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Game Time: College Football Realignment: A 2003 History Lesson

To sit down and type up a piece about college football realignment, specifically the (choose one) maintaining of/realignment of/annihilation of the Big 12, knowing that said piece would be set to run nearly 24 hours from now feels almost futile.

The bombardment of Tweets and updates about this topic are virtually hourly at this point, so as the sun sets on the Minute Maid Park press box (that's right, Astros, I'm typing a college football blog post on your turf) my hope is that the athletics directors, school presidents, and chancellors will take Sunday night to breathe a little bit, maybe even watch an NBA Finals game with their kids. (I know, not bloody likely...)

Depending on which square you choose to place your chips at the "college football realignment" roulette table, we're on the verge of one of the following: 

1.) A small handful of major players shifting conferences by themselves (Notre Dame to the Big Ten, Texas to the Big Ten or Pac Ten, Florida schools to the SEC)
2.) A small handful of major players shifting conferences and bringing friends with them (so would they call it the Pac-16?)
3.) The complete overhaul of college conference structure as we know it (Hey, four big conferences! Playoff time, bitches!)

If indeed there were a "college football realignment" roulette table and I were the croupier (that's official casino-speak for "dude that spins the wheel"), one tip I can give you with virtual certainty -- it ain't landing on the green "0" or "00" pockets. Something is about to happen. "Quo" is a dead status walking.

Conferences expanding, contracting, and expiring are nothing new. Go read the history of any of the big conferences, and you'll see -- rare is the conference that doesn't go through some sort of surgery every decade or so. Sometimes it's minor and voluntary -- a tuck here, a tuck there (think TCU moving to the Mountain West in 2005). And sometimes it's major reconstructive surgery.

Like 2003, when the Atlantic Coast Conference basically went into the Big East, raided their refrigerator, made sweet love to their women, and didn't even leave a "thank you" note.

As "dog eat dog" as it gets, the 2003 defection of Miami and Virginia Tech (and eventually later that year, Boston College) to the ACC is the closest template we have for the threat level rapidly careening toward "RED" for the Big 12's very existence. In my efforts to get as educated as I possibly could on the possibility of this armageddon before us, I came across an article from CBS Sportsline that ran right around this time in 2003. It outlined the ACC invasion of the Big East, and the challenge that then-Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese faced in trying to hold his league together.

In short, in a week where the release of the Karate Kid remake is set to hit theaters, we also appear to be on the verge of a remake of the Great Conference Shakeup of 2003, with Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe in the 2010 role of the beleaguered Tranghese. For those who lived through the ACC-Big East turf war of 2003, let's go back through the Sportsline article (which ran May 19,2003) and see just how much history is on the verge of repeating itself...

Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese won't let his conference fade away without a fight.

Admitting the Big East is in crisis, Tranghese claimed Monday that a move by Miami to the Atlantic Coast Conference would "be the most disastrous blow to intercollegiate athletics in my lifetime."

That line was the highlight of the commissioner's bombastic 30-minute news conference, a whopper of a show designed to sway public opinion and put pressure on Miami president Donna Shalala.

Difference number one between Big East Raid '03 and Big 12 Raid '10 right out of the chute is the relative demeanor and tone of the two conference commissioners. In 2003, Mike Tranghese was very public in his anger over what was transpiring with his league, to the point that he was practically painting University of Miami president Donna Shalala as a disloyal, money-grubbing whore who may or may not have been a direct descendant of Satan himself.

In 2010, Beebe has been more measured in his approach, sounding more hopeful than defiant this past Friday when he talked in generalities about keeping the league together. "I am comfortable," Beebe said as four days of meetings wrapped up. "There's still a process we're going through but based on the conversations we had I think we're in a very good position."

Tranghese came across as more desperate back then than Beebe has so far this time around, probably for three reasons -- (1) At the point Tranghese made the statements in this article, the cat was totally out of the bag as far as the ACC's plans to pilfer his league; to this point, all of the "moving parts" of the Big 12 discussion have been revealed through strategically placed leaks to the media; (2) Tranghese was Dave Gavitt's right-hand man in creating the Big East back in 1979. If the conference wasn't his baby, at the very least it was his nephew. If you're fighting for a blood relative, don't you fight a little harder and a little more maniacally? Beebe's history with the Big 12 dates back only to 2003; (3) Tranghese's on-field crown jewel (Miami) was more inclined and receptive to leaving than Beebe's (Texas). In a perfect world, the Longhorns would stay in the Big 12, maintain all of their rivalries, and finally get cracking on their own television network.

