INDIANAPOLIS -- Jim Delany is the smartest man in the room. No, really. Six years ago, I named him the most relevant person in college football. Nothing has changed. If anything, the designation for the Big Ten commissioner was too modest.
|Jack Swarbrick and Brian Kelly need to think seriously about conference affiliation. (AP)|
He -- officially, his conference -- could force Notre Dame to join the Big Ten. No mating dance as in the past, just a ruthless corporate takeover.
Every casual conversation regarding expansion here seemed to start with the sentence, "The Big Ten is going to do something ..." That has become as much of an assumption as the tournament expanding to 96 teams. The Big Ten said in December it is exploring expansion. The NCAA had a press conference here Thursday to lay out the parameters for a 96-team whoop-de-do. The only question is which will come first.
All of this is still speculation. The Big Ten could do nothing, although few at this point seem to believe it. Already the conference has hired a financial institution to vet potential new members. A search firm has identified 15 possible expansion candidates.
So let's start with the Big Ten expanding to 12 teams, splitting into two divisions and staging a championship game. Except we're aiming too low. Through the entire process, there has existed the possibility that the Big Ten could be that killer asteroid.
Why not go to 12, or 14 teams? Why not blow up the conference landscape and add five schools and go to 16? In that scenario, Notre Dame would be sort of an athletic outlier. Nearby, Purdue and Indiana could be pulling in $25 million a year in an expanded Big Ten for doing little in football. Despite the recent downturn on the field, ND rival Michigan would be getting richer and more powerful.
It almost makes Notre Dame's $15 million-per-year contract with NBC look inadequate.
It could happen if the Big Ten makes an end run and first rips apart the Big East. For years there has been speculation that the Big East was too vulnerable in football with only eight members. It barely hung on after the ACC raid. It is unwieldy in basketball with 16 members. The league is, at best, fourth in revenue produced among BCS leagues.
So call it Connecticut, Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Rutgers to the Big Ten. It doesn't really matter. Replace Rutgers with Missouri, fine. Either way, the Big East wouldn't have enough members to have a viable football conference, per NCAA rules. It would be a diminished basketball league.
And Notre Dame wouldn't have a place for its other sports, most of which play in the Big East; this is an all or nothing proposition.
At that point, Irish power brokers would have to think seriously about conference football affiliation. That's what Notre Dame ND Jack Swarbrick was referring to last month in New York when he said if changes were "seismic" enough, his school would have to reconsider its independent status.
Swarbrick basically reiterated those comments last week in Kansas City.
" ... Everything is so unusual right now that you can envision situations where the world changes," Swarbrick told the Kansas City Star. "We hope it doesn't. We don't want it to.
"But we're monitoring that."
The New York-Kansas City statements are as far to the left that any Notre Dame administrator has leaned on the subject of independence. They suggest that Swarbrick knows that he might have to do something radical. Playing neutral site games against the likes of Washington State and Army just isn't getting it. Without conference affiliation or recent national championship hopes, it's basically BCS bowl or bust for ND each year. How about being able to play for a Rose Bowl berth every year?
Delany has a chance not just to reshape the college athletic landscape, but to take it over. Think of a conference that stretches basically from Kansas City to the Atlantic Ocean. At this point, it's not so much about the other teams that join. It's about forcing Notre Dame to make a move. Any Big Ten configuration that includes the Irish enhances the conference's value immensely.
The Big Ten Network is Delany's creation and, since December 2008, a profitable revenue stream. The Big Ten (Big 16?) would be the dominant conference in recruiting areas from the Midwest to New England. The network would be telling those recruits about it every day of the year.
If all that interest drives more folks to watch the BTN in the New York area, you kind of get where this going. It is has much about market share as it is about football excellence.
When the SEC finalized its ESPN/CBS 15-year, $3 billion deal last summer, a lot of us wrote that the conference was taking over the world. Turns out, it was trying to play catch up with the Big Ten. The domino effect may be just starting. If the Big Ten goes to 16, we're talking two eight-team divisions and a potentially mega-championship game. Indianapolis was on fire for the Final Four. Think about a weekend here surrounding a Michigan-Ohio State championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium.
If the Big Ten goes nuts, the ACC may feel compelled to stay competitive and expand itself with Big East leftovers. That conference is currently in negotiations for a new TV deal creating a reason to get bigger -- and richer. The Boston Globe hinted at such major expansion and realignment in a weekend story about Boston College's basketball coaching search.
The rumblings are out there. I'm not saying it's going to happen. I'm saying the components are in place for it to happen.
Only the man at the controls of that killer asteroid knows for sure.