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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.


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.