Saturday, June 26, 2010

Forward to the Past: the SWC reborn?

A busy off-season of college football rumor-mongering and high-stakes brinkmanship appears to have ended a long way short of the "revolutionary" realignment that seemed all but a done deal until the 11th hour of the twelve-day Big XII missile crisis. A sport which often infuriates even its most loyal partisans by the almost imperceptible slowness with which it reforms itself off the field appeared to be on the very verge of a near instantaneous leap into the far reaches of an utterly unkown future. The men at the very center of the game made public comments based on the assumption that this shift would certainly take place. Bob Stoops referred to the proposed Pac-16 as "very exciting" and indulged in on-the-record comments about Oklahoma's prospective new conference rivalries. Deloss Dodd's, the ever-present University of Texas Athletics Director, gathered his school's coaches to inform them that the Big XII was dead and that the Longhorns would be heading west.

Then... nothing. Or almost nothing. The Mountain West switched Utah for Boise. The two most old-school conferences finally got a championship game by adding Nebraska to the Big Ten [12] and Colorado and Utah to the Pac. The Big XII [10] decided that championship games are for conferences that like making life harder for their champions and engaging in actual competition. Notre Dame breathed a sigh of relief. And that was all.

The question we are left with is whether the crazy off-season of 2010 ["expansion-palooza" as some are calling the affair] was a near total shakeup masterminded by a single outsider [former Tennis executive now Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott] or the next incremental step in a gradual, inexorable evolution toward the long expected "age of the super-conference." Due to the lightening pace at which rumor became event and event became non-event there is, I think, a general tendency to view this entire affair as an aberration. Many commentators are giving Larry Scott massive credit for "shaking up" the stolid, crusty Pac-10 and coming nearer than any thought possible to advancing college football more than one step forward in a single move.

Viewed in light of the conversations that surrounded the last major wave of realignment, however, this summer's events seem less unprecedented and revolutionary. Back in 1988 then SEC commissioner Roy Kramer spotted a potentially lucrative loophole in an NCAA by-law that implicitly did not apply to football. The rule states that conferences made up of twelve or more members may decide regular-season champions through championship games. Kramer accurately predicted that a one game playoff for a two-division, twelve-member SEC could generate massive revenue as well as the national prestige with pollsters that the league had historically lacked. The search was on for the best fitting two schools to incorporate.

Meanwhile, the once-mighty Southwest Conference was undergoing an existential crisis. No SWC school could boast a national championship since the 1970 Longhorns. During the ensuing two decades every member institution barring Rice, Baylor, and Arkansas had met with major NCAA sanctions on account of cheating scandals. A negative cycle of pay-for-play slush fund arms races and rival schools turning one another in to the authorities culminated with SMU receiving a one-year total suspension of its football program after the 1986 season. There was some symmetrical justice in this move as it had been ultra-rich oilman and SMU booster William Clements who first set the league on its slippery slope to financial depravity. By 1986 Clements occupied the Texas governor's mansion. The unrepentant Mustang-backer sensationalized a state whose tolerance for football motivated madness is remarkably high by instructing SMU to continue its slush fund payments to players even after existence of the practice had come to public light.

Cash incentives for players and recruits had been an open secret in the SWC for years. Gary Shaw claimed in his sensational 1972 expose on the Darrell Royal regime, Meat On The Hoof, that on his recruiting visit to SMU coaches had unabashedly asked him what kind of car he wanted to drive and promised that one would await him upon his enrollment in Dallas. Shaw claimed he had partly chosen Texas precisely because UT made no such offers. Coaches on Austin only told him, "If you come here you will have a chance to start." But after Royal retired in 1976 the 'Horns began to loose their overwhelming competitive advantage and UT also slid into the new culture of cheating. Between 1981 and 1984 SMU compiled a 41-5-1 record and earned three SWC championships with teams made up of blue-chip recruits who had gone to Dallas for money, stayed for money, and played for money. Conference rivals who cried foul were no more than pots screaming "black" at the kettle. By the time Roy Kramer began tentatively searching for new SEC members in 1989 the SWC had become a national laughing stock and byword for disgrace.

