Posted: Tuesday June 15, 2010 3:06PM ; Updated: Tuesday June 15, 2010 4:47PM
Stewart Mandel
Stewart Mandel>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Everyone with stake in realignment won -- except for the fans

Story Highlights

Expansion saga gave us front-row seat to the power-grabs and pandering

In chasing money, those in charge revealed how little they care about fans

Many hoped realignment would destroy BCS, but power structure is intact

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For those of us who appreciate college football for such quaint things as rivalries, road trips, intersectional games and plain old-fashioned tradition, this should probably be a day of celebration. Order has been restored. The Big 12 has (mostly) survived. The Pac-10 and Big Ten (if it stays put) managed to expand without losing their core cultures. The sport as we know it will carry on after all.

Yet many of us can't shake our uneasy feelings over the way this all went down. As the drama of the past few weeks played out, fans had a front-row seat to the power-grabs, pandering and other behind-the-scenes machinations that quietly keep the spokes of the sport spinning -- almost all of which are tied to the almighty television dollar. We've walked through the kitchen of our favorite restaurant, and while the food may be just as good moving forward, we'll never be able to look at it the same way.

Texas officials got to sit behind a dais Tuesday and pat themselves on the back for purportedly saving the Big 12 and, in turn, halting the nationwide domino effect that otherwise may have ensued. But had things gone down just a little differently -- had the Pac-10 caved to the Longhorns' 11th-hour demand to allow them to start their own network and reap a few more million dollars (enough to pay Mack Brown's exorbitant salary) -- the folks in Austin would be holding a much different press conference today.

Think about that for a second: An extra few million in Texas' pockets could have been the difference between relative order and utter chaos for the entire college sports landscape.

Granted, none of this is new. The dollar figures are higher today, but television has been driving conference alignments and realignments for more than two decades now. What's troubling, though, is that the way the sport's power brokers went about preserving the status quo revealed just how little they care about the average fan.

Triumphant Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe reiterated Tuesday that "it would be a great travesty if the institutions in this part of the country did not have relationships with competitors that are even in this region." No one would dispute that. Of course, he also called the contention that his league's crisis was all about money a "misnomer." Uh huh. If not for a desperation concession by the Big 12's five potential leftovers (Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State and Baylor), who agreed to fork over their share of Nebraska's and Colorado's exit penalties to the league's three sought-after members (Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma), Beebe's Pac-10 counterpart, Larry Scott, would be giving a different speech right now about how excited we should be for the "competition" and "opportunities" provided by a 16-team league.

Fans of Kansas, et al., can breathe a sigh of relief today knowing their schools won't go homeless, but that security comes at the cost of committing to a league in which one school (Texas) is clearly dictating all the rules to the other nine. Perhaps those fans now have a greater appreciation for what it's like to follow a team like Boise State, whose place in the landscape is largely dictated and marginalized by more "marketable" institutions.

Late Monday night, I conducted an informal Twitter survey to gauge fans' reaction to the Mass Realignment That Didn't Happen. Their responses varied based on how the results impacted their favorite team, but a common theme emerged. While many were relieved that stability had been restored, just as many expressed disappointment. Why? They'd been hoping the potential chaos would lead to the BCS' ultimate destruction.

Various leaders throughout the sport held that same concern. Beebe confirmed Tuesday that "there were a lot of people [outside the conference] who felt it would not be good for college athletics if the Big 12 ceased to exist" and who "worked very hard [behind the scenes] to make sure it continues." The writing was on the wall. Had the Pac-16 come to fruition, more super-conferences would have followed. Power would have been further consolidated. Whether or not a playoff would have ensued, more and more middle-of-the-pack institutions would have gone by the wayside.

And so there are a lot of very happy, very relieved administrators around the country today -- not because they staved off a playoff (that was never imminent), but because their prevailing power structure will remain largely unchanged. The Mountain West, which will essentially swap Utah for Boise, will likely remain relegated to the kiddie table while the "Big Six" further solidify themselves. Nearly everyone with a stake in this thing managed to emerge a winner.

The Pac-10 may not have revolutionized college sports, but Scott still sent a strong signal that his league's days as a passive spectator on the national scene are over. His conference will still wind up adding two sensible new members (Colorado and, most likely, Utah). As both the ACC and the 10-team Big 12 have demonstrated in recent weeks, the ceiling for college television contracts has increased dramatically, and there's little doubt the business-savvy Scott will make his conference significantly richer when its contracts come up next year.

The Big Ten will continue to hold out for its ever-elusive dream girl, Notre Dame, but in the meantime, it quite seamlessly added one of the most prestigious programs in the sport to an already stable league. Nebraska, a big winner itself, got out from under the rule of the Texas-Texas A&M-Oklahoma triumvirate while joining a new set of 11 colleagues with which it already shares much in common academically and geographically.

The Big East can breathe easier knowing its league is not facing any sort of grave danger like it did in 2003, and like many predicted it would again this time around. While it remains possible the Big Ten will try to grab an East Coast school sometime before its seemingly interminable "timetable" expires, it looks more and more like Rutgers/Syracuse will only come into play if Notre Dame ever does an about face -- and this sudden halt to the conference dominos gives the Irish little reason to do so.

Many SEC fans and Texas A&M fans, meanwhile, had gotten their hopes up about a potential marriage, one that appeared plausible as recently as Sunday night. It didn't happen, and while many of those fans may disagree, believe me, this is a good thing for both parties. The SEC has a near-perfect product. It's the toast of the sport right now. It's not hurting for money. There was no justifiable reason to mess it up for the sake of a few Texas television sets, just as the Aggies would have eventually regretted parting with their Lone Star brethren.

No, there was really only one loser in this derby -- the fans. If there was a Sign of the Apocalypse over these past few weeks, it was the very real possibility that Texas A&M's regents would be willing to sever their most important rivalry for the sake of a potential, yet entirely hypothetical, recruiting advantage -- and yet, given their likely options at the time (joining a West Coast league or joining the sport's preeminent football conference), no one could have blamed them if they had.

Fortunately, the sport has been spared such purely business-driven alliances for now. But why should fans come away from recent events with any confidence that we won't be going through this all again in six years, if not six months?

Loyalty trumped the almighty dollar this time -- but it won't be long before they're one in the same.

 
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