It will be years before college football seismologists can fully evaluate the tremors that have rocked the sport in the past couple of years, leaving it in a strange and unsettled state as the 1991 season begins. The rumbling began early in 1990 when Notre Dame bolted the College Football Association television package to cut its own $38 million deal with NBC. Soon after, the Big Ten decided to admit independent Penn State to its ranks, beginning with the 1993 season. Next thing you knew, Arkansas was ending its 76-year affiliation with the Southwest Conference in order to join the wealthier, more powerful Southeastern Conference, and three other major independents, Miami, Florida State and South Carolina, were scrambling to join the Big East, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the SEC, respectively. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the bowls and the TV networks were twisting arms and slapping backs, each working hard to maintain toeholds in terra that was becoming increasingly less firma.
"Everybody is looking for an insurance policy against the uncertainties of the '90s," says Chuck Neinas, executive director of the CFA. He ticks off a laundry list of questions that athletic directors and coaches are confronting: Can they live with the cutbacks mandated by reform-minded presidents while still generating wins and income? Is it fair to expect football to support the entire athletic department, as it does at most universities? How do you deal with increasing governmental scrutiny of the sport? And—though it seems unlikely now—what if television revenue is cut back? "A lot of athletic directors are feeling financial stress, and the hope is that bigger will be better from a conference standpoint," says Kentucky's C.M. Newton.
Whatever takes place in the next few years, ultimately there may be far fewer schools playing at the highest level as the poorer, weaker schools finally decide that the cost of trying to keep up with the Michigans and Nebraskas is no longer worth it. A look at some of the more earthshaking developments and their possible repercussions:
•The game's hottest new player is the Big East Conference, which is finally adding football to its sports lineup. Although the conference has yet to play its first official football game, it is already partners with four other major conferences (SEC, SWC, Big Eight and ACC), four major bowls (Sugar, Orange, Cotton and Fiesta) and Notre Dame in a complex alliance that is designed to produce the most desirable bowl matchups as well as to maximize the likelihood of having a No. 1-versus-No. 2 game on New Year's Day.
For decades, the major independents in the East have been talking about forming some kind of a football conference. Penn State, for example, would have been interested in a Big East tie-in but became increasingly frustrated with the inability of the conference to embrace football. When Penn State and the Big Ten finally worked out their deal, it created much anxiety about scheduling and bowl affiliations at Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College, the only Big East schools that played Division I-A football. "Those three felt they might have to leave for another league to protect their football bases," says Mike Tranghese, the commissioner of the Big East.
Fortunately for Tranghese, the league's need to come up with a plan to hold on to the three football-playing members dovetailed nicely with Miami's desire to join a conference. Sam Jankovich, then Miami's athletic director, wanted a solid base on which to upgrade his men's basketball program. And he understood that Miami, which won three national football titles in the 1980s, would be better equipped to ride out a down cycle in that sport in the shelter of a major conference. Miami settled on the Big East over the established SEC and ACC.
"A conference affiliation is so necessary nowadays as far as TV and the bowls are concerned," says Miami assistant athletic director Larry Wahl. "Once we started doing the demographics, it was clear to us that the Big East was the best way for us to go. Other than the state of Florida, most of our students, alumni, donors and athletes come from the Northeast."
After landing Miami, Tranghese had no trouble persuading four other Eastern independents—Rutgers, Temple, West Virginia and Virginia Tech—to join the Big East as football members only. The conference will name its first champion at the end of this season, although its football members won't play a full seven-game league schedule until 1993.
With the Big East up and running, it will be interesting to see what happens to Penn State. Will State be able to sell the Big Ten to athletes in its traditional recruiting areas of the Northeast? If not, it could be in trouble, because Penn State doesn't figure to have much of an impact in Michigan, Illinois and the other Big Ten states. They must be having some second thoughts in State College about the wisdom of joining the Big Ten instead of waiting for the Big East.
•The folding of so many independents into the Big East, along with South Carolina's jump to the SEC and Florida State's to the ACC, means that independents have become the dinosaurs of college football. The only independent with any clout is Notre Dame. The best of the others—Louisville, Southern Mississippi, Tulane, Memphis State, Cincinnati and East Carolina—will see a further erosion of their identities and will have problems in scheduling and grabbing a share of the TV and bowl revenue.