When Darrell Royal and Frank Broyles retired in 1976 they unknowingly took the Southwest Conference's former glory with them.

Frank Broyles, Royal's old sparring partner then Arkansas AD, chaffed under the guilt-by-association his beloved Razorbacks suffered. Broyles was also an astute business manager. He had already done more than anyone to move Arkansas toward the modern age of athletics finance, increasing alumni donations and exploring all manner of new revenue streams. As part of that process Broyles petitioned the SWC for permission to negotiate an independent distribution contract for University of Arkansas radio broadcasts. That request was denied.

Other league members did not want to allow the Razorbacks, who alone enjoyed the advantage of not sharing their state with any rival school, any revenue stream or media market it did not have to share. That short-sighted decision alienated power-brokers in Fayetteville and only heightened the mistrust that was rampant within the SWC ranks.

A former University of Texas women's athletic director Donna Lo-piano summed the situation up best, telling Sally Jenkins:

"[The SWC] is a bunch of institutions that care more about themselves than each other. It's a bad business conference."

Arkansas people began to cast hungry eyes over the SEC's notoriously passionate fan bases and the cache new visiting conference mates would bring. As one Arkansas athletics department official astutely foresaw:

"You don't have to worry about selling out the stadium—you have to worry about expanding it."

SWC average attendances fell consistently through the 1980s while those across the SEC only rose. And home gates were only the tip of the iceberg. By 1990 the complete overhaul of college football's relationship to television broadcasting was in full swing. The sixty-three member College Football Alliance had recently signed a $300 million five-year deal with ABC effective to begin in 1991. The promised riches that led to the landmark Oklahoma Board of Regents vs. NCAA
Supreme Court case in 1984 were finally beginning to materialize. If University of Arkansas officials felt alienated by the refusal of the SWC brethren to liberate their radio broadcasting rights, they experienced even greater emotions when considering the possible resources conference TV deals might command in the brave new world of post-NCAA monopoly contract negotiations. The 1990s promised to be an very uncertain decade for collegiate football, and athletics directors worked tirelessly to figure out the best options for their institutions.

Many factors remained uncertain, but several issues could not have been clearer. Firstly, the money collegiate football could command in its immediate future promised to dwarf past revenue. Secondly, through conference-based contracts individual schools could hope to gain a larger slice of the pie than they had under the old NCAA contracts. Consequently, the factors that had created the long-established conference alignments that had defined the game during the twentieth century would necessarily be superseded by new considerations. If Arkansas bolted, the SWC would not only be a discredited, scandal-ridden hive of mutual distrust and institutionalized backbiting, it would also be a single-state league with little appeal to national broadcasters.

While the SEC looked to expand, add a championship game, and promised to command big bucks on the open market, the SWC became a decreasingly appealing asset. Officials at Texas and Texas A&M did everything they could increase their market share in the ailing conference. In 1992, the first year Arkansas played in the SEC, the SWC introduced new revenue sharing arrangements. The league scrapped its ancient 50-50 division of gate revenues between home and away teams. Member institutions playing in televised non-conference games were to retain 80% of the revenue generate rather than the previous 50%. And schools participating in post-season play were to keep the first $500,000 before sharing the remainder with the league as opposed to the previous $300,000. As the SWC cash-cow grew sicker the Longhorns and Aggies milked it harder and kept a greater share. In a statement that rings with starling familiarity to football fans in 2010 DeLoss Dodds, whose tenure as AD in Austin began back in 1981, brazenly told a reporter:

"The world is going to dictate where Texas goes. The marketplace will dictate it."

The very portrait of dysfunction.

The openness with which UT officials implicitly acknowledged that the school was considering following Arkansas out of the SWC created panic in the state legislature. David Silbey, a State Representative and Baylor alum, threatened that if the Longhorns and Aggies left the SWC without his Bears:

"The next time they want to talk about appropriations for new physics professors, they'll have to come through me."

