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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.


Why Can’t North Texas Teams Play Each Other Anymore?

Tonight is one of the nights I look forward to after a long off-season.

Tonight, Scott Cross’ UTA Mavericks finally begin their home season, kicking off UTA’s Homecoming celebration against the mighty, hated… Bulldogs of Samford.

Yeah, was this the game that had to get thrown in the last minute to replace the Lean Green chickening out? Not sure, but it’s a disappointing blow.

North Texas was supposed to come to the College Park Center for the first time this season. It was going to be the game that highlighted the non-conference schedule like Oklahoma coming to Arlington was last year. They’re not coming now. Second-year Mean Green coach Tony Benford cited the need for one more home game as the reason for the cancellation; no other game could be dropped to make room for it.

And the fact that the Mavericks have beaten the Green five of seven times since the rivalry was renewed had nothing to do with it, I’m sure.

On the flip side, TCU and SMU continued their series just a few days earlier, with the Mustangs beating the Frogs 69-61, amazingly at the American Airlines Center.

Of course, there was a time when this game meant more than just possibly Metroplex bragging rights – in all sports they took part in together.

There was a time when college sports meant something in Dallas-Fort Worth – maybe not as much at UTA, but definitely on the Fort Worth and University Park campuses. But their inability to be in the same conference since 2000 has wrecked the glory.

There’s little doubt the Southwest Conference’s breakup killed interest in college sports in DFW. It led to supposedly greater things for the campuses in Austin, Lubbuck and (finally) Waco, but the Metroplex’s teams have become afterthoughts as they spent years in conferences loaded with out-of-state opponents no one was interested in.

What is to blame for all this? Many still point to SMU’s football team getting the “death penalty” more than 25 years ago, turning it into an extremely toxic conference for recruits who didn’t want to play in a “dirty conference.” Yeah, because conferences and schools where teams give players illicit benefits is a turn-off – just like the University of Miami and more than half the SEC.

What’s likely more of a factor was the 1984 Supreme Court Ruling “NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma,” which firmly established that schools and conferences were free to negotiate their own television contracts outside the NCAA’s regulation. As a result, schools ever since have been looking for the bigger deal with the big network, or even starting their own network.

And the price paid for that? Conference and matchups the fans loved watching. The SWC breaking up to help form the Big 12 was just the beginning, as the Big East (now The American), SEC and Big Ten have begun poaching off teams left and right to make the next great superconference that will get them a Brinks truck from a network. And the fans have no choice but to settle for “new, great” conference matchups they have no interest in.

How would you like it if Jerry Jones suddenly decided the Cowboys needed to move to the AFC West? Or better yet, move into the Canadian League because they could actually win a championship there? Yeah, I know that’s a ludicrous idea. But so is West Virginia being in the same conference as Texas.

That’s what college fans have had to suffer. It’s not just the Texas-Texas A&M game that’s gone. Kansas no longer has Missouri or Nebraska on their schedules – despite them still being mentioned in their fight song.

And any complaints by the fans are met by condescending replies from administrators in the department saying “forget those old opponents. This is the best thing that’s going to happen to us.”

I know, because this carousel stopped and picked up UTA on the way.

I won’t stop saying I enjoyed playing in the Southland Conference. Being able to travel to the likes of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston was a joy every year. Now, one year I had to get geared up for Utah State and San Jose State, the next – Troy and Georgia State.

UTA has two D1 opponents from Texas this season – only one in-conference, thanks to the likes of UNT and UTSA choosing Conference USA over trying to establish a true Texas mid-major conference.

People within UTA’s athletic department have kept telling me that this is for the best because they couldn’t hope to advance in such an inferior conference. But why is that a bother when UTA doesn’t play a sport that is dependent on news polls and power rankings to make the postseason? Every sport they play, you get in by winning whatever conference you’re in.

TCU finally got its wish to join the Big 12 with the likes of Texas, Tech and Baylor, but SMU’s teams still struggle to fit old SWC opponents each year into their non-conference schedule. Heck, Texas A&M is now gone away from in-state competition, trying to sell its fans that it’s so much better to be playing the likes of Auburn, Kentucky and Florida and not one single Texas opponent.

