This is not a reorganization of college conferences we're watching, even though that is what the college presidents and athletic directors want you to naively believe, as if there's anything natural or orderly about it. We're watching the Balkanization of college athletics, a feudal if not downright medieval raiding for the sole purpose of dividing up a pile of loot in the way that best satisfies a band of pirates.
When the real raiding began over the summer, the Atlantic Coast Conference, traditionally the best basketball conference, decided it wanted more of the bounty produced by college football, and took Miami and Virginia Tech, then most recently Boston College, from the Big East. And this week the Big East responded by reducing Conference USA and taking Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul and South Florida. If that doesn't exactly make the Big East compelling in football again, it will at least push the Big East way past the ACC in basketball.
The ACC pillaged the Big East, which pillaged Conference USA, which immediately pillaged the Western Athletic Conference, which in a minute will devour some weaker conference, some smaller fish in the grand food chain, and swallow its best teams.
We are well along the path that will, within 10 years, leave college athletics with four, 20-team Super Conferences which will divide up all the tens of millions of dollars and send everybody else packing. Conference competition, as we've understood it for 60 years, is over. College football runs itself, or at least about 60 schools. The presidents of those schools are the ringleaders/hypocrites and the NCAA is helpless to stop it, perhaps doesn't even care to stop it. You remember Myles Brand, don't you? He fired Bob Knight (for which he deserves great credit) while running Indiana University, and when he left to run the NCAA he looked like a guy who would flex his muscles and exert some authority, or at the very least stand in the bully pulpit to take greedy members to task.
Brand is the ultimate empty suit. Worse than doing nothing is saying nothing. We don't know what he believes or if he has any conviction about this raiding, or whether he likes it and can defend what's happening. Brand just sits there, taking no strong public position I've seen or heard. Even if he can't do anything, if he deplores this, he ought to say so. Suspend a kid for driving a brand new car, sure; he and his NCAA cops are all over that. But publicly take to task a member institution acting out of greed? Nope, he'll just sit there in silence as these new feudal times roll on without as much as weighing in on the subject.
And so what's left?
Not much, but to watch the games like we always have, just with the realization that conferences are no longer collections of like-minded schools that feel they have some mission or agenda or even geography in common. I covered the Big East in 1981 when it was in its infancy, a band of small and mostly Catholic eastern schools convinced it could carve out a basketball league that could get play in bigger arenas and on TV every week, and challenge the ACC for basketball supremacy in the eastern half of the United States.
Football money changed the agenda for both the ACC and the Big East. The ACC brought in Florida State, which is dreadful in basketball. The Big East, even though college football will never be a religious experience to people who live in the Northeast, brought in Miami and Virginia Tech, neither with any basketball tradition of consequence. And now, by taking on Miami and Virginia Tech in order to chase more football money, the ACC has substantially diluted its basketball product. As my colleague and friend Tony Kornheiser points out, Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese, after having big-time football snatched out from under him, has assembled the greatest college basketball conference ever. Initially, I called Tony a fool, but in less than 24 hours I've reconsidered.
The ACC now has four schools of zero consequence historically in basketball: Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and holdover Clemson. One-third of the conference is dead weight in basketball.
Meantime, the Big East ought to be able to hold onto an "East Division" of Connecticut, Syracuse, Georgetown, Seton Hall, Providence, St. John's, Villanova and Rutgers, while adding a new "West Division" of Louisville, Marquette, Cincinnati, DePaul, Notre Dame, West Virginia, Pitt and South Florida. Of those 16 Big East schools that will begin play in 2005, only Pitt and South Florida have never been to the Final Four and Pitt has been to the Sweet 16 the last two seasons and was ranked No. 1 briefly last season. South Florida is the only basketball dead weight, and that has to be offset by the Big East now having three teams (DePaul, Marquette and Notre Dame) from the Chicago TV market.
Jim Boeheim, coach of national champion Syracuse, told ESPN, "To me, there is no question that we'll be significantly better than (the ACC) in basketball. We've been even with the ACC the last few years. Now, we're adding three teams in the top 20, and they're adding three teams (Miami, BC and Virginia Tech) in the bottom of the top 100. Do the math ... "
One hopes Big East and ACC officials will figure out a way to have the traditional conference teams play each other twice a season, otherwise, the basketball product will be unsatisfying and rivalries will cease to exist. Georgetown doesn't have to play DePaul more than once every few seasons, but they had better play U-Conn. and Syracuse twice. The same goes for Maryland with North Carolina and Duke, or conference play in basketball will have little meaning.
Of course, competition is secondary anyway. The college presidents are doing this for one reason: to reach the point where fewer and fewer schools are dividing up the loot from college football. And when they reduce the field from 117 where it is today, to about 60 by streamlining the conferences, then picking and choosing which schools they want to compete in football, we'll then see a college football playoff, with a handful of elite programs hording the network TV payday, which, per school, will dwarf the payout for March Madness.
College football. That's what this is about. The notion of following the money isn't new. It's not new to the ACC's John Swofford, not new to the Big East's Tranghese. You just wonder what the next step will be, whether the football conferences will start kicking out certain schools, the Vanderbilts, the Baylors, the Northwesterns, even Duke, which has had no football pulse for years. Anybody who thinks his school is safe had better take a long hard look at the hardball being played all around them.