Senior Writer

Expansion variables that could spawn conference revolution


Graphic: What realignment could look like

Fourth in a series of four stories regarding college conference expansion

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As the BCS meetings ended Thursday, it was time to ask: Were they merely a backdrop for the beginning of the end?

The end of college football as we know it, that is. The game pretty much moved along at a slow, languid pace for 129 years until the BCS came along in 1998. Twelve years later we stand on the brink of the first super conference, 16 teams spanning half the country and raking in billions in revenue.

No one is saying that out loud, but if you read between the rhetoric here this week, something big is coming. While little was decided, it's clear the game is about to change. We learned that the Big Ten is going to take its time in expanding. We also learned that the SEC is not going to sit idly by and let the Big Ten take over.

We learned that the Big East is not dead as a football conference. At least not yet. We also learned the Big 12 is confident about its position.

Now someone tell me the Big 12's position.

As my series on expansion closes, here is a primer for the future ...

Comcast: The Philadelphia-based cable giant is a potential key player in the expansion issue.

Comcast is awaiting government approval of its $30 billion purchase of NBC Universal. That could mean a new NBC/Comcast could be looking for sports content soon to recoup part of that $30 billion.

The Pac-10 and Big 12 each are researching to see if a network makes sense. The Mountain West network is half owned by Comcast. The ACC is in negotiations now for a new television partner.

"Would Comcast be interested in doing something?" said Mike Reynolds, a cable industry analyst from Multichannel News. "A Pac-10 network? The ACC [rights] are coming up next. The Big 12, does Comcast have an appetite to do that?"

Big East: It came into the meetings as the most vulnerable conference. It left with a heartbeat. Commissioner John Marinatto knows that his league's existence could depend on which schools the Big Ten picks up.

It could replace any teams that go to the Big Ten, but could it keep its BCS conference designation? Everything is on the table.

"Why couldn't we do something with Notre Dame in football, where they aren't a member but they schedule groups of teams in our conference?" Marinatto asked the Boston Globe. "Why couldn't we do more with television, and have a Big East television network?

"We need a new way of thinking. Strategic thinking. We need to be proactive rather than reactive, and develop our assets."

If you really want to get optimistic about the Big East, consider that Sen. Jay Rockefeller's son is married to Paul Tagliabue's daughter. Tagliabue just became a consultant for the Big East on long-term planning. Rockefeller is chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Hey, it's nice to have friends in high places.

Three BCS bowls: BCS leagues are limited to two BCS bowls -- one automatic bid for its champion and one other at-large bid if it meets certain qualification standards.

What's to keep a 16-team Big Ten from asking for, no, demanding that the BCS rescind that rule? If the object of expansion (at least for the Big Ten) is to take over college athletics, then why limit yourself? A 16-team conference big enough and powerful enough could conceivably produce three BCS bowl teams.

If you're a conference big and powerful enough, the logical conclusion is that two BCS bowls aren't enough.

"That's a cart-horse thing," Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said. "I'm not going into the hypothetical."

The first 16-team league: There has been one in football. From 1996-98 the WAC had 16 teams in all sports. (The Big East has a 16-team league today in basketball.)

Can you imagine an expansion world where Michigan and Ohio State don't meet every year? (Getty Images)  
Can you imagine an expansion world where Michigan and Ohio State don't meet every year? (Getty Images)  
The collapse of the old Southwest Conference and hasty expansion led to the old 10-team WAC adding Rice, TCU, SMU, San Jose State, UNLV and Tulsa. Eventually, a league that stretched from Hawaii to Oklahoma and had to split revenues 16 ways didn't fly.

After those three seasons, five old-line members (Air Force, BYU, Colorado State, Utah and Wyoming) felt that the league's athletic and academic integrity had been compromised. WAC presidents were so anxious to expand that they didn't have an idea of how to divide teams into divisions. Schools eventually went into four-team "quads" for scheduling purposes.

Those five schools were ultimately joined by New Mexico, San Diego State and UNLV in 1999, breaking away to create the Mountain West.

"The 16-team WAC failed from inside, not outside," said Karl Benson, current WAC commissioner. "It failed because there wasn't support from within the 16 schools. There wasn't buy-in at the beginning and it was kind of forced on everyone."

There were some good times. ABC televised the championship game all three seasons. BYU went 14-1 in 1996 and was arguably jobbed out of a Fiesta Bowl berth by some of the forces that exist today. That team and its plight were part of the reason the BCS came about. The Cougars were relegated to the Cotton Bowl.

In 1998, Utah played for the national championship in basketball.

Benson was asked if a 16-team league could work today.

"I think 16 teams can work easily if there is geography and there is this homogenous group of schools," he said. "A 16-team WAC was 10 publics and six privates."

There seems to be common geography in a 16-team Big Ten. Potential expansion candidates Missouri, Nebraska, Rutgers, Syracuse and Connecticut all would be contiguous to current Big Ten states.

"If there is geographic connectivity then I don't think geography is an issue," Benson said. "You have to accept the fact that your fans are not going to see some of the teams that they want to see and are used to seeing."

The Big Ten doesn't play a true round-robin and the Big 12 has proven it can get along with altered traditional rivalries. Oklahoma and Nebraska, for example, meet only twice every four years.

Now, try that with Michigan and Ohio State.

BYU is out: At least in the Pac-10 expansion discussion. That's my conclusion after researching the academic underpinnings of the Pac-10. While the league isn't as exclusive as the Big Ten academically (all Association of American Universities), it's darn close.

Seven of the 10 Pac-10 schools are both AAU and are rated "very highly" by the Carnegie Commission on Higher Education. Those are designations given to respected research institutions. The other three schools have only the Carnegie designation.

Colorado has both designations. Utah is Carnegie only. BYU is neither. One Pac-10 source was asked if BYU's situation would be a detriment to it joining the Pac-10. The reply: "That would be a keen observation to make."

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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