Such threats will surface every time conferences realign. Schools that can command the highest market share will go looking for more, and those that cannot will threaten, rant, claw, beg, and sell their dignity cheap to avoid the ultimate uncertainty of temporary homelessness.

Market driven conference realignment in the early 1990s also created headaches for independents. As future television revenues seemed predestined to follow the most attractive and prestigious conference lineups, the east coast's host of historic independents looked for safe harbors in which to anchor their football programs. The Big East Conference, formed primarily for basketball in 1979, began conference play in football in 1991 to provide a more stable future for nervous independents such as Miami, Boston College, Syracuse, West Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Rutgers. When Penn State began Big Ten play in 1993 Notre Dame stood alone as the last great independent. Within three short seasons a landscape that had once been filled with independents who had every hope of playing in major bowls and winning national titles [as the Hurricanes, Nittany Lions, and Fighting Irish often did] was all but devoid of such schools.

Only Notre Dame's own lucrative mystique allowed the Great White Whale of conference realignment to hold out. Even then, expectations of the Irish's impending move to the Big Ten ran wild. The possibility of that move created a nervous apprehension in Big East country then as it still does today. One Big East AD commented to a reporter:

"Big Ten officials have declared a moratorium [of four years] on expansion, but who knows if they'll stick to it, once they see the writing on the wall?"

Then as today the Big Ten had its "timetable" and appeared to hold more cards than other conferences. But the bottom line was and always will be the market. Money might make the Big Ten move at any moment in any one of a number of directions. After that everyone else would have to move as well. Of course, Notre Dame didn't want to move. NBC's relationship with ND football began in February of 1990 and has funded Irish resilience at premium rates of return ever since. That precious money, the lifeline keeping Rockne's legacy of lone defiance against the simultaneously loved and hated Big Ten alive, allowed ND athletics director Dick Rosenthal to state emphatically:

"We've been an independent for 148 years. We are independent by desire."

Twenty years on that same money allowed current Notre Dame AD Jim Swarbrick to state that his school's "strong preference" remains independence [a state of being sought over every alternative save Armageddon].

The potential wild card in the whole process both in the early 90s, as today, was post-season revenue. Power players want to figure out the way to maximize bowl revenue while minimizing the number of mouths that revenue feeds and the list of schools that enjoy the opportunity of winning a national championship. Within two seasons of Arkansas' departure from the crumbling SWC the members of the College Football Association had negotiated a post-season structure known as the Bowl Coalition, which pitted the two highest ranked member teams in a championship bowl. This embryonic system grew into the current BCS with the inclusion of the Rose Bowl conferences in 1998. Bowls wanted the most lucrative matchups. Conferences wanted guaranteed bowl berths to add to their new TV contracts. No one except the fans wanted the unpredictable chaos of a playoff, which might generate more money but would also expose bigger fish to post-season competition and claims to revenue shares from upstart minnows.

Orange Bowl president Arthur Hertz stated to Sports Illustrated:

"I'm told by our legal people that if the Big Eight is not constituted the same as it was when we signed the contract [in 1988, with NBC, for six years], then we have the right to reevaluate."

In other words, conference realignment offered the opportunity for renegotiated post-season contracts that could mirror the game changing value of new regular season conference contracts. In such a market the parochial appeal of smaller conferences like the Big Eight and SWC held limited appeal. Frank Broyles saw the writing on the wall and even before Arkansas had officially accepted an invitation from the SEC publicly predicted:

"The '90s are predicted to be moving in the direction of three super-conferences, each with a major network."

Dodds sensed the future direction of college football with equal clarity. Bigger conferences housing multiple heavyweights and boasting blockbusting championship games were the wave of the future. The old SWC was not.

