Senior Writer

Realignment boom could lead to more busts for small schools


From the moment the NCAA seized control of the monster known as television, the outcome was clear.

Less football. From 1952-1984 the NCAA operated under the belief that less of the association's grandest sport was better. Too much of its product on TV, it believed, would impact attendance. Television appearances were an event, not a right or expected. On your average football Saturday during those years you might see Oklahoma-Texas followed by Richmond-Furman. And that was it -- for the weekend.

Read that now and laugh. In '84 the nation's top football playing schools won a Supreme Court battle that allowed them to control their TV rights. These days you can watch entire seasons on a laptop. Most every school in the Big Ten has its games televised on some platform or another. Ohio State and Michigan have suffered from that overexposure so much they spent millions on major stadium expansions in recent years.

Yes, those might be extreme examples but valid ones, it seemed, when the WAC vowed to keep chugging along on Thursday. There are a lot of us who thought the Western Athletic Conference had finally succumbed to the BCS law of the jungle. What was the point of moving on? The league had reconstituted itself so often that only two members from 1998 (San Jose State, Hawaii) the last year of the old 16-team WAC remain. Twenty-four schools in all have passed through the league since its beginning in 1962. That's 20 percent of the current I-A membership.

If the WAC had gone cleats up, it would have been a sad day for a lot of reasons. More football is better if you're a nut like us. Less football, though, is the unwritten law. Since 1952, the dawn of the age of NCAA television, there have been clear lines drawn between the haves and have-nots.

A school like Montana could be the next to take its fans on a rough journey to the FBS. (US Presswire)  
A school like Montana could be the next to take its fans on a rough journey to the FBS. (US Presswire)  
There have always been more Big Tens than WACs that matter. From the time television first became interested in college football, one truth rang out. Those who owned the networks were only interested in televising the top 40, maybe 50 college football-playing schools. It took the others as a necessary evil, because they were in the same conference. But admit it, you see a lot less of Vanderbilt than Florida for a reason.

The fact that the Ivy League was once considered major-college football tells you all you need to know. About 32 years ago, the NCAA answered those mid-majors' call for more exposure by creating Division I-AA. You know it today as the Football Championship Series.

The promises made back then to those outliers were more money and more exposure. I-AA has seen less of both. The NCAA has sanitized those lines of demarcation with labels: FBS and FCS. They sound like generic drug names that should come with the same health warnings. Depending on which side of the line you're on, they can cause dizziness, nausea and vomiting.

There are less than half of the major-college football schools than there were in 1978. Television watches with interest as divisions within divisions continue to whittle down the number that matter.

Hawaii is in such a financial crunch that it couldn't afford to keep the best coach it ever had -- June Jones -- even after that Sugar Bowl berth. It's still questionable whether mighty Boise State moves the needle on a national scale. The average viewer still watches the traditional teams that have been around for 10 decades rather than watching one that has been in I-A for 14 years.

San Jose State almost gave up football a few years back. A whole conference, the Sun Belt, competes for a berth in the New Orleans Bowl knowing it can't aim much higher.

What's the point? Opportunity, of course, for kids who just want to play. In a way the BCS has created more opportunity than ever. Hawaii never would have made it to New Orleans in the old system. Boise State would be playing no-name bowls out West without the BCS. But in another way the BCS has marginalized those schools below the sport's Mendoza Line. Thinking of Texas and Rice as equals in the sport is laughable.

Some sort of line has always been there whether it's been I-AA, the Bowl Alliance, the Bowl Coalition or the BCS. The argument, though, has shifted away from the limiters of the product (NCAA) to those who distribute it (networks).

The WAC was so desperate a few years it took a deal from ESPN to broadcast its games -- for nothing.

"We're all chasing the BCS," WAC commissioner Karl Benson said Thursday. "We're chasing recognition and notoriety and we're chasing the financial benefits that come with the BCS. We all want a bigger piece and get better access."

MWC/WAC realignment
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From the time the NCAA started televising games, those networks had an interest only in the "haves." You know who they are, the big market and/or brand name schools that move the needle. Those that couldn't measure up have passed away -- Pacific, Long Beach State, Cal State-Fullerton since 1992.

Sure, I-A membership has grown in the past decade from around 100 members to the current 120. That's too many for major-college football. The NCAA tried to save those ambitious schools from themselves by instituting a moratorium on I-A promotion that will expire in June. There is pending legislation that would keep schools from moving up unless they have a conference affiliation waiting for them.

Despite the economy, despite the flow of red ink, despite the small chance of winning, I-AAs are falling all over themselves trying to get into I-A. Benson called them out by name, schools that would be good fits for his league -- Sacramento State, Cal Poly, Cal-Davis, Texas State, Montana. The soonest they could compete for a bowl is 2013 because of that moratorium. It's like a slaughterhouse. A few of those will gain WAC admission, until the next round of raids kneecaps the conference again.

We are reaching a critical mass of institutions that can reasonably sponsor big-time football without embarrassing themselves. Texas AD DeLoss Dodds told me earlier this year that there are nine schools in the country that turn a profit in football. His school is one of them.

So what does that make Western Kentucky, entering its second year as a full I-A member? Awash in red ink, like most of the rest.

"We are close to maxing out [in I-A]," Benson said, "although there have been good examples of schools who have made the jump from I-AA to I-A."

Lynn Hickey's school hopes to be one of those. Texas-San Antonio's athletic director knows her school is on that short list to join the WAC. The plan is for the football program to move from I-AA to I-A in 2014 as an independent. Having a name coach (Larry Coker) and the capital to get this far helps. Texas-San Antonio is a member of the University of Texas system. Hickey estimates it will have taken at least $12 million to reach I-A when that first ball is snapped four years from now.

"How long would it take us to make money?" Hickey said. "I don't know."

The truth is, Texas-San Antonio football might not make money for a decade or more. The higher purpose is to use football to enhance the school's chances of becoming a top research institution.

"We need campus life," Hickey said.

So the financial payoff is not tangible. Not right away. It's a long, slow, hard process, one that Boise somehow speeded up. It used the WAC platform to become a national championship contender. It jumped to the Mountain West for the same reason it spent all those millions to become I-A in the first place, to make more money and, ultimately, to get closer to the BCS.

The problem is, Boise is gone. Teams No. 25 and 26 in WAC history are waiting to take their shot.

"Is there a Boise State out there at the I-AA level that has the foundation, has the funding, has the facilities?" Benson said. "I think there [is]."

Glory, or the slaughterhouse, awaits.

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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