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Sprawled conferences haven’t been good for college sports

Last Monday night was the most fun I had at a game in a long time, watching Scott Cross’ UTA Mavericks take down Danny Kotter – sorry, Kaspar’s Texas State Bobcats. And it made me wonder why my adrenaline hasn’t been as high at College Park Center as it used to be? Was it because that was a much tighter contest after seeing a lot of blowouts recently? Was it because I’m just getting too old?

But I know the real reason. It was because the game was against Texas State, the only in-state rival the Mavs have any more. That game meant something extra, something I haven’t been able to get from them playing Georgia State or Troy. It’s something that used to be present in a lot more conference games that don’t exist any more.

Once upon a time, the UTA Mavericks played in the Southland Conference, which for years was mostly comprised of schools within the state of Texas and Louisiana. Now, the names Stephen F. Austin State and Sam Houston State and UT-San Antonio might not seem like big names to a lot of people, but to those of us who were loyal to the blue and white, those names meant everything. For me and my friends, piling into a car and making a simple three-to-four hour drive to be among the few fans daring to yell for our team in enemy territory and make it back home in a day made for some of the best of times.

Now, today’s UTA students definitely have it better than us in some regards; a big new place to watch games with an actual student section tops that list. But how often do they get a chance for the road trips we had? They could possibly travel to San Marcos or Monroe, LA – MAYBE to Lafayette. That’s about it. Let’s see college students manage to travel to Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina or some of the other places the Mavs go to now in the Sun Belt Conference.

The thing is, what UTA now deals with in conference play in bad travel and opponents fans can’t get fired up for is not unique in college sports today. Conferences are all over the map, quite literally. And it’s killing college athletics, especially for those that can’t immediately sell dreams of a national championship.

Once upon a time, as you can see from the first of the two diagrams provided below, college conferences were organized by regions. Everything was relatively compact and easy to understand, and the chance for your team to prove it was the best in the region led to excitement that programs could sell. Maybe you didn’t have a shot at the national championship this year, but you could brag to your colleagues from a nearby school that you beat them out for best in the region.

While I did have to go back 35-40 years for the exact alignment provided [EDIT: I have also since been informed that the Big East was not founded until 1979], it’s important to note that not that much changed over the next 20-30 years. Arizona and Arizona State did go to the Pac-10, the Big East and ACC expanded into Florida and most notably, the Southwest Conference dissolved to create the Big 12. But for the most part, things stayed regionalized.


Not anymore, as the second image proves. In the last decade, the idea that being spread out over the nation leads to more money and recognition has taken hold, and regional rivalries have suffered. Colleges have ditched the old system of proximity breeding passion and instead trying to sell recruits on being able to travel across the country for games while trying to tell their fans they can get just as excited for conference “rivals” 1500 miles away.

It isn’t working. TCU’s last game in 2014 at Amon Carter Stadium, against Iowa State, had a Big 12 conference championship to be won as a selling point – and they still couldn’t sell out the place.

But at least TCU is in somewhat of a good spot being in as close to the old SWC as possible in the Big 12. SMU is in no-man’s land playing in The American. Even with a shot at winning the conference, Larry Brown’s team is seeing empty seats at Moody again. The football team has to stockpile its non-conference schedule with old SWC rivals to generate any interest, because even when the Mustangs were making bowl games again, they couldn’t pack Ford Stadium for the likes of Memphis, Cincinnati and South Florida.

When UNT is in the best position by being with UT-San Antonio, Rice and UT-El Paso in Conference USA, that’s beyond not good.

What college fans in North Texas want more than anything else is to face each other for bragging rights. Instead, we have four Division I schools – three with football programs – that all play in different conferences now.

And the conferences are almost all the same. If anything, it’s what’s killed any chance of The American or Conference USA or the Sun Belt being a competitive power in Division I because they are all spread out over almost the same area. None of those conferences and member schools have anything special to offer over one another. No tight regional formations = no regional rivalries = no excitement among the fans = bad atmospheres for games = little incentive for top recruits to go there.

When I heard that UTA was leaving the Southland, the athletics department’s head of promotions at the time kept trying to tell me, “this is the best thing for us.”

So far, I’m not seeing it – for UTA, SMU or a lot of other programs across the country.

TCU: 2015 National Champions?

Part 4 in a series on the Big 12 and the College Football Playoff

The Big 12 did not get a team in the vaunted maiden voyage of the college football playoff. The few here who appreciate local college football grumbled at the reality that a certain team in DFW would not get the chance to play in the inaugural title game at JerryWorld this coming Monday.

Well, those people can take heart in knowing that, while next year’s title game won’t be in “North Texas” and likely won’t be again for a long time if ever (we’ll get to that another day), that certain team could very well be doing more than making an appearance.