Viewed in light of the landscape as it stood in 1990, the summer of 2010 seems less revolutionary and more a case of 'same song, different verse.' In that same light the final outcome of the Big XII missile crisis seems even more surprising. It also would appear to be utterly unsustainable. The same factors which made the old SWC unstable and undesirable after the departure of Arkansas makes the current Big XII [10] a necessarily impermanent solution. The show may have been temporarily saved at the eleventh hour by money Dan Beebe raised from sources presently known only unto God and a select few other similarly tight-lipped individuals, but in the grand scheme simple market economics must dictate that the patch job will not last. Who in their right mind beyond the Texas-Southwest region will tune in on a weekly basis come fall Saturdays to witness the ritual ass whippings Texas and OU will most assuredly dole out to the grateful likes of Kansas, Iowa State, and Baylor?

Tom Osborne in 2010. Not so keen on Texas.

In 1990 the University of Arkansas left the old SWC because the league had decayed to a shell of its former self. A once-proud conference [home to the state of Texas' first national championship team and first Heisman winner -- neither of which hailed from Austin] had become an irrelevant, parochial group of infighting, backbiting brethren whose incessant scandals reflected poorly on the Hogs and had even begun to cost their athletics programs precious revenue rather than provide it. Association with the dysfunctional Southwest Conference family had, quite simply, become a liability where once it had been an asset.

In June of 2010 the University of Nebraska fled the company of its century-long conference mates for the safe refuge of Big Ten Country. For fifteen years Huskers have indignantly felt the offensive implications of the expanded Big XII's revenue sharing arrangement [which reflects more nearly the post-1992 SWC than the old Big Eight], and the location of the conference headquarters in Dallas. The extra second which miraculously appeared on the clock at the end of the 2010 conference championship game [much to Tom Osborne's chagrin] was, perhaps, the final straw. In pastures new Big Red can be one of twelve equally heard voices at the table rather than one ten utterly irrelevant ones.

Texas politicians and the complete dependence of OU football on its annual date at the state fair in Dallas may be able to keep the rump of the Big XII together for a while, but neither can force the football pedigree rich flagship institutions of other states to suffer bad company indefinitely. Texas politics could not keep Arkansas in the fold back in 1990 when common sense and market economics made the SEC an attractive prospect. Nor could they keep Big Red in the fold when the stable, equitable, lucrative, and cordial Big Ten came calling twenty years later. They, Dan Beebe, nor any other force save God himself will not prevent the Big XII [10] from crashing in a blaze of unmarketable ignominy sooner or later.

Questions have been raised as to the new name for the now numerically challenged Big XII. Presuming the obvious title of "Longhorn Athletic Conference" will not be adopted for fear of depriving Adam his fig leaf, there really is only one sensible choice:

The Southwest Conference.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Abandonned rivalries: Big Red and the Six Dwarves

I haven't posted in several weeks because I've been rather busy, but also because my internet time has been entirely consumed by my morbid fascination with the current conference realignment process. At the time of writing Nebraska is officially in the Big Ten and Colorado officially in the Pac Numeral. Texas A&M is busily flirting with the SEC and imagining a future as a football school of national import in its own right. Texas is apparently considering every single option to figure which one means the most money with the least accountability and easiest schedule.

Anything could happen. But this blog is not about the present or future of college football. All we know about the relation of the current situation to the game's past at this moment is that Nebraska's century-long relationship with the Six Dwarves, the old Big Eight's perennial whipping boys, is over.

I wrote recently about the travesty of downgrading the OU-Nebraska rivalry when the Big XII was formed back in 1995. A few months ago that decision [taken largely with a total lack of courage and foresight by now-discredited people at OU such as then head coach Gary Gibbs] was just a big shame. Now it looks like it might prove an error so costly that it sowed the seeds of the Big XII's demise even at the very moment of its inception. For decades OU and Nebraska played every Thanksgiving Friday in the national spotlight before an audience of millions of spell-bound football fans who couldn't believe the hard-hitting, ground eating rushing attacks these Great Plains powers perennially produced. The winner of that game almost always won the conference. Fairly often they would win a national title, too. At very least they would likely earn a trip to Miami at New Year. The OU-Nebraska game mattered. A lot.