 

Let's continue....

Tranghese said during Day 3 of these crucial, five-day conference meetings athletic directors talked about money, integrity and history, and how all related to Miami's crucial decision, which will likely trigger similar decisions by two other ACC targets, Syracuse and Boston College.

Tranghese recalled 1991, when Miami was an independent, its athletic programs were in shambles, and nobody was asking the Hurricanes to join their league.

"I said, 'We will help you in a lot of ways and you'll help us,"' Tranghese said. "And we've done that. So, we're going to end that, and damage the people who've extended this opportunity? I find that unacceptable."

It's interesting to think back and remember that originally it was going to be Syracuse and Boston College joining Miami in defecting to the ACC. However, a power play by Virginia governor Mark Warner ensured that Virginia Tech would be part of any realignment into a conference which already had Tech's in-state brethren, the University of Virginia. You can see the seeds of a similar strong arming being done with Texas politicians rumored to be forcing the Pac-10 to take Baylor instead of Colorado if indeed there is a mass defection of the Big 12 South schools to the Pac-10. (This is the "college football realignment" version of the NFL's season-ticket sales strategy where you're forced to buy tickets to the preseason games at regular season prices if you want to be a full season-ticket holder -- the Longhorns are the Patriots game in Week 17, Baylor is the Buccaneers in the third week of preseason....if that helps you.)

The other key difference to point out here is the perception and history of the respective crown jewels in both conference raids -- Miami in 2003 and Texas in 2010. Tranghese is dead-on-balls accurate in his portrayal of the University of Miami in 1991. The athletics department was a mess, and it's marquee act (the football program) was beginning to fray at the seams from a decade of being "The U" and three years of being "Dennis Erickson-ed" (Getting your own verb is typically not a compliment.) For the ACC, Miami had two things going for it -- geography (fit perfectly as the southern most tip in a revamped ACC footprint) and a nationally renowned football program (even if it was a program with bad facilities and attendance issues). For the ACC's purposes in 2003, Miami was more than good enough, due in no small part to the ACC presence of Miami's main rival, Florida State.

Put it this way -- if getting Miami in 2003 were equal to signing Chris Bosh (a superstar who probably needs another superstar to make him truly shine), getting Texas in 2010 is the equivalent of signing LeBron James (a global brand who just might convince a few other near stars like Texas A&M and Oklahoma to come along for the ride). Texas has everything Miami had in 2003 PLUS the added bonus of being the biggest revenue generator in the sport with zero concerns regarding recruiting shenanigans and full stadiums everywhere they go. And oh by the way, they're a big public school with a huge research budget (which matters more than you'd think in the Pac-10 and Big Ten; the academic thing is not total lip service).

So if we're keeping score, Miami was the clear cut apple of the ACC's eye in 2003, and yet Texas in 2010 is the Scarlett Johansson to Miami 2003's Tiger Woods' Waffle House waitress.

Tranghese asked Shalala to honor Miami's commitment to the Big East and recognize how drastically a move could harm college sports.

The commissioner implored Miami and the other two schools to appreciate the history of a conference that began in 1979, helped revive college basketball on the East Coast and, most recently, became a powerhouse in several sports.

 

According to reports, Beebe has given Nebraska and Missouri a deadline of this Friday (or possibly next week) to give the league some clarity on their intentions. While Texas is the Big 12 crown jewel, it's actually the Big Ten's flirtation with Nebraska and Missouri that could set the wheels in motion for change that at this point could range from one of the two of them leaving and the Big 12 backfilling them with, say, TCU to seismic change that could see the Big 12 disband altogether. The ripple effect is potentially that far reaching, and the gap between best case and worst case scenario that vast.

And in some respects, while Tranghese was fighting a battle in which he was a serious underdog (and eventually lost), he at least was only fighting a battle on one front. The battle lines in 2003 were clear -- Big East fighting off the ACC for "these three schools" (eventually the only shift in the battle was a swap out of Syracuse for Virginia Tech).

While the chances of Beebe holding together his league around its marquee school are markedly better than Tranghese's were, Beebe is having to fend off pilferage from all sides -- the Big Ten making a play for Nebraska, Missouri, and even Texas; the Pac-10 imminently proposing an invite to half his league; the SEC lurking, lurking, lurking.... Basically, Tranghese had two potential outcomes -- status quo (best case) and losing three schools (worst case). That clarity unto itself makes it easier to plan your strategy in the event the worst case happens, and was a big reason the Big East was able to move so swiftly after the defections to backfill those teams with five from Conference USA.