Mark this prediction down: TCU will be national champions for 2015.

Yep, of all the crazy things I’ve said in the past, THAT’S probably the one that’s making you look for the straight jacket. No one wants to believe that little TCU could actually be a national championship team, particularly because the last time TCU football won a national championship, the country was mired in the Great Depression.

That’s the thing about a lot of people that follow sports: They hate the status quo being broken. They expect the Alabamas and the Ohio States to be the ones fighting for the top spot – not some little school from Fort Worth, TX. Some new kid is not supposed to break down the door of the elitist club of those that can win championships.

But go right ahead. Because Gary Patterson’s team doesn’t mind. They’ve heard it all before. And they thrive on it.

When Patterson took over for a departing Dennis Franchione, it was supposed to be the signal that TCU was an also-ran that could never go to the next level. TCU would never reach that lofty goal of going unbeaten for a season. OK, they then did that, but it’s not like they could go somewhere like the Rose Bowl and beat someone from a major conference like Wisconsin. OK, they managed to do that, but no way could they ever be accepted to the conference they really wanted – the Big 12. Well, the conference needed to take somebody, but TCU is definitely never going to contend for the Big 12 Championship.

They did it all, right in the face of everyone who said they couldn’t.

One of the reasons is, they are willing to evolve. Maybe the prediction that they would never compete in the Big 12 might have come true – if Patterson hadn’t decided sticking to the conservative offensive style that had driven them in the WAC, Conference USA and the Mountain West wouldn’t work here. Enter Sonny Cumbie and Doug Meacham, and now suddenly the Frogs can humiliate opponents by putting up 70-80 points in addition to playing the tough defense Patterson’s teams are known for.

Belief and intelligence are well enough, but then there’s the talent level. The Frogs could return up to 48 of 58 players from their two-deep roster, including quarterback Trevone Boykin, running back BJ Catalon, receivers Josh Doctson, Deante’ Gray and Kolby Listenbee and all but one offensive lineman.

And they have the right attitude as well. When TCU and Baylor were snubbed, Patterson didn’t take the whining approach like his counterpart Art Briles. Instead, he pointed out that his team could have taken care of business themselves but didn’t with that loss to the Bears – a loss he blamed himself for when it happened.

Expect that mindset to drive the Frogs even farther, along with a chip on their shoulders that they almost have to have even if they won’t publicly admit it.

But then again, TCU has always had to play with a chip on its shoulder. The Frogs have always been told they can’t, and they just use that to prove they can. Getting in and winning the playoff would simply be the next logical step.

When the Frogs proved their doubters wrong once again by destroying Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, Boykin showed off with a championship belt.

He may need to get another one ready that says “National Champions” for 2015.

Big 12 could risk Big East destruction by expanding

Part 2 in a series on the Big 12 and the College Football Playoff

Larry Brown’s SMU Mustangs have a tough challenge playing in the American Athletic Conference, just like last season. Last year, for the most part, they lived up to the task. It is still wait and see, following a tough loss on Saturday with Memphis coming to Moody on Thursday and the likes of Louisville and UConn still to come, if the Mustangs will do so again.

That’s how it goes in one of the best basketball conferences in the nation. But the ironic thing is that the American, formerly known as the Big East, never wanted to be a good basketball conference. They wanted to be a great football conference, and they paid a big price in their vain efforts to do so.

The Big 12, meanwhile, is known a football conference, even with six Top 25 basketball teams in it. But for some, it still isn’t good enough, and it is because of that that the conference could be at risk of a similar implosion.

Having dodged such destruction once, the Big 12 continues to say it is satisfied with only having 10 schools for the monemt. But now they are having to hear pundits say they need to go back to at least 12, and maybe even more, if they are going to compete with the likes of the 14-team Big Ten and the SEC for spots in the College Football Playoff.

ESPN and others in the sports media have long predicted that college football will eventually be re-organized into four “superconferences” of 16 schools each. But it still hasn’t happened, and it likely never will to those who keep their eyes smaller than their stomachs.

Mark my words on this: The current glut of teams in the “BiG” and the SEC will not last, and it will likely end ugly.

The allure of the “superconference” is one of the biggest cases of people refusing to learn from history and thus dooming to repeat it. Even after the mess that the Big East became, other conferences continue to tell themselves, “Oh, that won’t happen HERE!”

Except eventually, it always happens. It happened in the WAC, and it happened in the Big East. Two conferences that wanted to get bigger and bigger solely because of football, and ultimately resulting in neither conference even playing football any more.

