Conference thoughts

College football conferences are infuriating.  They’re inconsistent, and they only make a lot of sense if you look at them from a single point of view.  And that point of view is money.  Money, naturally, makes the world go around.  Or at least it makes the United States go around while the world is going around anyway.

In the NCAA, there are 130 schools who have a Division 1 football team.  Actually, that’s not even accurate.  There are actually 255 schools who have a Division 1 football team.  But Division 1 isn’t one division.  It’s two.  There is Division 1-FBS, and there is Division 1-FCS.  FBS means the Football Bowl Subdivision, while FCS means the Football Championship Subdivision.  The more superior of the two subdivisions, by which I mean the one that makes by far the most money, is the FBS.  Therefore, Division 1-FBS should be called Division 1, and Division 1-FCS should be called Division 2.  There would be nothing wrong with this, as all of the schools in Division 1-FCS know very well that they’re second best.  If we changed the name of Division 1-FBS to Division 1 and Division 1-FCS to Division 2, we could then very easily change the name of Division 2 to Division 3 and Division 3 to Division 4.  And if we could get some cooperation, we could go beyond the NCAA to the NAIA, which is the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and is made up of even smaller schools with even smaller athletic budgets, and change NAIA Division 1 to Division 5 and NAIA Division 2 to Division 6.  We could even go to the NJCAA, which is the National Junior College Athletic Association and made up of two-year colleges, and change its name to Division 7.  See how neatly that lines up?  Divisions 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7.  One organization, seven divisions.

Getting back to Division 1-FBS, the top division money-wise, it has 130 schools.  Of those 130 schools, 124 are divided into ten conferences, and there are six teams that compete independently.  All my life I have thought it would be great if the ten conferences were divided up purely geographically.  But they’re not.  They’re divided partially by geography and partially by money.

There was a time when conferences were more geographically divided.  That’s why so many of them have geographic names.  The Pac 12, or Pacific 12 Conference, started out as the Pacific 8 Conference.  It had eight teams, and all eight were large schools located in continental states that border the Pacific Ocean.  There were two in Washington, two in Oregon and four in California.  Two were in northern California, and two were in southern California.  But money eventually stepped in, and the Pac 8 became the Pac 10 with the addition of two schools in Arizona, which is in the west but does not border the Pacific Ocean.  Then, decades later, the Pac 10 became the Pac 12 with the addition of one school in Utah and one in Colorado.  Again, both states are in the western United States, but neither one borders the Pacific.  Hawaii and Alaska border the Pacific, but none of their schools have ever been invited into the Pac 8, 10 or 12.

Once upon a time there was a conference called the Southwest Conference, but it doesn’t exist anymore.  It was a great conference, I thought, but most of the schools in it kept getting caught breaking NCAA recruiting rules.  That’s why it eventually went belly up.  But when it existed, it had nine schools, and eight of them were in the state of Texas.  There was Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Texas Christian, Southern Methodist, Baylor, Houston and Rice, plus the University of Arkansas.  As I said, I thought it was one of the best conferences, but even it irked me to a degree, since it included every Division 1 school in Texas except one:  Texas-El Paso.  I kept expecting the powers that be to drop Arkansas in favor of Texas-El Paso, but they never did.

The Southeast Conference was great, because it included only colleges from the southeastern United States.  The Atlantic Coast Conference only had schools from states bordering the Atlantic Ocean.  And the Big East had only schools located in the northeastern United States and should probably have been called the Northeast Conference.

Then there were the Big 10 and Big 12 conferences.  The Big 10 started out as the Western Conference, back when people thought that if you started at the Atlantic Ocean and traveled west, the actual west started in Ohio.  That’s why Ohio is still referred to as the midwest, when the actual center of the continental United States is in Kansas, which is considerably farther west than Ohio.  Anyway, the Western Conference consisted of Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue, Michigan, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Northwestern and the University of Chicago.  There was a time when the University of Chicago had a pretty good football program.  In fact, the very first Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger, played at the University of Chicago.  But in time, Chicago devalued its sports programs, and because of money, they were dropped by the conference in favor of Michigan State, and the name of the conference was changed to the Big 10.  For years, the Big 10 considered the possibility of expansion.  But they didn’t.  The two most likely candidates for Big 10 membership were Notre Dame, which has tremendous sports programs, nationwide following, and is located in the state of Indiana, just like the University of Indiana and Purdue, and Penn State, which has tremendous sports programs and is located in Pennsylvania, which is adjacent to Ohio.

One day, out of the blue, the Big 10 Conference did expand.  They welcomed Penn State into the fold.  But they didn’t change their name to the Big 11.  Because of tradition, or possibly printing costs, they kept the name at Big 10, leading to speculation that one day they would decide to dump one of the schools.  But they didn’t.  Eventually, they expanded to include the University of Nebraska, which is in a state adjacent to Iowa.  But they didn’t change their name to the Big 12, because by that time the Big 8 had expanded to 12 teams, and they got the name first.  Interestingly, Nebraska moved from the Big 12 to the Big 10, changing the number of teams in both conferences.  Then, a few years after adding Nebraska, the Big 10 added Maryland, which borders Pennsylvania, and Rutgers, which is in New Jersey and also borders Pennsylvania.  The name Big 14 was available, but again the conference decided to retain the name Big 10.

