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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, A&M are Having to Learn Some Hard Lessons

We still have a month to go before the meaningful college basketball games get started, so I guess if I’m going to talk about college sports, I gotta talk about football.

Not that there’s much to talk about that’s very good all of a sudden. Three years ago, absolutely. But now, one of the “little programs that could” suddenly isn’t now that it’s with the big boys.

Geographically speaking, TCU belongs in the Big 12, and it was a move they should have been able to make long ago. But fitting in regionally is still one thing; whether or not they can compete regularly sadly still remains to be seen.

After six 10+ win seasons in the previous seven years, the Frogs’ inaugural Big 12 season saw them finish 7-6 and not win a conference game at home. The next year did not get better, finishing 4-8.

Injuries and inexperience may have played a big part, especially given that more than half their conference losses were by a field goal’s margin. But the one that really stung had to be that Saturday night on Oct. 26. With the mighty but supposedly fallen Texas Longhorns coming to Amon Carter for the first time since 1994, Frog fans were prepared to kick the Horns while they were down. Instead, they got a three-hour storm delay and a 30-7 whooping after that.

The last game couldn’t have been much better, losing at home – to Baylor. The school that for years had supposedly been proving the conference made the wrong decision in picking them, now standing tall as being one of the best in the country. The first two years had so far proven that little private schools like the one in Fort Worth perhaps couldn’t compete with the big boys after all – except that the little private school in Waco was now doing so.

Still, I’m sure TCU believes joining the Big 12 was the right decision, and I do respect their reasons. While other schools keep bolting conferences to whichever one can get them more TV money, with TCU, I’ve always had the feeling the desire to be in the Big 12 lied in getting back to more regional matchups and renewing rivalries with old Southwest Conference foes. (And I’m sure that desire also remains with SMU and other former SWC schools that have not been as lucky).

That can’t be said for the school down in College Station. And while Texas A&M may not have had as bad a season as TCU, the disappointment there has to be greater – and is more deserved for its arrogance.

Following their fast-track entry into the Southeastern Conference that saw them beat Alabama and ESPN loverboy Johnny Manziel, the Aggies were beyond certain that this year would prove they made the right decision in telling every other school in Texas to eff off and their fans to get excited for playing the likes of Auburn and Ole Miss. They were going to prove that moving to the SEC was no big deal after having to settle for being UT’s lapdog so many years in the Big 12, and now they were among the best.

That came crashing down quickly with a 3-3 second half that included losing their last two games. Instead of playing the Longhorns on Thanksgiving like they’re supposed to do, two days after Turkey Day the Aggies got beat by fellow Big 12 mutineer Missouri to finish the regular season a pedestrian 8-4 and a .500 record in the SEC.

Chew on this, Aggies. You finished with the same record as North Texas. Rice is going to play for a conference championship, and you’re not.

The wake-up call was loud and clear. By being the new guys, Texas A&M has a target on its back by the conference who’s consecutive national titles I’ve lost count of. And they’re probably going to have to do a lot more if they’re going to move up the SEC rankings (including a few things I can’t mention without libel accusations).

Don’t expect either of these schools or their supporters to be backpedaling, though.

Gary Patterson insists he knew preparing for the increased competition in the Big 12 would take time. His program is hoping the likes of DeSoto’s Desmon White or All Saints’ Foster Sawyer will solve their quarterback issues.

Texas A&M, meanwhile, appears to still have confidence in where they’re going, giving Kevin Sumlin a six-year contract extension. No one’s expecting Johnny Wonderboy, or whatever his name of the week currently is, to be wearing maroon next year, so now it’s really put-up-or-shut-up to see if the Aggies can bring in recruiting classes they’ll need in the SEC.

It remains to be seen if the local guys in Fort Worth will bounce back quicker than the ones in College Station. But so far, this hasn’t been what either school has hoped for with their new digs.