Conferences have no choice but to wait on Big Ten's next moves
Major conference commissioners are meeting this week to discuss the BCS
Big Ten expansion will be a hot topic off the record among the leagues
Once the Big Ten announces its intentions, it could affect every major conference
SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe smiled as he left the conference room where all of college football's power brokers gathered Tuesday to officially discuss the logistics of the BCS and to unofficially whisper about what will become of their conferences once the Big Ten decides exactly how it plans to expand.
"You guys are talking about what, conference expansion?" Beebe asked. Then he rubbed his midsection. "My expansion?"
Beebe took the bullet for his fellow commissioners and addressed the assembled scribes, answering questions about his conference's not-insignificant role in the Big Ten's potential plundering of leagues. Wednesday, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany will address the media, but we aren't expecting him to reveal much more about his plans as he follows through on a 12- to 18-month expansion timetable. Beebe said he attempted to get a sneak preview from Delany on Tuesday, but to no avail.
"I tried him in a headlock," Beebe said, "but he's a tough guy."
Beebe wouldn't get too specific, but he has to be genuinely concerned that the Big Ten could poach one of his teams. Missouri and Nebraska are the most likely candidates. They play in a league that pays schools between $7 million and $12 million, depending on who plays on television more. The Big Ten, thanks to its juggernaut cable network and a stellar deal with ESPN, pays its schools a reported $22 million a year. That number also should disturb Big East commissioner John Marinatto, who stands to lose several teams (Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse are candidates) to an expanded Big Ten if Delany's league decides to grow to 16 teams.
I was (sort of) kidding in February when I wrote that the top 64 revenue earning programs should spilt into four 16-team superconferences, break away from the NCAA and form a new organization called the Collegiate Athletic Select Hegemony, but if Delany wants to supersize his league, CASH may be one step closer to reality.
Though the idea of those programs leaving the NCAA still seems a tad far-fetched, the trickle-down effect of a 16-team Big Ten would touch every conference in some way. "We're all kind of interested bystanders," WAC commissioner Karl Benson said. "We know what happens in the Big Ten or in the Pac-10 could have considerable impact."
The Big East and Big 12 are the most likely to get raided. The Pac-10 has discussed expansion as well, and Colorado would be an excellent fit. If the Big East implodes, the ACC could scoop up some of the remaining teams. (Connecticut-North Carolina would have been a better conference football game than conference basketball game this past year.) If the Big Ten expanded its power and reach and the Big 12 looked shaky, the SEC, college football's other 800-pound gorilla, might make a play for Texas. Texas, one of the nation's most lucrative programs, is the only program within a reasonable distance that would add significant value to the SEC. Since the Texas legislature would ensure that Texas and Texas A&M were a package deal, such a move would eviscerate the Big 12, turning schools such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State into free agents as well.
It seemed laughable a few months ago when reports surfaced that Texas could be a Big Ten target. But between the lines of Beebe's comments about Big 12 schools complaining about the league's revenue-sharing agreement is a suggestion that even Texas is in play. "The fact of the matter is this combination of institutions has profited everybody," Beebe said. "If some did not want to be in this combination, I'm sure there are others that would have a significantly less amount of revenue in their pockets, so they could get a pyrrhic victory." Translation: If you keep whining and chase away the Longhorns, you'll all be poorer for it.
The possibilities are head-spinning. I could write 10,000 words and still not mention every scenario. Yet nothing can happen until Delany tips the first domino. With apologies for mixing metaphors, Delany would hold all the cards if Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick didn't hold the most important one. Any expansion of the Big Ten past 12 teams would create a meaningful shift in the business of college athletics. But if the Big Ten expands to 16 teams and one of those teams is Notre Dame, the move would create a tectonic shift.
In March, Swarbrick suggested a major shift could send Notre Dame looking for a conference. "You could each invent a scenario that would force our hand," Swarbrick told reporters during the Big East basketball tournament.
Swarbrick has since backed away from that ledge. According to The Chicago Tribune, Swarbrick told Notre Dame's alumni senate this past weekend that the program's "highest priority is maintaining football independence." Swarbrick also mentioned that a second priority is to support the Big East, the conference to which most of Notre Dame's other teams belong.
Unfortunately for Swarbrick's first priority, Delany can invent a scenario that would force Notre Dame's hand. If the Big Ten raids the Big East for three football members, the league either would cease to exist as we know it or fill the void with commuter schools such as Central Florida and Memphis. Neither option is palatable for Notre Dame. Remember, a conference also is a de facto academic consortium. If the Big Ten swipes the cream of the Big East's academic crop, Notre Dame -- which isn't a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities but has a great academic reputation nonetheless - might not want to belong to a league that doesn't feature several AAU/U.S. News and World Report top-100 schools. (Though the idea of an all-Catholic, football-free Big East featuring Notre Dame and several current Big East members is intriguing.)
Meanwhile, on the west coast, the Pac-10 has discussed expansion, but that talk seems to have cooled. With good reason, too. Because of geography, an expanded Big Ten would affect the Pac-10 the least. "Play out for me a scenario where it harms us," Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said. "No one has given me any kind of compelling explanation of how it impacts us."
But it does impact everyone else, which could make these next two days of meetings very interesting. In the conference room and on the record, they'll discuss the BCS. In the back rooms and off the record, they'll discuss what really matters. It's highly unlikely Delany will make his move here, but at some point, he will contact his fellow commissioners and inform them of the Big Ten's plans. Hopefully, Beebe said Tuesday, he'll do it privately.
"I don't think he's going to say it in front of the whole room," Beebe said. "Then he will be in a headlock."
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