The permutations of possible outcomes for Beebe right now (which theoretically includes conference extinction) make it exponentially harder to plan and navigate the waters in the event of a worst-case or near-worst-case scneario.

[Trangehse] called on Shalala and Miami athletic director Paul Dee to closely examine the ACC's proposed financial package, which he doesn't believe is much better than what the Big East could offer.

Tranghese was way off on this one, especially on the heels of the ACC signing a new TV deal this past year that will net each school nearly $13 million, more than enough to help Boston College fly its women's field hockey team to road games in North Carolina and such. Good try, though.

Then, in the highlight of the news conference, Tranghese said a Miami move would start a domino effect that could forever alter college sports for the worse.

"At the end of the day, President Shalala is going to have to look at the issues we've talked about, have to look at financial obligations, have to look at integrity issues," Tranghese said. "And then she's going to have to factor in the irreparable harm that's going to be caused to members of my league.

"Aside from that, and this will sound self-serving, this will be the most disastrous blow to intercollegiate athletics in my lifetime. It's wrong."

Looking back, Tranghese was probably overly dramatic in his "irreparable harm" statement. The Big East kept its BCS bid and, with the rise of Rutgers, Pitt, South Florida and Cincinnati, actually managed to stay competitive football-wise. In basketball, they maintained their spot as one of the deepest, most talented leagues. Although to be fair, maybe it will take one more monster landscape shift to knock the Big East out altogether, essentially making the 2003 raid the "irreparable harm" combo to the body before the 2010 knockout punch. In other words, perhaps Tranghese was right, but just seven years early in his gloomy prediction.

Tranghese ruled out trying to poach teams out of other leagues to give the Big East the 12-team setup Dee and many others believe is the wave of the future. He dismissed the ACC's oft-advanced idea that it needs to get to 12 teams to protect itself from being scavenged by other conferences.

Tranghese was both right and wrong. WRONG -- The desire for a 12-team setup may not have become all the rage right away, but clearly that's a big component of what's causing this latest round of insanity within the BCS conferences. RIGHT -- That said, having 12 teams is not exactly allowing the schools in the ACC to sleep any easier at night in 2010, with rumors of the SEC looking to go from 12 to 14 or even 16 schools, which would almost assuredly mean overtures to Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, and...yep...Miami.

Ultimately, there are three things that protect your conference from vultures -- years of tradition that have fostered solidarity between the foundation schools, great football, and a lucrative, long-term TV contract. If you have all of those things, it doesn't matter where your conference footprint reaches nor does it matter the size of the markets which fall inside said footprint. The bottom line is the ACC is a conference with a major identity crisis and very average football, albeit one with a new TV deal. The SEC knows exactly who it is and they play great football. Oh, and they have a better TV deal (nearly $17 million per school annually until 2024). If the SEC offers any of those ACC schools, they will say yes and not look back.

You almost have to have the tradition and the high caliber of football just as a buy-in. Apply that to the Big 12 -- they're being poached by the Pac-10, Big Ten, and SEC, all of whom are steeped in tradition and are the hunters (not the hunted) in these conference expansion talks. The Big 12 may be the second-best football conference in the country, but it was a conference that was founded amidst some acrimony and philosophical differences (Texas and Nebraska butting heads over partial qualifiers, for example) and at 14 years of age is a baby compared to the Pac-10, Big Ten, and SEC.

Much of the discussions Monday -- "somber, sober discussions," as Syracuse athletic director Jake Crouthamel called them -- were about finances.

Most discussions about finances are "somber" and "sober." That part hasn't changed, nor has the fuel feeding the college sports engine -- cash. What has changed is that a border skirmish that was largely regional and head-to-head in nature in 2003, with two distinct, opposite sides, has turned into a potential brushfire of realignment with the main conference under siege battling potential thieves on all sides. And when it's done, it's entirely possible that none of the BCS conferences look the same.

It's going to be an interesting couple weeks. It would be fun to watch if you were a fan with no "dog in the fight," so to speak. But the reason this thing is at such a fever pitch is because so many people have a dog in the fight; college football is simultaneously a common language we all speak and yet, at times, a reason to come to blows. It's what makes it great -- more people care passionately (that's the key word) about it in our country than any of other sport.

Last week, there was an announcement that West Coast burger chain In N Out was (finally) bringing its unique brand of burger to Texas -- Garland, to be exact. Texas may respond in kind by bringing its unique brand of football to California. Pac-16? It would make 2003 look like child's play....and it's entirely possible. Anything is, at this point.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show" and follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanCablinasian.


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