times put it ("The Only Thing That Rules College Football Is Anarchy") in the midst of the A&M turmoil:
"For all the billions of dollars, millions of fans and boundless passion that surround college football, that has always been its glaring and bizarre flaw. No one is looking out for the greater good of the game. No one is guiding the sport toward long-term prosperity and short-term sensibility. No one is building consensus and channeling all of the ratings, financial success and popularity toward an outcome that is positive for everyone in the sport."
Does that make us rubes for caring? Probably, but we should feel more foolish about yearning for a Golden Age that never existed. We propose a new condition, following the historical precedents of nostalgia (at one point a medical condition) and solastalgia: footballgia. In a world where Yugo-nostalgia can be a thing, why not footballgia?
The Sports Seal's Picks, Week Four
Saturday, September 24
Central Michigan @ Michigan State (-21.5), 11:00AM Central
San Diego State (+10.5) @ Michigan, 11:00AM Central
Georgia (-10) @ Ole Miss, 11:20AM Central
Florida (-19.5) @ Kentucky, 6:00PM Central
The Free Range Chicken's Picks, Week Four
Arkansas @ Alabama (-11), 2:30PM Central; Alabama by 40
Rice @ Baylor (-20.5), 6:00PM Central; Rice by 24
LSU (-6) @ West Virginia, 7:00PM Central; LSU by 2
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