The Big 8 was a conference located in the Great Plains, which also may have been a better name for it.  It consisted of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, Iowa State, Nebraska and Colorado.  Then the Southwest Conference broke up, and four of its nine teams moved to the Big 8, including Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Baylor.  That’s when the Big 8 became the Big 12.  But eventually, Texas A&M, which used to be in the Southwest Conference, decided to move to the Southeast Conference.  Then Missouri did that, too.  Then Nebraska became the 12th team in the Big 10 and Colorado became the 12th team in the Pac 12, and West Virginia moved from the Big East to the Big 12.  Eventually, Texas Christian also joined the Big 12, moving from Conference USA, which was well named because it had teams nearly everywhere, and nearly all in large markets with great airports.  So if you’re keeping score, the Big 12 has ten teams and the Big 10 has 14.  And all of that is fine.

The conference alignments that make me mad are those beyond the big five conferences (yes, both the Big 10 and Big 12 are part of the big five) of the Southeast, Big 12, Atlantic Coast, Big 10 and Pac 12.  Those conferences are the Mountain West, Conference USA, the American Athletic Conference (which used to be the Big East) the Sun Belt and the Mid-America Conference.  Geographically the American Athletic Conference has teams from Florida to Connecticut and from the east coast to Texas and Oklahoma, Conference USA is now almost exclusively (with the exception of Kentucky) located in states that used to be part of the Confederacy, the Sun Belt is exclusively teams in former Conferederate states, the Mid-America Conference is entirely in states adjacent to the Great Lakes, and the Mountain West stretches from Hawaii to New Mexico.  Its most northern member is Boise State.

Those alignments make me mad because there’s a money line separating the big five from the other five.  And it’s not just money.  It’s also competition.  The Southeast Conference and its ilk have exclusive rights to play in the bowl games with the biggest payouts, with one single exception every year, and three times that exception has been Boise State.  It’s very much as if Division 1-FBS is actually divided into Division 1-FBS-A and Division 1-FBS-B.  But that’s not official.  It’s obvious, but not official.  Once in awhile a team moves from the lower echelon to the higher, but usually they don’t.  In my dreams, all Division 1 teams, regardless of their stadium sizes and athletic department budgets, would be divided purely geographically.  I don’t know exactly where all the dividing lines would be, but all of the Division 1-FBS California teams would be in the same conference, including California, Stanford, UCLA, Southern California, Fresno State, San Jose State and San Diego State.  Hawaii would probably be in that conference, too.  All of the teams from Florida would be in the same conference, including Florida, Florida State, Miami, Central Florida, Southern Florida, Florida International and Florida Atlantic.  And every Texas team would probably be in one conference, including Houston, Southern Methodist, Texas, Texas Christian, Texas Tech, North Texas, Texas-San Antonio, Texas-El Paso, Rice, Texas A&M and Texas State.

A few years ago, before the Pac 10 expanded to become the Pac 12, I thought it would be great if the Mountain West Conference merged with the Western Athletic Conference (which has now dropped football) and some independents to form a linear, 16-team conference consisting entirely of teams from the western United States (west of Texas), excluding only those schools already maintaining membership in the Pac 10 or Big 12.  That lineup would have included Hawaii, San Diego State, Fresno State, San Jose State, Nevada, Nevada-Las Vegas, Boise State and Idaho in the western part of the conference and Utah, Utah State, Brigham Young, Wyoming, Colorado State, Air Force, New Mexico and New Mexico State in the eastern part.  Instead, Hawaii, San Diego State, Fresno State, San Jose State, Nevada, Nevada-Las Vegas, Boise State, Utah State, Wyoming, Colorado State, Air Force and New Mexico put together a 12-team Mountain West (which still isn’t bad), Utah joined the Pac 12, BYU and New Mexico State went independent and Idaho dropped to Division 1-FCS.  Why?  All sorts of reasons, all having to do with money.

I don’t limit this kind of thinking to just college football.  There are more than 300 Division 1 college basketball programs, and I’d love to see them divided geographically.  And despite my love of tradition in Major League Baseball, it wouldn’t pain me at all if the National League and American League ceased to exist in favor of a Western Conference and Eastern Conference.  I’ve laid it out on a map, and the longitudinal dividing line between the two conferences would be between Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs in the west, and Guaranteed Rate Field, home of the Chicago White Sox in the east.  The NBA and NHL are aligned using longitude, but the NFL isn’t.  The NFL did realign its divisions a few years ago to at least make the conferences individually geographically sound, but in order to keep one rivalry alive, they decided the National Conference east division should be the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys.

As I said, the current Mountain West Conference isn’t too bad.  It’s not one of the big five money conferences, which would be fun, but it does have 12 schools, which is the NCAA’s minimum requirement for a conference to hold a special championship game the weekend after the regular season has ended.  That’s why Boise State gets to host one more game tonight against Fresno State.  I’m for that, because it benefits me personally.  I don’t think that makes me necessarily narcissistic, egocentric, self-concerned or even utilitarian, but it probably does.

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