Senior Writer

Whenever Big Ten expands, college football will feel trickle-down effect


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- That unavoidable, annoying elephant in the room was impossible to ignore here at the annual Bowl Championship Series meetings. The news was that its gestation remains on schedule.

If the Big Ten expands, SEC commish Mike Slive says his conference won't back down. (Getty Images)  
If the Big Ten expands, SEC commish Mike Slive says his conference won't back down. (Getty Images)  
A new Big Ten won't be born for another 12-18 months. We will have to continue to wait, then, for Armageddon -- a bigger, broader, more dominant Big Ten to rule the college landscape and rip it apart. Expansion talk had become so, well, expansive that reporters hopped on planes from literally all points of the country to gather at the sedate Royal Palms resort this week.

In his first public comments in months that big elephant, er, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany felt compelled to formally announce Wednesday that nothing was imminent in terms of expansion by his conference.

Now try to find one of his peers who can relax.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive intimated for the first time that a war of titans might be on: "If there is going to be a significant shift in the conference paradigm, the SEC will be strategic and thoughtful to make sure it maintains its position as one of the nation's pre-eminent conferences."

That's another way of saying that if the Big Ten expands, the SEC is ready to throw down. The conferences are No. 1 (Big Ten) and No. 2 (SEC) in revenue produced and they didn't get that way by being timid.

The Big Ten has the biggest contract, the SEC has the best football. Together they control the hearts, minds and viewership of 50 percent of the population. Apart, though, they are rivals on the expansion issue.

For the first time, Delany suggested publicly that the conference might add more than one team. The latest scuttlebutt is that the Big Ten, eventually, may add these five: Nebraska, Missouri, Syracuse, Rutgers and Pittsburgh.

"You're not trying to find somebody you want to spend a year with," Delany said, "you're trying to find out who you're going to be for the next 25-50 years."

The SEC's answer? Try Miami, Florida State, Clemson and Georgia Tech. Or if you want a bigger earthquake, throw Texas into the mix.

"I won't sit back," Slive said, "and just ignore what is going on around me."

Notre Dame? Out of the Big Ten picture, according to this Boston Globe blog.

All of it could change tomorrow which kind of rankles everybody here. We may have to endure 1 1/2 more years of this fear and loathing. As much as Delany tried to tamp down the net effect of his conference's supposed expansion, it has everyone else walking on egg shells.

"The sense of what his commissioner colleagues would appreciate is, 'What is the timeline? What can we tell our members?', WAC commissioner Karl Benson said. "[Delaney] said he is still on the same 12- to 18-month timetable. I hope we can narrow that or shorten that."

Why? Because there are humongous budgets, rights fees and, really, the future of college football at stake. Whatever the Big Ten does will trickle down to perhaps the remaining 10 Division I-A conferences. The Pac-10's TV deal expires in two years. The Big East is worried about its very existence. The Big 12 is wants to hold on to what it has.

"I still think I have a lot of friends and colleagues in that room," Delany said referring to one of the resort's conference rooms where the commissioners met most of the day. "There's not really a lot of tension, there's a lot of interest."

The kind of interest that is generated when everyone is looking out for their jobs. About the same time Delany was speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, the Big East sent out a release stating former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had volunteered to offer "strategic advice on future television arrangements."

Tags advice to Big East commissioner John Marinatto: Hire five consultants.

No, really. It worked for Tagliabue in the NFL. The former commissioner had someone working on something at all times -- technology, crunching numbers, etc. His advice this time is an act of charity. Tagliabue is chairman of the board of directors at Big East member Georgetown, doesn't need the money and saw a cause to work on. This one could use a telethon.

"If the whole world is going to change, the definition of competition may change too," Marinatto said. "It's like E.F. Hutton. If Paul Tagliabue says it, we start to think how Paul T thinks. He did a pretty good job in his previous job."

Marinatto might be the most sympathetic figure in this ongoing "conflict". He remembers the exact date and time that Delany called him to alert him to possible Big Ten expansion (6:32 p.m., Dec. 15). That was the night his life changed but, strangely, he has nothing but respect for Delany.

And nothing but dread for the Big Ten commissioner might do.

Marinatto, a rookie commissioner, took over for the respected and powerful Mike Tranghese. His first job is to save his conference. Pull up a chair to hear his story, or maybe not.

"I know I'm the most boring person in America," he told reporters, "so cut me off please." You have to root for Marinatto and his conference which has gone through this already. Beginning in 2003, the ACC picked off Boston College Miami and Virginia Tech. The Big East added Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida to stay relevant and keep its automatic BCS berth.

It might not be able to survive another hit. The Big East's football demise has been predicted for years. The league, it was theorized, was too unwieldy with 16 members in basketball and eight in football. It was thought that football might eventually go away because it couldn't rebuild again.

What a dichotomy. With the ACC having diluted its product after expansion, the Big East became the best basketball conference in the country. Meanwhile, its football could be on life support.

"We've lived through it," said Marinatto, a senior associate commissioner for the league since 2002. "We've come out in better shape than we've ever been in our 30-year history. All the people who exaggerate the future in a negative way, I can't buy into it."

They are not exactly dead men walking around this resort but they are looking dazed and confused.

"How do you keep a school?" Craig Thompson asked. The Mountain West commissioner could see his league poached by the Pac-10, Big 12 or some unseen force, all because of the Big Ten.

"You don't keep an institution. If there is a better place, it's like marriage. You try to make the best house and home for your family but if there is something else that looks better you move on."

There's going to be a lot of marriage counseling, then, in the coming months. It's going to be public and for a lot of the participants, it's not going to end well.

"You're not here to cover the BCS. You guys are here to cover [expansion]," Marinatto told reporters. "It's not the elephant in the room anymore."

No, it's the entire agenda

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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