Winds of change
It hasn’t been discussed much at all in this space, but there is plenty to discuss when it comes to the subject of conference realignment in college sports. Virtually all fans that follow West Virginia University athletics remember the spring of 2003 when the Atlantic Coast Conference came calling on the Big East conference to invite three colleges to join them. Let’s call it a raid.
Led by ACC commissioner John Swafford, the ACC’s plan to raise the number of teams in his league from nine to 12 caught the Big East by surprise, at least the schools that weren’t on the invitation list. The surprise element was so great at the time it seemed almost as though the targeted schools, Miami, Boston College and Syracuse, were as surprised as anyone. Logic and common sense dictate otherwise.
As the raid played out, Syracuse removed itself from consideration by the ACC, which opened the door for another team to become involved in the mayhem. West Virginia’s name came up, albeit never from an official source, but Virginia Tech had an ace in the hole. The governor of the Old Dominion made it clear to the powers at the University of Virginia that the Wahoo faithful should make sure Virginia Tech was the final team in. UVA was able to make that happen, though you have to wonder how happy they were to get their archrival a seat at their table.
At that time the word out of Morgantown was West Virginia had no intention of accepting an offer from the ACC even if one were offered. WVU administrators preferred to remain loyal to their Big East partners. Probably a good stance to take since there was no chance an invite was coming.
Of course the big deal about having 12 teams in a conference is that, by having 12 teams in your conference, your conference can stage a conference championship football game. The Southeastern Conference and the Big 12 were already having success with conference championship games and the ACC wanted to join the party. There is a lot of money to be made with those games and the ACC wanted in.
That is fine unless you are a fan of a school that could suffer dearly as a result of conference shakeups. That is how West Virginia fans felt back in those turbulent weeks seven years ago. Pulling three of the top football playing teams from the Big East would almost surely cause the league to lose its BCS affiliation in short order. While it is possible to be a relevant football program outside of a BCS conference, it is much easier to be relevant inside of a BCS conference.
Things worked out surprisingly well for West Virginia that time. Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida came aboard with pretty good football programs and the Big East survived and WVU has two BCS bowl wins to show for it. It is time now though to not get too hung up on loyalties.
This is being rehashed because it is looking more and more likely another shift in conference alignment is on the horizon. This time there will not be the initial surprise that Swafford and the ACC brought on the Big East, but there are bound to be some surprises.
What we know is the numerically challenged Big Ten is looking to expand from its current 11 teams. Three teams from the Big East, Rutgers, Pitt and Syracuse, have been mentioned for possible membership. Missouri, Nebraska and Texas have also been mentioned. Of course if Notre Dame ever decides to join a conference in football, the Big 10 would welcome them with open arms.
What will happen is anyone’s guess at this point. There is not a lot of factual information out there. Those in the know are playing it close to the vest. If the Big 10 just wants to expand to 12 teams and Notre Dame decides to become that team, then the impact across college football will be minimal for now. If the Big Ten goes for more teams, say 14, and hit the Big East for two or more, then the Big East will likely be on life support.
WVU is not positioned very well in all of this. West Virginia University is not a likely candidate for Big 10 membership. Big 10 schools are large research universities, and WVU does not fall in that category. Virtually any watering down of the Big East football conference would be the beginning of the end.
There is conversation that this round of realignment could lead to something like five 16 team super conferences. Should that happen West Virginia would be a strong candidate to land in the ACC or SEC. Just don’t expect either one of those conferences to invite WVU out of sympathy.
The NCAA is already being urged by the Congress to get its house in order, saying the current BCS structure is too exclusive. With that in mind, anything done in college football that would make the BCS more exclusive would likely really get the politicians fired up, perhaps enough to make seismic change in college athletics.