The Big East is just the most blatant example of how badly things can go wrong with a superconference. Long considered the bottom rung of the BCS conferences, the Big East decided the solution was to get bigger and thus get one of those purty conference championship games. Even as teams like Virginia Tech, Boston College and Miami departed, they kept bringing in the likes of Memphis, Cincinnati, Louisville, anyone from Florida…

No one bought that the Big East played big football, though. The defections kept occurring, as Syracuse, West Virginia and Pitt all left. That drove the Big East to recruit SMU, Houston, and even San Diego State and Boise State – to a conference known as the Big EAST.

That’s when the Big East schools that didn’t play football said, “Enough with this s***.” They packed up and left, leaving a little note that stated they had the right to take the conference’s name with them.

The end result? A new Big East that doesn’t even play football and the remnants of the old conference’s gluttony that is among the lowest rated of the “Group of Five” football conferences.

Chad Morris seems to be already doing the best job possible to recruit football players to SMU, but it is a challenge that, with the quality of that sport being played in the American, he can’t sell the chance of a national championship for his program like Brown can to basketball players.

The ACC is certainly the next to implode. After an embarrassing semifinal loss to a Florida State team that some claim didn’t even deserve a playoff spot, don’t be surprised if the ACC tries to get even bigger by perhaps luring more Conference USA or AAC schools. And eventually, the big basketball schools at North Carolina and Duke will certainly look at the gluttony and ask, “Is this worth it?”

But surely this wouldn’t happen in the Big 12, right? Not in a conference where there are so many established football powers that no schools there would dare break up the good thing they have, right?

Don’t count on that. Texas and Oklahoma are among the biggest opponents for a conference title game on the very claim that it puts a shot at the playoff at risk (which both schools have been on both sides of). And given those two schools almost led the charge at breaking up the Big 12 once until that huge TV deal satisfied them, what UT and OU say usually goes.

Bob Bowlsby did make a big mistake in not declaring a tiebreaker between TCU and Baylor for the championship. But making a knee-jerk response by just up and adding another two to four schools among whoever will come calling will be an even bigger one.

Because should that happen, Texas and Oklahoma will likely consider taking their ball and going elsewhere once again – just like the University of Texas did once before, leading to the destruction of one historic conference.

History can happen again, no matter how much media pundits choose to ignore it.

Big 12 title game will help conference? Yeah, that worked before…

Part 1 in a series on the Big 12 and the College Football Playoff

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one that can remember even recent history, especially when it comes to sports.

For 15 years, the Big 12 Conference had its own championship game. And to hear the news articles and radio pundits back then, it was the worst idea in the history of sport. Now, all of a sudden, it’s stupid that the Big 12 DOESN’T have a championship game.

As one of my idols used to say when he had a radio show: “What the what?”

We’ve all placed blame for why neither of the Big 12’s co-champions, be it TCU or Baylor, was picked for a spot in the inaugural college football playoff, but probably the most asinine has to be that the lack of a title game influenced the voters and is thus why many are already saying that the Big 12 adding two more schools and restoring the title game is an inevitability. Ugh, weren’t we done with that?

The ironic thing is that the reason the Big 12 title game was so derided when it existed is because it was THE reason the conference kept being denied a spot in the BCS title game. Five times a team went into that game with some chance at playing for the national championship only to see it dashed by that team losing the conference title game.

Nebraska lost to Texas. Kansas State to Texas A&M. Texas to Colorado. Oklahoma to Kansas State. Missouri to Oklahoma.

It happened again and again, and given how loaded a reformed South Division would be for the Big 12 (Texas, Oklahoma, TCU and Baylor all together), it’s sure to happen again should they go back. People are only whining about the current situation because it’s the current situation. If a conference title game wrecks someone’s trip to the playoff just once, expect many of the same pundits to switch tunes and say once again that conference title games are a mistake.

Bottom line is, either situation can create a scenario where one or more schools might get denied a spot in this ridiculous pseudo-playoff system. And if the Big 12 not having a championship game DID influence the selection committee, well, that’s just one more reason, this was a half-assed system they put in place to try and appease the unappeasable that is those that follow college football.

Let’s see what the masses will say should, for example, TCU rides a perfect season to an easy spot in the playoff while Alabama gets denied a spot by Ole Miss upsetting them in the SEC title game in 2015.

There are other reasons why this shouldn’t happen. There’s little doubt the current schools don’t want their share of TV money going down, which would likely happen should they expand.

But there is another part of recent history that many people just keep ignoring as to why turning the Big 12 back into a “superconference” is a bad idea that could lead to the conference’s ruin. And we’ll touch on that next time.

For now, TCU and Baylor can still rule I-35

It’s a simple stretch of highway about 370 miles long that can be traversed in less than six hours, traffic permitting.

