Senior Writer

The age of the super conference is here


LINCOLN, Neb. -- At 3:24 pm ET, college athletics changed forever.

That cannot be understated -- at all.

Super conferences, start your engines.

Federal Reserves, start your printing presses.

To say conference realignment is all about the Benjamins would be too simplistic. Mr. Franklin himself wouldn't have lent his mug to the nation's currency had he known about this craziness.

When the Nebraska board of regents voted to join the Big Ten on Friday afternoon, it was the Hiroshima of conference realignment. The Nagasaki of expansion. It was the trigger on the starter pistol's gun to officially begin the realignment land rush.

Now that the dominoes have started falling, expect to see some sort of mega-expansion by the Pac-10 in the next few days. Colorado was first on Thursday. Texas and its posse of state schools could follow. That certainly will force the Big Ten to match and expand beyond Nebraska.

Then it's up to the SEC. Texas A&M might be interested. Florida State and Miami would be a slam dunk. Georgia Tech could make a return.

Now that the seal is broken by Nebraska's announcement, anything's possible. The "winners" (Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC) could form a confederation of leagues that would create a whole new class of have-nots. And you thought the BCS was exclusionary?

For example, the Pac-10 looks like it is going to be first to 16. What's to keep it from demanding a second BCS bowl bid? The SEC would second that -- for the SEC.

With BCS berths being gobbled up at that point, what does Notre Dame do? That's still the $4.5 million question (the current worth of a Notre Dame BCS appearance). Athletic director Jack Swarbrick and president Rev. John Jenkins are struggling with their legacies. Neither one wants to be responsible for making Notre Dame football irrelevant by guiding it down the wrong path. There is no obvious right choice between the Big Ten or continued independence.

That's where we are. Don't blink, because the rest of it is probably going to come down in the next few days. By July 1, it will be a bold new world. And an uncomfortable one. Nebraska basically gave an "up yours" to Texas and the Big 12. It is leaving the league after this season, instead of 2011, and sees no reason to pay a multi-million-dollar buyout. If there's no league, there's no one to buy out.

That means if the Big 12 isn't dead, it is extremely sleepy. Its unfairly criticized commissioner Dan Beebe held a conference call Friday afternoon, seemingly trying to convince himself that his league could go on. On the 31st anniversary of John Wayne's death, though, it was obvious there was a new sheriff in town. Hint: The Rust Belt rules!

The best news: The Big Ten is done shopping in Beebe's conference, according to Beebe, meaning Missouri seemingly is no longer sitting at the adult table. Fitting? A case can be made for Mizzou officials starting this. The ink hadn't dried on the Big Ten's expansion press release in December before Missouri chancellor Brady Deaton boldly proclaimed in chancellor-speak that his school was interested.

Bad play, Brady. That put everyone in the Big 12 on edge. Ultimatums flew. Distrust grew. When the Pac-10 came sniffing around the Big 12, Colorado and Nebraska made the first moves, not Missouri, because they could.

Missouri brings two markets (Kansas City, St. Louis) to the table. Nebraska brought decades of tradition, a name brand that mattered more. It also brought bulldog chancellor Harvey Perlman who stared down his counterpart Bill Powers of Texas last week at the Big 12 spring meetings.

"Would you assign the media rights to the conference for the long term?" Perlman asked.

Texas said no, basically admitting it was every man for himself in the Big 12. An agreement to a Big 12 Network could have saved the league in 2007. Meanwhile, the Big Ten Network has been a cash cow and an instigator for expansion.

On the day Nebraska left the Big 12, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany showed up, lending even more star power to the Big Red carpet. Meanwhile, you can envision Missouri AD Mike Alden trying to reach Delany in his Park Ridge, Ill., office.

It's Alden. A-L-D-E-N.

Tom Osborne and Nebraska leave the Big 12 behind after 14 years for the Big Ten. (AP)  
Tom Osborne and Nebraska leave the Big 12 behind after 14 years for the Big Ten. (AP)  
Colorado coach Dan Hawkins is about to find out that the Big 12 really is, in fact, intramurals.

A simple goodbye to the Big 12 would have been fine, but Nebraska's power duo brought the wood. It was Texas' fault, they said, forcing Nebraska to leave 103 years of athletic tradition to go to Big Ten.