It mattered so much that without it people in Lincoln began to feel alienated in and by their own conference. As Matt Hinton has recently been reminding people, the Big Eight absorbed half the Southwest Conference -- not viceversa. Texas and Co. were the refugees from a discredited, crumbling wreck of a league. The Big Eight was a nationally relevant conference with a strong brand that at the time rested on the edifice of Big Red's unstoppable Triple-Option. In the fifteen years since that time the OU-Nebraska game, stripped of its prime time billing on Thanksgiving weekend, has become secondary in national import to the Red River Shootout. OU-Texas is now the League's annual feature presentation. Nebraska has no great rival and as a consequence has suffered a loss of relevance. The contrived NU-Colorado rivalry has, to say the least, lacked even a fraction of the mystique that saturated the great Oklahoma-Nebraska games of yore.

The silver lining of Nebraska's move to the Big Ten will hopefully be the restoration of the OU series to an annual event, preferably on Thanksgiving. OU played Texas every year out of conference for more than a century before the formation of the Big XII. It would be no different now to add NU to the non-conference slate. This move would be a big gain for college football in general and Nebraskans in particular.

Far less likely to survive the shake-up in any form are Big Red's six lesser 'rivalries' with the soup and potatoes of their old Big Eight menu, the Six Dwarfs.

NU first met Kansas and Missouri on the gridiron in 1892, only the third year of Big Red football. Iowa State joined the slate in 1896. Colorado followed in 1898. Nebraska first joined a conference when the Missouri Valley was formed in 1907. For the first two-decades of its existence the conference grew steadily into a large and unwieldy group that never played a round-robin slate in football. Kansas State first played NU in 1911 and joined the MVC two years later. Oklahoma A&M joined the league in 1925 but never played Nebraska in the three seasons before the league split in 1928. The bigger state schools split from their smaller bedfellows to form a more cohesive football conference in 1928. The new Big Six then became the Big Seven with the addition of Colorado in 1947, then the Big Eight with Oklahoma State in 1958.

Since their first meetings Nebraska has only not played Kansas in 1904 and 1905. Iowa State only fails to appear on the schedule in the years 1902-04, 1920 and 1925. Kansas State is missing in only 1917-19 and 1920-21. Mizzou disappears from 1903 to 1910 and again from 1913-17 and 1920-22 but appears every year thereafter. The Colorado series skipped 1906 and 1908-11 before a long break between 1920 and 1948. Oklahoma State never played Nebraska at all until 1960, but the two then met every year until 1995 and every second year since.

Those six series, especially against KU, constitute some of the longest standing rivalries in college football. They are also some of the most lopsided. Versus Kansas Big Red is a whopping 90-23-3. Mizzou has fared little better at 64-36-3. Kansas State's 77-15-2 constitutes the second-worst effort percentage-wise, while Iowa State owns the longest winless streaks. En route to the ugly end of an 85-17-2 head-to-head record the Cyclones have failed to beat Nebraska for over a decade in five separate stretches and beat them only once between 1978 and 2001. Against Colorado Big Red is 48-18-2, and against Oklahoma State an overwhelming 36-5-1.

For a century Nebraska football literally ran roughshod over these opponents, riding them to forty-six bowl invitations, forty-seven conference championships, and five national titles. When Nebraska played other big boys out of conference the Huskers rarely disappointed and won more often than not. Nebraska also owns a very respectable 38-44-3 record against Oklahoma -- the Big Eight's other juggernaut. There is no doubt that Nebraska football is no mirage created by inflated records racked up against weaklings and only weaklings. Whether under Dana X. Bible, in Bob Devaney's Power-I, or Tom Osborne's Triple Option, Nebraska has never feared clashing heads with fellow heavy weights. But as is the case with all great collegiate programs, the foundation upon which those great championship bouts versus fellow giants rests is a consistently solid conference record against a host of obliging lesser-lights.

Without the Six Dwarfs the Big Eight's big two would unquestionably have amounted to a less perennial brand of large. Those rivalries were rarely interesting, almost never commanded a national TV audience, and will be mourned by no one outside of Big Eight country. But make no mistake; while moving to the Big Ten will likely be a good decision for Nebraska, the step will forever change the face of Big Red football.

So long, friends. And thanks for all the wins.