Aggies will try to puff out their chests and say they’re glad to be in the SEC. But behind that exterior I’m sure is sorrow that they can’t get hyped for Baylor, Tech or other opponents that have proximity and actual meaning to.

Will eventually we get to what the UIL does, re-aligning all conferences every few years and telling rivalries and long-time matchups to just go to hell to look forward to what’s all shiny and new?

It seems to be the way things are going. Charming stadiums built for rowdy fans are getting torn down for glitzy revenue-building facilities, just like classic movies are getting buried in Netflix’s vaults as they get re-made by wannabe directors.

College sports was built on proximity matchups, rivalries and bragging rights. But all of that, especially in the Metroplex, was long destroyed by school administrators who’s eyeballs were bigger than their stomachs.

Manziel and Big-Time College Athletes Don’t Know How Good They Have It

I’ll give John Manziel this much credit. He clearly knows how to make money off of his name. He’s going to need that ability, as I doubt he’ll be playing much football once his time at Texas A&M is over, which may or may not happen soon.

Like I’m sure many are, I’m beyond tired of hearing what Johnny Goofball/Johnny Lohan/Johnny Khardashian or whatever you want do call him is doing next. But this most recent one is a biggie for sure, with reports that the most overly hyped college athlete out there took money from vendors in exchange for autographing so much stuff that his season might be in jeopardy from carpal tunnel. Or from the fact that that’s a pretty big no-no by the NCAA’s standards.

At first, it looked like Johnny getting the boot was a given. Then the press went and turned on the NCAA, pointing out how much stuff related to Johnny they were selling on their own website. Suddenly, people were no longer lashing out at a spoiled brat acting out like the rules don’t apply to him but instead going back to whining about the rules being unfair.

The NCAA actually acquiesced, and suddenly player shirts and jerseys were no longer for sale via the official NCAA shop. But the damage was done, with yet another outcry for the “owners” of college sports to stop profiteering and start actually  paying their athletes.

The ironic thing is that Manziel is one guy who more than anything is not hurting for money; he could have gone to A&M sans scholarship thinks to his supposedly wealthy parents. (I say supposedly because, according to guys like RIchie Whitt, Manziel’s family may not be as well off as some think.)

Yet he has become the new cover boy for the opponents of the NCAA’s strict guidelines on amateurism, saying it’s so unfair that student athletes generate so much revenue and get nothing in return.

Right. They’re getting shafted because all they get is a completely free ride to the college of their choice with room, board and no fear of leaving with any type of student debt. This argument is as old as what it’s arguing against, and it still stands.

Their supporters clam big time athletes should have the financial freedom to attend movies and buy their school’s own expensive clothing like everyone else. Never mind that most students who also work jobs can’t afford those activities either because they’re salvaging every dime they can to pay their student loans.

But above all that is the one factor so many ignore. Johnny Manziel and the athlete who could, in theory, deserve compensation, are the minority. Same goes for the schools that could actually afford to pay them.

To listen to the likes of Jay Bilas and Jason Whitlock, you would think every school in the nation that plays Division I football and/or basketball is a cash cow franchise that is just churning out millions of dollars on the backs of its beleaguered, hard-working, exploited athletes. Nothing could be further from the truth. For every University of Texas, there is a University of Texas-San Antonio, a school who’s entire athletics budget practically equals Mack Brown’s salary alone and struggles to stay within that. They don’t have obscenely wealthy boosters willing to fund UT’s decision to fly its entire football team to Dallas for its annual game vs OU, when Dallas is just a three-hour drive from Austin.

It doesn’t matter what sort of “compensation plan” these so-called experts could come up with that they think is fair, because 90 percent of the colleges out there still wouldn’t be able to pay it. I don’t think enough people know quite how bad the disparity between the haves and have-nots is; it’s already similar to forcing AA and AAA baseball teams to play against the majors every year, and you want to make it even worse? It’s bad enough that small schools have to subject themselves to getting blown out on Big U’s home field in exchange for a big check. (Really, UT? You’ll buy yourself an easy win vs New Mexico State but you won’t play A&M any more?)

