Driving the Train

With the resignation of Big East commissioner John Marinatto setting off yet one more round of discussion about college athletic conference realignment, here is a simple statement to keep in mind on the topic.

Football and television are the sources powering this train.

Football is king of the campus. Since the beginnings of American intercollegiate athletics in 1852, a crew (rowing) race between Harvard and Yale, no sport has reigned supreme like football does today. The campus game generates more interest, more money, and exerts more influence than any college sport has at any time since those rowers paddled on Lake Winniepesaukee a century and three score years ago.

Conference Realignment

Television is the locomotive to college football’s coal. With an ever-increasing number of networks seeking to fill programming hours with college sports – especially football – rights fees have exploded in the past five years. Schools in the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and others collect in the neighborhood of $15-20 million annually from TV contracts. That’s a nice neighborhood.

Television money also comes into play for post-season games. The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) was only devised to determine which two teams should play for the national title, but – due to conference tie-ins among the big six conferences and the major bowls, access to the so-called BCS bowls (much like membership in lucrative conferences) has become a common crusade for college athletic directors.

For the past year, institutions across the nation have been trying to maneuver their football programs into conferences that assure huge television revenues and access to big-money BCS post-season football games. Because of that scramble, we end up with geographically strange partners … Missouri in the SEC East, West Virginia in the Texas-centric Big 12, Boise State in the Big East. The scrambling has mostly settled for the time being, but the Big East may be a tenuous group.

Future of Big East and Notre Dame

So, what does the future hold for the Big East Conference and its semi-member Notre Dame (the Irish compete in all Big East sports except football)?

The Big East has two problems and one nice hole card.

Pitt, Syracuse, and West Virginia bolted the conference last year, the first two schools going to the ACC and WVU to the Big 12. To counter, Marinatto and the Big East added a mishmash of schools in an effort to maintain BCS automatic qualifying (AQ) status. In the next few years Boise State, San Diego State, and Navy are slated to join in football only, while SMU, Houston, Memphis, and Central Florida are joining in all sports. Temple is coming aboard from the MAC to give the conference eight teams this season. That wild grab for teams with little in common aggravated the Big East schools more known for basketball (Louisville, Georgetown, Villanova, Marquette, etc). Those schools could leave and go back to the conference roots (the league started as a basketball conference).

The other problem comes in the recently announced plan to alter the BCS and start a four-team playoff. The AQ designation will be eliminated for all conferences, so access to the big BCS bowls is no longer assured for the new members (especially pertinent for Boise). That could mean the league splintering from two sources – basketball and football.

What is the potential trump card?

Television rights. Fortuitously, the Big East is set to negotiate a new television agreement in September. Reports are that last year the league turned down an offer similar to what the ACC landed ($155 million annually). If the Big East can score that type deal again, the grass might look a whole lot greener to schools considering jumping ship.

Where does Notre Dame come into play?

Notre Dame treasures its independent status in football and hopes for a healthy Big East to house Irish sports other than football. Supposing the Big East survives, only two factors could change ND’s status.

First, if the Irish television contract with NBC ever falls through, Notre Dame would need to find another network or (as a last resort) join a conference. If NBC ponies up, expect the Irish to stay situated as they are … unless …

The other sticking point with Notre Dame involves the new BCS playoff format. Should the format be limited to conference champions only, ND would nearly be forced to move into a BCS conference. Most who have studied the issue suggest the ACC might be the landing spot, although the Big Ten makes most geographic sense. If the playoffs are open to any team ranked in the top four, the Irish would again stay independent.


Consider me against any playoff. Period.

I know it’s going to happen, but when do any of the power brokers … from commissioners like Mike Slive, Larry Scott, and Jim Delaney, to media members who dislike the BCS (Dan Wetzel for example) think of the players. Alabama played fourteen games last year; under the new format the Tide would need to come back for one more. So, we are going to take away a bowl trip from the four most deserving teams (think squads in the playoff will be visiting the French Quarter at the Sugar Bowl or the beach at the Rose?) and make them play one more game. Count my vote as a NAY.

When the playoff commences, the remaining questions are: which teams will be eligible to play, who will select them, and when and where will the teams play?

The best estimates seem to be:

> Who … either the top four teams (the Mike Slive model), or some combination of conference champions that have a minimum ranking (the Jim Delaney) model. Only choosing the top four teams makes sense. Limiting the field of potential teams would simply be a ploy to keep one conference (SEC anyone?) from landing two spots in the semifinals.

> Who will choose … this is a tough one. I like a committee model like the basketball selection panel, but we may just use polls.

> When and where … again, best guesses seem to be using a rotating pair of the existing BCS bowls (Fiesta, Orange, Rose, Sugar) as semifinals and playing the games on or near New Year’s, then bidding out the championship to a host site and playing it a week later. A proposed revision of this model called for the semifinal host to be the bowl linked to the higher seed’s conference. So, if a Big 12 team was seeded #1 and an SEC team #2, the Fiesta and Sugar Bowls would host semifinal games.

With a few long summer months between now and opening kickoff, we college football fans have to amuse ourselves with discussions like these. Just keep in mind … football and television … they power the train.