"Nebraska," Perlman said, "did not start this discussion."

No, but they threw a lighted match into a gas can labeled "conference realignment." The upheaval you, dear fan, have endured since December, kicked into warp drive on Friday. It was merely a continuation of what started almost 60 years ago. That's when the emerging technology of television met with the NCAA's profit ambition in the early 1950s. From that point on college football -- no, college athletics -- became about the top 30 or 40 schools that the networks wanted to televise.

For more than 30 years, the NCAA controlled television broadcasts to the point that Harvard-Yale would be paired with Oklahoma-Texas as the two "major-college" games the nation would see on a football Saturday. In 1978, Division I-AA was created to slice off a chunk of the have-nots.

In 1984, Georgia and Oklahoma led a Supreme Court challenge that ended in the schools themselves controlling their TV rights. In 1990, Notre Dame went to NBC. Two years later, the SEC expanded. The Big 12 was created in 1996. The BCS followed in 1998, creating a whole new class of have-nots. The age of the super conference is the power brokers' latest attempts at getting the most, best schools under one tent.

You've probably heard speculation about the super conferences breaking away from the NCAA and forming their own organization. Not based on what we heard from Perlman. He's also the chairman of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, the group that is going to take away USC's 2004 title after all NCAA appeals by the school are exhausted.

On his way out the door after the news conference, he credited the NCAA for finally getting tough on one of the sports' big dogs. Asked if the BCS would go as far as to ask USC to give back the championship glass football from that year, he remarked: "Remaking history has its limitations."

Realignment hasn't reached its limitations. It's been a weird shake out to this point: Kansas, Iowa State, Baylor and Missouri are out, for now. Boise State, added Friday by the Mountain West, could be part of the power elite. The MWC is pursuing a temporary automatic BCS qualifier status in 2012 and 2013.

This latest upheaval could have been predicted the moment the Big 12 was formed in the mid-1990s. This was a league that was an odd cultural and geographical fit from the beginning. Iowa Staters wear parkas until May. Texans are playing golf year-round.

There was a perception, at least here, that Texas dictated terms from the beginning. Texas used the Big 12 to reach a high point in its athletic history. Nebraska won a national championship in 1997 then hit a low point under Bill Callahan. It was clawing its way back to prominence when the Big Ten threw a lifeline.

The strange thing is, everyone prospered in the Big 12's short history. Oklahoma won a national championship and six conference titles. Missouri reached No. 1 and came within 30 minutes of a national championship berth. Oklahoma State sugar daddy Boone Pickens found his groove trying to spend the Cowboys to a title. Kansas State won the conference in 2003 and beat Texas in consecutive years. Texas Tech went to a bowl 10 consecutive years under madman coach Mike Leach.

Without sounding to 1998, the vibe was bad in the Big 12. They shared a league but not similar goals. Osborne felt that the league had gone south, literally, with the power shifting toward the state of Texas. Missouri whined about getting jumped for bowl berths and the uneven revenue distribution plan. It's a pity, because it could have worked out. A new TV deal in 2012, according to experts, might have netted each team at least $15 million.

The Big 12 couldn't get there, not with the Big Ten in hot pursuit.

"The Big Ten offered stability," Perlman said, "the Big 12 could not offer."

The speed of the change in college athletics has been mind blowing. Nebraska started the week wondering if it could win the Big 12 North. It ended Friday dreaming of the 2011 Big Ten championship game. The Pac-10 offer to Colorado was used as a wedge to get the Texas schools to commit to the Pac-10. Better there for Texas, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott figured, than the Big Ten.

If in 1993 someone had told you that the demise of a conference called the Big 12 would be foretold by something called, your answer would have been: "What's the Internet?"

How surreal was this: Former Husker Matt Davidson is the color analyst on Nebraska football. He's also a significant part of Big 12 lore. He caught the game-tying pass in the infamous "Flea Kicker" game in 1997 against Missouri.

On Friday, he could be seen holding a Big Ten Network mike, as a temp for the BTN, interviewing his old coach.

"You look like you're dignified now, now that you're a Big Ten guy," Osborne remarked.

Dignified and confused like all of us. Suddenly, the Big Ten has 12 and the Big 12 has 10, but check back in a couple of hours.

Something is likely to change.

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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