In college football, East was East and West was West, until the latest — and biggest — tectonic shift among the 11 Football Bowl Series conferences. Starting next year, San Diego State will play in the Big East. Syracuse and Pittsburgh, which are nowhere near the Atlantic Coast, will join the Atlantic Coast Conference. Colorado and Utah, which know about surf chiefly by rumor, now belong to the Pacific 12.
In the last two years, more than 30 colleges have switched football conferences, with no league unaffected. The Western Athletic Conference, which has been around for half a century, will drop the sport next year after a mass exodus.
“Once the domino effect starts, it’s hard to stop it,” observed Big East commissioner Mike Aresco, whose conference has lost three football members while adding eight. “It causes a chain reaction and it moves all the way down the line.”
Notre Dame was the most recent domino, announcing it was leaving the Big East for the ACC, where the football team will be eligible for that conference’s bowl structure while essentially going its own way.
“We fully plan to maintain football independence,” said athletic director Jack Swarbrick. “I don’t see that changing. But if it ever did, the ACC is our home.”
Collegiate pigskin homes have become as movable as RVs during the past dozen years, prompted by lucrative TV contracts and conferences enlarging to add championship games. Texas Christian, which belonged to the Southwest Conference for more than seven decades, is now in its sixth league since 1995, having passed through the WAC, Conference USA, Mountain West and Big East en route to the Big 12, which it joined this year.
Not that such geological upheavals are new. The SWC and Big 8 started play as the Big 12 in 1996, sending outcasts TCU, Southern Methodist, and Rice to the WAC and Houston to Conference USA. Three years later, the Mountain West absorbed eight WAC members. The Big East lost Boston College, Miami, and Virginia Tech to the ACC, then took Cincinnati, Louisville, and South Florida from Conference USA.
“What happens above creates trickle-down,” said Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson, who left the WAC earlier this year.
For most conferences, that has meant a constant cycle of finding new members to replace former ones while trying to keep present ones in the fold.
“I’m trying to convince the existing membership of the Sun Belt that our future has upside potential,” said Benson, whose conference has added Georgia State and Texas State to replace Florida International and North Texas.
Conference USA, which lost another four schools to the Big East, has added six.
Bigger is stabler
The traditional power conferences, though, essentially have remained intact.
The Southeastern Conference hasn’t lost a member since Tulane left in 1966.
The Big Ten, which hasn’t had a departure since Chicago pulled out in 1946, has eight members who have been there since the 19th century.
California, Stanford, USC, UCLA, and Washington have been part of the same group since 1928, while seven members of the ACC — Clemson, Duke, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, North Carolina State, and Wake Forest — have been in place since 1953.
All of them not only have survived, but grown. The Big Ten now is 12 with the addition of Penn State and Nebraska. The SEC added Missouri and Texas A&M, while the Pac 10 picked up Utah and Colorado and the ACC welcomed Pitt, Syracuse, and Notre Dame.
“They’re creating strength in numbers and value in numbers,” said Benson.
The exception is the Big 12, which is down to 10 even after adding West Virginia and TCU and which two years ago came close to losing Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State to the Pac 10. It was the defection of Nebraska, a Big 12 stalwart, that prompted the mass migration.
“The Big 10 talked about expanding and it got everybody nervous,” said Aresco.
Thus began the game of musical chairs, which resulted in revolving-door conferences and ended cherished rivalries.
“When you have Texas and Texas A&M not playing, when you have Nebraska and Oklahoma not playing, that doesn’t help us,” said Aresco.
While nobody wants to be the last man standing, “Sometimes people imagine worst-case scenarios that aren’t going to happen,” said Aresco.
But the worst-case scenario did happen to the WAC, which will go from seven football members this season to none next year.
“It all happened within a year,” said New Mexico State athletic director McKinley Boston. “There wasn’t like there was a road map out there.”
The dissolution happened last spring when Texas-San Antonio departed with Louisiana Tech for Conference USA, San Jose State and Utah State decamped to the Mountain West, and Texas State switched to the Sun Belt. But the first fissure occurred when Fresno State and Nevada decided to bolt for the Mountain West.
“That’s what put the WAC in jeopardy,” said Benson. “If Fresno State and Nevada had kept their agreement [to stay], the WAC would be totally different today.”
The conference could not function with two football teams, so Idaho and New Mexico State have been left to go it alone. Idaho, which is 0-3 after last weekend’s 63-14 flogging at LSU (albeit for a record $950,000 payday), will play as an independent next season, with the possibility of joining the Big Sky as an FCS program if things don’t work out.
New Mexico State will go independent, too, and already has a 2013 menu that includes Texas and UCLA.
“It may be a more attractive schedule than what we have as a member of the conference,” reckoned Boston.
Finding another conference, though, will be a challenge. The Sun Belt, which once included both the Aggies and Idaho, is content with its 10 members, and nobody else is heading to Las Cruces with an invitation.
“We’ve talked to consultants, and New Mexico brings zero TV value to the table,” acknowledged Boston.
The feverish switching has been all about television cash with the BCS conferences providing an irresistible lure. Their long-term, 10-figure contracts provide each member with roughly $20 million per year at a time when colleges are maxing out what they can get from tickets, luxury boxes and alumni donors. “The question was where the new sustainable revenue was going to come from, which is TV,” said Boston.
Even Notre Dame felt it
It’s no coincidence that Notre Dame, whose national contract with NBC runs through 2015, long has been the most desirable commodity.
The Big 10 lusted for the Irish for decades. When the WCHA and CCHA, the two Western hockey conferences, blew apart last year and their members scrambled to find new homes, Notre Dame had the luxury of biding its time before electing to join Hockey East, an ideal landing place.
Yet at a time when the earth is moving beneath even the most secure programs, Notre Dame was prompted to seek out a more stable arrangement.
While the Big East has been its home for 17 years, the conference has been in morph mode for nearly a decade. Only two of its original eight football members (Rutgers and Temple) will be around next year. Temple just returned from a seven-year exile.
Besides offering upgraded competition in soccer, lacrosse, and baseball and no worse than a tradeoff in basketball, the ACC will be a comfortable football haven if the Irish ever opt out of independence.
“If we have finished in the top four, we know where we are going to be,” said Swarbrick. “If we finish slightly below that, we are going to have an opportunity to be in the Orange Bowl or one of the other BCS host bowls. Below that we are going to be in the ACC package. That’s what we needed. We needed a soup-to-nuts solution for the postseason and we have achieved it.”
Notre Dame’s departure, which still needs to be negotiated, is the latest move of an ongoing flux for the Big East, which began in 1979 as a basketball aggregation and didn’t play football until 1991. Since then, 16 football members have come or gone.
“We’re not looking backward, we’re looking forward,” said Aresco. “We’ve had teams joining.”
When Navy comes on board in 2015, the Big East will be a 13-member league that plays in 11 states and four time zones. And could go to 16 by adding independents Brigham Young, Air Force and Army.
“We have to create a new vision,” acknowledged Aresco. “We have to show why a national conference can work.”
Since the only thing San Diego State is east of is the Pacific, the Big East may need a new moniker. Perhaps “Manifest Destiny” would be appropriate.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.