Tuesday, April 20, 2010

amoeba athletic conference

The Big Ten expansion rumblings are at a fever pitch thanks to this weekend's Chicago Tribune article that made it sound like a 14- or 16-team Big Ten is just about a given. Now there's an Eyjafjallajökullian cloud hanging over the NCAA landscape that threatens a roughly similar disruption of Life As We Know It in college sports. Those of you who like traditional matchups and traditional conferences might well be stuck at the airport forever, trying to get back to a London that no longer exists as you remember it.

Of course, I don't think even the Big Ten brass knows how it's going to play out, let alone the Tribune or any of the other media wonks that Know So Much about what the Big Ten wants. If their only goal was to fuck with everyone's minds a little bit, saying "we're expanding" and then throwing out these hints to random media entities and then being very boring and pilfering Pitt - or even not expanding at all - is a great way to do it. Because now you've got everyone, not least of all the occasionally panicky and paranoid UVA fanbase, wondering how their school will be affected. So I might as well take a crack and see what indeed could happen to UVA in the event the Big Ten goes down this or that road less traveled on their expansion path.

I don't know how comprehensive this list of expansion possibilities is, because people's imaginations are running insanely rampant when it comes to superconference talk, but here goes.

If the Big Ten only picks up one team, then the superconference hurricane basically fizzles out:

- If they get Notre Dame or another Big East team, the Big East just adds Memphis or ECU, the dominoes fall, and life goes on. The Big East loyalty clause, in which a departing team must fork over $5 million and wait more than two years to leave, throws a little bit of a monkey wrench into this scenario, but it also gives the other conferences plenty of time to contingency-plan.

- If they get a Big 12 team, the Big 12 adds TCU, the dominoes fall, and life goes on. It's conceivable, I suppose, that Arkansas tries to get back to its old SWC brethren and the Big 12 gets the Razorbacks instead. Conceivable, but stupid. The SEC gets too much money from that shiny ESPN contract and the Big 12 is a relative wasteland when it comes to revenue. In the galactically unlikely event that this happens, the SEC might just look to poach the ACC and then all bets are off when we lose FSU or Miami or Clemson. But Arkansas isn't that dumb.

So far we have yet to see any effect on UVA or the ACC. Here's where it gets more interesting. What if the Big Ten does decide to go all-out?

- Suppose the Big Ten gets a combination of Big East and Big 12 schools.

This might not actually be too crazy, because both the Big 12 and Big East compensation scenarios are more or less independent of each other. Both conferences can raid the lower tier conferences and the various dominoes can fall and I'd be willing to bet the ACC remains untouched. The Big East could still hang on tight as a football conference if it had to add both Memphis and ECU. It's still less predictable overall, but here's why it's probably not so likely: I don't imagine the Big Ten wants to add a Big 12 team in 2010/2011 and then finish up with the Big East two years after that. That seems troublesome and too likely to develop complications over the years and fall apart. So if the Big Ten goes to 14 or 16 teams, this seems more likely:

- The Big Ten pulls an ACC and says All Your Big East Team Are Belong To Us.

This involves taking at least three Big East teams. Maybe they expand to 14 with all Big Easters, maybe they expand to 16 and get Notre Dame and Missouri too, or maybe they even snarf up all of five teams out of the Big East. Point is, the Big East is no longer a viable football conference. The teams involved would probably be some combination of Syracuse, Pitt, Rutgers, and UConn.

This could happen despite the loyalty clause, too. Couple ways this could happen. Remember that the Big East includes seven members that don't play I-A football. If three, or especially five, Big East teams wanted to leave, all they'd have to do is vote as a bloc to dispense with the clause. And (here's where my conjecture begins) the seven non-football members, and Notre Dame might just jump aboard too, could very easily agree and slam the door on the departing members' asses on the way out. They don't need Pitt and Rutgers to play basketball with. They'd just dissolve the football portion, maybe invite Temple back, and presto. No more Big East football. They'd miss marquee members Cuse and UConn, but Georgetown and Villanova might also like the spotlight to themselves, thank you.

Could the Big East try and muddle along as a football conference if three members departed? Totally unknown. Schools like Cincy and West Virginia would want to try and make it work because (as I'll get to later) the SEC likely won't want them, and neither will the ACC. But the Georgetowns and Villanovas aren't going to want to have, say, Marshall and ECU gumming up their basketball product. They're poor replacements for Pitt and Syracuse in all aspects. If five teams left for the Big Ten, it's over, and Cincy can try and join the Mountain West or something. Speaking of which, guess who's going to want a BCS berth no matter how many Big East teams get pilfered? See why the Big East could have a mess on its hands?

