Conference Realignment — Back to the Future?

Admittedly, there have already been a few billion words wasted on the subject of conference realignment, but I’ll throw in a few comments about the subject as well…

There is some discussion about a merger of sorts between Conference USA and the Mountain West.  This would create a confederation of (at least) 22 teams, which sounds ridiculous.  It would not be unprecedented, however.

The Southern Conference formed in 1921, with 14 original members.  Those schools: Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Maryland, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Washington & Lee.  Six schools joined shortly thereafter:  LSU, Florida, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tulane, and Vanderbilt.  By 1931, Duke, Sewanee, and VMI had become members.

That’s right.  One major conference, 23 member schools.  It was an unwieldy amalgamation, and destined for a breakup.  It wouldn’t be the last time a league split into pieces because it got too big.

Tangent:  It really wasn’t the first time, either.  The SoCon itself was a product of a split, as those 14 original schools were breaking away from the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association, which by 1921 had 30 members.

In December of 1932, 13 of the SoCon schools left to form the Southeastern Conference:  Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Sewanee, and Tulane.  The final three schools listed would eventually leave the SEC, with Sewanee departing in 1940 after eight years in the league; the Tigers had played 37 conference football games and lost all 37 of them.

Now the SEC has 12 schools (with Arkansas and South Carolina added in the early 1990s) and is poised to add a 13th, Texas A&M.  Conference commissioner Mike Slive has stated that the league can stay at 13 members for the time being, and why not — it was a 13-school league for the first eight years of its history.

There has been a lot of talk about BCS “superconferences” with 16 schools.  It wasn’t that long ago that there was a Division I league with 16 members — the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), which expanded from 10 to 16 schools in 1996.  This proved to be a mistake, as several of the “old guard” WAC schools did not like the new setup.  After three years, the 16-school league was a memory, as eight members left to form the Mountain West.

Eleven of the schools that were in the sixteen-member WAC are now in either the Mountain West or C-USA.  I wonder what they think about possibly becoming part of a 22-school association…

Another one of the “WAC 16″, TCU, was set to become the Big East’s 17th member next year (10 for football, all for hoops).  Now that league will be losing at least two of its schools, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

There are a lot of reasons why the Big East is in trouble, but trying to satisfy the agendas of so many different institutions is surely one of them.  That’s one reason I was surprised when Brett McMurphy of CBSSports.com reported that the Big East had considered adding Navy and possibly Air Force to its roster (as football-only members) prior to the sudden departures of Pitt and Syracuse.

Random thoughts:

– If a school isn’t sure which conference it should join, maybe it can join two at once, like Iowa, which was a member of both the Big 10 and the Big 8 from 1907 to 1911.

– If your conference ceases to exist, like the Southwest Conference, that might be sad.  It could be worse, though.  Phillips University, which was a member of the SWC for one year (1920), closed up shop in 1998, two years after the league in which it was once briefly a member met its demise.

– It’s sometimes instructive (and occasionally amusing) to look back at what schools were once members of various leagues.  I’ve already mentioned original SEC member Sewanee.  The Big 10 once included the University of Chicago (and that school is still a member of the conference’s academic consortium, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation).

Southwestern University was a charter member of the SWC.  Washington University (MO) was an original member of the Big 8, which also featured for a time Drake and Grinnell College.  The league now known as the Pac-12 once had both Idaho and Montana as members.

– Then there are schools like West Virginia, a BCS school (for the moment, anyway) that until 1968 was a member of the Southern Conference.  Virginia Tech was a SoCon stalwart for four decades, leaving in 1965.

Rutgers has gone from being one of the “middle three” with Lafayette and Lehigh, and a historic rivalry with Princeton, to big-time athletics in the Big East; now it is searching for a way to ensure it continues to hold its place in that sphere as its conference appears on the verge of collapse.  Another Big East school, South Florida, did not hold its first classes until 1960 and did not field a football team until 1997 (history records that the Bulls’ first loss on the gridiron came at the hands of The Citadel, at Johnson Hagood Stadium).

The University of Arizona started playing football in 1899, before Arizona was even a state.  Arizona (the school) and Arizona State were members of the Border Conference, which included Hardin-Simmons and West Texas A&M, and then left that league to join the WAC (long before the 16-member WAC) before becoming members of the renamed Pac-10.

The history of conference realignment is that leagues have been transient by nature, as the fortunes on and off the field of the various schools have ebbed and flowed.  In 1899 no one would have dreamed that the state of Arizona would have a population boom thanks (in part) to air conditioning, so that by the end of the century that state’s universities would be much larger than anyone would have anticipated one hundred years before.  There are a lot of stories like the Arizona schools and South Florida, and a few on the other side as well (like poor Phillips).

In other words, trying to anticipate how things will shake out can be dicey at best. Even as I type this, my twitter feed has exploded with the news that the Pac-12 (which was once the Pac-10, and before that the Pac-8, and before that the AAWU, and before that the PCC) has decided not to expand, for now.

We’ll see how long that lasts.

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