30 July 2012

Conference Chaos

The appeal of college football has largely rested in its history and tradition. This serves as one of bases against instituting a true playoff system for the highest level of the sport at the university level, alternatively referred to as "Division 1-A" or the "Football Bowl Subdivision". The first season of National Collegiate Athletic Association football occurred in 1906. In contrast, the National Football League did not start until 1920. In the NFL, forty-eight franchises have fielded a team for one or more seasons then folded over the course of its eighty-two years. However, thirty members of Division 1-A have dropped to a lower classification or ended their football programs since the definitive designation of that level occurred in 1978. Since 1920, the NFL has added thirty franchises, which still exist to the two that were part of the founding members of the league. In the thirty-four seasons since the 1-A was created as a distinct level, seventeen have moved up to the highest level of NCAA football. Additionally, eight programs downgraded their programs from 1-A to 1-AA but later moved back up the highest echelon of NCAA football. Both NCAA football and NFL have undergone comparable degrees have change over the past several decades.
 A review of the list of teams from thirty years ago in both the NFL and Division 1-A exposes the myth of continuity of college football. In 1982, of the ten conferences in existence at that time, three no longer exist at that level. The Missouri Valley Conference has dropped to Division 1-A with only two of its members still participating in 1-A. Out of the seven teams in the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, three no longer field football teams while the successor of this conference, the Big West, does not sponsor football at any level.  The Southwest Conference collapsed after the 1995 season; its nine members reside in the Big Twelve (four), in Conference USA (three) and in the Southeastern Conference (two).  The dissolutions of these conferences have also interrupted or halted long-running series between programs around the country.
College football has experienced two seismic periods in this thirty-year span, in the early 1990s and in the early teens of this century. Of the one hundred fourteen teams participating in Division 1-A in 1982, twenty-six have changed their conference affiliation at least once since then. Of the twenty-five independents, nineteen are now in a conference and two have dropped from Division 1-A. In 1982, twenty-three of current 1-A members did not participate at this level.  In total, of the one hundred twenty-four FBS teams, seventy-four members have instituted a major change in their football programs in the past thirty years.
This season continues the tumult, which started last season. In 2011, Nebraska moved from the Big Twelve into the Big Ten; Colorado and Utah jumped from the Big Twelve and Mountain West respectively into the newly re-branded Pacific Twelve. This year, even more former members slip into new conferences after defecting from the Big Twelve. Texas A&M and Missouri start their affiliation with the Southeastern Conference. The Big Twelve stabilized itself by adding Texas Christian and West Virginia. Instead of the Big Twelve appearing on the verge on collapse, the Big East is the one teetering as Syracuse and Pittsburgh will complete their finish seasons before sliding into the Atlantic Coast Conference.
By contrast the NFL has only realigned its teams on one occasion since the NCAA created Division 1-AA. That consisted of the moving of some teams from one of the three divisions of five or six teams per conference into one of the newly established four divisions of four teams. In reality, most of the shake-up occurred in the Southern Divisions. In the NFC, three of the five in the NFC West entered the NFC South. Likewise, two teams from the former AFC Central and one from the AFC East formed the AFC South along with an expansion team. The most jarring switch involved Seattle switching from the Western Division of the American Conference to the equivalent in the National Conference.
Aficionados of college football tout historical rivalries and conference affiliations as a sense of continuity that foster interest and give credence as an established tradition. However, the relocation of former members of the Big Twelve has ended three long-running series. The second most played series, Kansas-Missouri, has ended with Missouri's defection to the SEC. Texas A&M's departure for the same location ended the third most played series between the Aggies and Texas. The fourth most played series ended before last season when Nebraska left for the Big Ten, thus halting its series versus Kansas.  This latest round of shuffling of programs to different conferences is undermining the nostalgia-laced allure of NCAA football.                              
If I would have had any position of power in college football a generation ago, the landscape would appear quite different. I would have pushed all of the Eastern Independents to form the Big East. If necessary, I would have dragged all ten of them, kicking and screaming in some cases, into coalescing. They had long running series, even some fierce rivalries against each other. The most successful among them even received an unofficial championship award each season, the Lambert Trophy. This group would have dominated the huge media markets of New York, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia. Huge revenue from television rights to their games would have forestalled any temptation to bolt for a position on the geographical fringe of another conference. Such a formal agreement would have cemented traditions and held down traveling costs. Such stability would have allowed for later additions of programs moving up from Division 1-AA such as Connecticut or Massachusetts.
Unfortunately for fans and for historical relationships, this alliance never came to fruition. Joe Paterno flexed his muscles to push away neighboring programs within easy traveling distances out of lingering indignation over being excluded from the Big East for basketball. Also, the seven Eastern Independents who formed the Big East smugly blew off the possibility of including the Military and Naval Academies. Faced with awkward scheduling with only seven teams, the Big East invited Miami. Despite the scant connections with any members, the Big East made the move out of desperation. For Miami, the move was merely a marriage of convenience. Once the ACC called Miami to join the conference where it had belonged in geographical terms, Miami bolted with no hesitation.
While I am waving my magical wand to shape conference affiliations as I would like them to be, I would love to undo the recent absurd moves involving the Big Twelve. West Virginia's relocation to the same conference with teams in Texas and in the Great Plains looks doomed to an eventual break-up in less than a generation. It parallels Miami's time in a conference with its closest co-member more than a thousand miles away. I know that those connected to Missouri and Texas A&M grew fed up with being viewed as an inferior in the Big Twelve. However, their defection to the Southeastern Conference will hurt their programs financially and emotionally. Instead of their teams' ability to take buses in day-trips to some locations as well as fans having manageable car rides to most games, flights will be required more often. That will result in most expenses for both teams as well as fewer of their fans at road games.
Additionally, I would halt the maniacal rush to the Mountain West Conference and push some teams back into Western Athletic Conference. The teams could prefer to split between a conference west of the Rocky Mountains and another including those in the Rockies and to the east of them. The second option is to have two overlapping conferences. Also, Brigham Young University needs to reduce its sense of self-importance and re-join either the Mountain West Conference or the Western Athletic Conference.                                
As anyone reviewing the past few decades of NCAA Division 1-AA football can see, change has occurred often within its ranks. However, modifications for which many of the spectators and the media have been clamoring, namely, a true multi-team playoff, have progressed at the pace of geriatric tortoise. As a fan, I fear that the latest streak of frenetic alterations of affiliations will undermine the long-term success and appeal of the sport at this level.

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