Plus. There's the ACC to consider. With the Big Ten going to 14, the ACC might pounce on the chance to take a team or two that got left behind - this is why this scenario could finish the Big East no matter what. It depends on who's available, but the ACC would sure love to have Syracuse, and might happily grab Rutgers and/or UConn if they're around. Just to keep up with the Jones's, mind you. Mike London would go WOO and Tony Bennett would go DAMMIT, because any ACC expansion that involves Big Ten leftovers from the tattered Big East is likely to water down the football again. That's why I say "might pounce" instead of "definitely would go for it." They're not taking West Virginia, Cincy, or South Florida unless the brass feels a lot of pressure to keep up with this whole superconference thing.

But what if the Big Ten raids the ACC instead?

This is the "uh-oh" scenario. It's also one of the least likely. Here's why:

- For the ACC to become an option, the Big Ten would have to decide that geography is not important. And once they did that, there are so many other options out there, starting with Texas.

- No one team is going to leave the ACC on its own. Boston College would be the most likely candidate, but they just made a jump and I can't see them making another one so soon. The Big Ten isn't gonna want FSU, Clemson, VT, or NC State - the ACC's academic anchors. Wake isn't going to leave its Tobacco Road buddies. Maryland would lose the one thing they have that can recruit basketball players: the ACC. Duke and UNC are the ACC, at least in Duke and UNC's mind, and the schools that nearly blocked ACC expansion because it would water down basketball aren't gonna go somewhere else. At least not on their own.

- And guess what, UVA isn't going by itself either. It would destroy our athletics as we know it. Football would be destroyed by having to compete in the cold weather against Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin, etc. Basketball would be destroyed by no longer being able to sell the ACC. Baseball would be destroyed by playing in an astronomically weaker conference. Lacrosse might survive as an independent, but you still lose the ACC cachet. Soccer might be OK, but the Big Ten still isn't anywhere near as strong a soccer conference, Indiana notwithstanding. There isn't a single sport that would benefit from the move. Some might maintain the status quo, but nobody would benefit. We'd be Vanderbilt for all time: occasionally able to field a competitive basketball team, but otherwise totally irrelevant.

But what if a whole bunch of ACC teams decide to join up with the Big Ten?

Well, we're getting into even murkier territory here. What if the Big Ten invited the three northernmost ACC teams (BC, Maryland, and UVA) to share in that sweet sweet Big Ten Network moolah? Or what if they invited Duke, UNC, and anybody? This is the sort of thing that has people all worked up. But I just don't see it happening.

1, Duke and UNC are kings of the ACC, and the ACC is as much a part of their bloodlines as anything else they've got going for them. Would they join what they see as a football conference? Would they give up royalty status in the ACC for minor nobility in the Big Ten? Even if the presidents and ADs wanted to, would their boosters?

2, if they don't go, the only plausible scenario where the ACC gets raided is then some combination of BC, Maryland, UVA, Miami, or GT - although three of those aren't AAU members, which is a particular point of pride for Big Ten presidents. Like I said, Wake ain't leaving Tobacco Road behind. BC, Miami, and GT aren't in the AAU, which is something of a membership hurdle although not insurmountable.

If push really comes to shove, and UVA is invited along with other ACC schools to the Big Ten, the dilemma will be whether to forsake traditional rivalries and a better competition atmosphere, or stay behind in a suddenly moribund ACC that has precious little hope of pulling off another expansion miracle. In my opinion? This is about as likely as that thing about Arkansas leaving the SEC.

Much more likely is the demise of the Big East as a football power. If it gets raided big-time, then the superconference era is on, and yes, the ACC as you know it is liable to change in a big way as the arms race escalates.

But there's one variable that has people unnecessarily sweating: the SEC. What if they too decide to expand? The ACC has all the logical choices: Florida State, Clemson, VT, Miami, GT, right?

Please. Get real. The SEC isn't going to expand. If this is the dawn of the era of the superconference, the SEC doesn't care: they think they already are one. Hell, they're already earning money like one. The Big Ten is expanding to expand the BTN footprint. The SEC has ESPN - they're already in 100% of America's households. They can't renegotiate the contract any time soon, and they wouldn't want to. They already play a championship game. 99% of new member possibilities would just be another mouth to feed, especially the way FSU and Miami have been playing football lately. The only school that could conceivably bring in more money overall to the SEC than it would take back isn't in the ACC: Texas.

So the only way UVA is in a tight spot is if the Big Ten comes knocking on the ACC's door for expansion - unlikely. And least likely of all, but something that the most paranoid of fans are fearing? That UVA would be left out in the cold entirely, relegated to the Ivy League or Conference USA or some other non-BCS entity. Not with our academics, and not with Teresa Sullivan's connections at the big-big-big-time schools like Texas and Michigan. Remember who makes these decisions. Not ADs; presidents. And what school president would turn down the chance to associate with UVA. There may be a storm coming, but Thomas Jefferson is our lifeboat, and the worst that'll happen is that a couple extra schools wash up onto the Atlantic Coast shores. Things will change, and believe me I'm a traditionalist and not a big fan of change, but I know what'll never happen: irrelevancy for UVA.

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