Thus you would essentially destroy college sports by making it financially impossible for almost all of the schools who don’t play in those elite conferences (are there still six of those? My head’s still spinning from all the realignment.) to field a team. They now have to offer stipends for their athletes along with a full scholarship for a chance to compete? Hundreds of schools would be forced to say “I’m out.”

I will not deny that I am biased from having seen this first hand for years. My alma mater, UT-Arlington, hasn’t played football at even the I-AA level since Back to the Future was in theaters. As long as I can recall, our men’s basketball team couldn’t offer the maximum number of 13 scholarships; I can only hope that moving to College Park Center has helped alleviate this. What they do have, however, is an athletics program with integrity. They have never faced NCAA sanctions for cheating. They make sure they get student athletes who go to class. They graduate players.

There are actually more UTAs out there than University of Miamis, who just look to buy football players over real student athletes. The schools who use athletics the right way – allowing kids to use their abilities toward getting an education – greatly outnumber those who are using America’s obsession with football to make millions of dollars.

But too many people with microphones and keyboards think the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

Allowing the elite schools and programs to pay their athletes could only work if they were barred from competing against the rest of the NCAA programs. That’s even less likely to happen.

So, sorry to offend anyone, but here’s my take on Johnny Manziel and his cronies saying student athletes are being treated unfairly: Shut up.

You think it’s not fair that you toil for an organization that profits off your work without actually “compensating” you? Tell it to the millions of people who work unpaid internships during and after college just in the hopes that the experience will lead to something bigger.

Almost every athlete who could make money off himself from his play in college will once he’s eligible for the pros to come calling. Or, in the case of Manziel, just selling his own name.

The majority shouldn’t be forced to suffer just because you guys can’t be patient.

College Baseball Championship Central

QuikTrip Park, Grand Prairie

The Patriots’ quest for another NCAA bid came to an end as the Roadrunners rallied from an early 2-0 deficit to score all their runs in their last four innings at bat, including a four-run eighth to finish it off.

DBU 12, New Mexico St 4
By scoring four runs in the first inning and never looking back after that, the Patriots earned a spot in the WAC title game against San Antonio on Sunday.

DBU 7, Texas State 5
Michael Miller’s three-run homer in the fifth inning drove the Patriots forward to get their fist WAC Tournamnent win.

UTA 2, Texas State 11
The Mavs’ season ends with a 1-2 record in the WAC Tournament after the Bobcats rocked them for 15 hits. Starter Daniel Milliman only lasted two innings, allowing three runs on five hits.

UTA 3, New Mexico St 4
Down 4-0 with four outs to go, the Mavs could not complete a comeback and saw their shot at the WAC title game dashed.

The Mavs made the Patriots look foolish all night, recording 14 strikeouts, 11 of them from Brad Vachon.

Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, Oklahoma City

TCU 8 Oklahoma State 4
The Horned Frogs were two outs away from going down in their first tournament game but then exploded for six ninth-inning runs, starting with six straight base runners to take the lead. Keaton Jones took one for the team to go up in front, getting hit in the knee with the bases loaded.

TCU 3 West Virginia 10
The Frogs were completely sloppy in the field with nine errors that led to six unearned runs, as WVU scored four in the first two innings and another six in the 6th/7th.

TCU 0 Kansas 4
The Frogs’ season ended as they could get nothing off of Robert Kahana and the Jayhawks, stranding 11 runners on base for the game.

Amazingly, it may be the Horned Frog baseball team to see the most disappointment in the move to the Big 12. At least the basketball team had few expectations and can claim a win over Kansas. But barring a miracle run through this tournament, the Frogs are likely seeing their streak of making the NCAAs come to an end.
The tournament has been delayed by one day in light of the tornadoes that ravaged Oklahoma.

UTA men start season with victory; women not so lucky

Hours before UTA opened its season against Cal State Bakersfield, Scott Cross was struck by a car.

The Mavericks’ head coach, along with Dre Patterson, jumped away enough to avoid serious injury and walked away. Still, it probably made his team’s battle that night seem like a cakewalk.

That battle came down to the wire as the Mavericks pulled out a 62-60 win over the Bakersflied Roadrunners, getting the clutch plays they needed from Jordan Reves. more…