But that one north-south stretch of Interstate 35 that extends from central Oklahoma to central Texas might be the most important one in all of college football, as it is there that perhaps the four schools crucial to not only determining a conference championship but the national championship in 2015 lie.

What is even more amazing about the I-35 connection in the Big 12 is that at the moment, it’s not the two schools at the very ends in Norman and Austin where the power really lies but the two in between. Two small, denominational schools that are only part of the conference to keep it together have, for now, displaced the two huge state schools as the powerhouses of football in the Big 12 Conference.

Not only was it TCU and Baylor fighting for a spot in college football’s first top-level playoff and, to many, getting unjustly denied, but many have said the poor seasons that Texas and Oklahoma endured on their own ends contributed to the Horned Frogs and Bears getting left out, Yes, UT and OU are currently bringing the Big 12 down.

Can TCU and Baylor continue shifting the balance of power in the Big 12, and can their Big State competition find a way to get back on top? Let’s look at what each of the I-35 schools have looking forward:

TCU – The biggest thing about Gary Patterson and his program is they did not complain about getting snubbed for the college football playoff; they let the reporters and bloggers do that. Instead, the Horned Frogs proved themselves on the field with a thorough thrashing of Ole Miss in the Peach Bowl, with the only piece of excessive bragging being the makeshift championship belt that Trevone Boykin wore in the postgame celebration. And given that TCU only had 10 seniors on its two-deep roster, 2014 should not be a fluke. The Horned Frogs have depth, talent and a chip on their shoulders whether they want to admit it or not, and that should be trouble for all who want the title taken out of Fort Worth. The two biggest games in college football next year could be at Amon Carter Stadium when Baylor and Texas face the Frogs.

Baylor – At the moment, it looks like the only ones who can really stop the Bears are themselves. Baylor did the most complaining about getting left out of the playoff and had a chance to make the same statement as TCU, only to see a 20-point lead wither away against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl. Art Briles wanted to talk the talk, but next year, the Bears are going to need to walk the walk if they don’t want to come off as a paper tiger.

That alone, though, should show just how much things have changed in Waco. A program that just a few years back was thrilled to win two conference games a year now can’t be satisfied with two straight conference championships. With a new stadium and moony coming in from boosters like Texas Rangers owner Bob Simpson, Baylor can’t really tout the “little man” argument anymore. They’ve shown it can be done; the question now is if/how long they can sustain it.

Texas – The many haters of the Burnt Orange should enjoy kicking them while they’re down now, because it’s not likely that Texas will be down for very long. The Longhorns’ season may have ended in an embarrassment in the Texas Bowl, but Charlie Strong has only started building the type of program he wants. And with a surprisingly good recruiting class that includes top rated linebacker Malik Jefferson as well as his Mesquite teammate DeAndre McNeal, the questions as to whether his tough disciplinary attitude is a detriment have been assuaged for now.

As long as Strong and new athletic director Steve Patterson can keep the meddling boosters out of their business, Strong can build a program in Austin much like the one Patterson has in Fort Worth, and those boosters could see what happens when a tough coach brings in tough players as opposed to a glad-hander bringing in entitled blue-chippers. Texas may soon no longer be known as the team that only wins the big battles in February.

Oklahoma – Who would have thought that the weak spot in this chain would be u pin Norman, Oklahoma? An 8-4 season might not seem as embarrassing as what their Texas rivals endured, but a similar humiliation in the Russell Athletic Bowl (embarrassing enough that the Sooners had to take a game with only a corporate name) has left more than a few Sooner faithful wondering if Bob Stoops has overstayed his welcome. Had OU not beaten Texas – barely – this season, the grumbling might be worse. The one good sign is the surprising news that five-star quarterback recruit Kylar Murray might rescind his commitment to Texas A&M and come to Norman. It would be a big coup for Stoops to silence those who want to see the bleeding end quickly. OU hasn’t won an outright Big 12 championship since 2010, and for the pampered OU fans, that’s too long.

The worst part is that it’s not just on the field where Oklahoma is having problems. The “Pride of Oklahoma” marching band did not have a ton of pride to begin the season, as a student revolt almost broke out over the lack of faith in new band director Justin Stolarik and the new styles and themes he was incorporating into the program. It got so bad that numerous band members put out an ad in multiple newspapers calling for the director’s resignation – which they had to do anonymously due to a band bylaw that threatened expulsion of any member that spoke ill of the organization. Fortunately, Stolarik did step down in October and was replaced by former director Brian Britt, and the school has taken steps to remove that bylaw.

OU appears to have the pride of its band back; the next step is restoring the pride of its team. But that will not be an easy task in the Big 12 – especially with just the teams they have to deal with along that one stretch of I-35.