To every thing there is a season, and long, steamy summer days clearly belong to baseball, but, without ignoring the crucial games just before the All Star break, I start to look to the fall and football, allowing myself to leaf through Street and Smith’s College Football Preview. Chucking neutrality aside, I check Michigan’s place in the pre-season guesswork, assuming that guide is likely to be accurate if Michigan is properly placed in the mix of teams contending for a national championship then turn to the wealth of other information in the hefty magazine including presentation of pre-season All Americans at each position and evaluations of each team’s depth and strength. Teams are ranked within their conference, the likely champions getting the most ink, the runners-up quarter page blurbs.
Conferences – aye, there’s the rub. Michigan, a founding member of the Big 10, a midwestern conference made up of flagship public universities (with the exception of Independent Northwestern), now plays Penn State, Maryland, and Rutgers. The conference can’t even call themselves the Big 10 anymore; the conference is now its own logo – BIG – which has been craftily shaded so the uninformed viewer can almost see a 10 hidden in the letters but will see two divisions of seven each season until sanity returns.
The flux in which we live has accustomed me to change, but I do treasure tradition and pageantry, pomp, circumstance, and rabid rivalry. Once upon a time, most rivalries took place within long-established athletic conferences, but college athletics, I am told, generates a considerable amount of income, roughly SEVEN BILLION dollars which colleges and universities count on to … to … well, to do whatever it is that they do when they are not playing games, but to get to SEVEN BILLION, conferences had to add championship games to have one last mega-event before the bowl games. The old familiar cozy conferences simply no longer brought in enough revenue, so abracadabra, tradition be damned and geography ignored.
A few of the conferences have not changed over the course of my lifetime as a fan; the Ivy League, for example, has been made up of the same eight distinguished colleges since 1954; almost all of the rest of the Division I conferences have changed both in composition and character. Some of the changes made sense up to a point; the Big Five Conference made up of Cal, USC, UCLA, Stanford, and Washington became the Big Six with the addition of Washington State and then the Pacific 8 with the addition of Oregon and Oregon State. As Arizona and Arizona State were poached from the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), the conference became the PAC 10. The thoughtful reader will have noted that Arizona does not (yet) enjoy a Pacific coastline, but at least is within driving distance of the ocean, whereas Colorado and Utah, the institutions recently departed from the Big 12 and the Mountain West Conference, are considerably less Pacific. Oh, and the Big 12 has ten teams. I’m just saying.
The slide began in the late ’90s, but by 2013, madness had truly set in, traditional rivalries were abandoned, and the familiar regional associations gave way to collections that seem jury-rigged Frankenconfrences; odd bits of one were attached to limbs of another. In retrospect, the dissolution of the Big 8 (Nebraska, Iowa State, Colorado, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) allowed the first of the new super-conferences to spawn imitators as its members joined with Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Texas Tech to create the Big 12, large enough that competition was divided into the Big 12 North and the Big 12 South, which mirrors the division of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) which was also split when the SEC picked off Arkansas which had defected from the conference depth-charged when the Texas colleges jumped into the Big 12 and South Carolina which had been homeless since ditching the ACC and the dominance of the North Carolina colleges.
But, wait! There’s more. The already over-large SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri, both of which deserted the Big 12, which made that conference shaky, especially as there were widespread rumors that Texas was about to bolt as well. Texas is the straw that stirs the drink in the region with access to television money the others do not see, just as Notre Dame with its own independent contract with NBC had the golden ticket, allowing them to play a schedule of their choosing in football while playing basketball in the Big East, that is, until the Golden Domers by virtue of what must have been a Papal encyclical, have remained independent in football, bound to play only five games within their new home, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), but regular members in all other sports … except hockey, which now joins the BIG.
Let’s remember that like the Big East, the ACC has been most notably a basketball conference. Why then, oh why, would Notre Dame join up, being as the clever will have noted, not on the Atlantic or even adjacent to states that are? Why would the ACC, having its own well established traditions welcome feisty and independent Notre Dame? Probably a union of like-minded academic institutions? We think not.
There is this. On any given Saturday, lacking the expensive football package from my cable provider, I am lucky if I can find more than one televised game from any single conference. Generally, the conference game I will see is some sort of match-up, a rivalry game or a game on which a title might depend. Of the twelve to fourteen teams in the conference, only two or four at most hit the screen. Maybe NBC could work in one more? Oh, that’s right! They have a contract with Notre Dame. Every Notre Dame game will have a national audience, and that suggests that Notre Dame and every team playing Notre Dame gets a share of national television bounty. So, unlovely ACC football gets a shot in the arm, a national audience, name recognition while recruiting outside the Atlantic region, and dough that is split up among the members of the conference. Yes, The North Carolina State Wolfpack is assured a national audience this fall as are Wake Forest’s Demon Deacons
Notre Dame gets to play most its traditional (and very telegenic) rivals (USC, Navy, Boston College, and Michigan State), games that offer little challenge at crucial resting points in the season (Temple, Miami University of Ohio, and Navy), and two games against teams (Georgia and Stanford) that are strong enough to boost Notre Dame’s chances of landing a playoff spot or juicy bowl game.
My beef isn’t with making money or trying to enhance the recruiting profile outside of the region; college sports are no longer the bastion of purely amateur athletics played for the beauty of the game. I am saddened, however, that Missouri no longer plays Nebraska, that Syracuse no longer battles Georgetown in basketball. This spring, Johns Hopkins joins the BIG in lacrosse, leaving its own traditional regional rivalries behind. Traditions seem to have died a quick death with the stroke of a pen.
OK, maybe I’m slightly miffed that Notre Dame didn’t elect to keep Michigan among its “must-have” independent games, or maybe I’m just a fussy curmudgeon. In any case, I’ve got two months, fourteen days, and eight hours to get over myself before the opening game against Florida, and my therapist is on speed dial.