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.

Big East’s Breakup Has a Familiar Southwest Feel

Once upon a time there was a conference called the Big East. You should have seen it.

It wasn’t known as a great football conference, which is why it might not have been as well known to the people of the South and West. It was known as a basketball conference, and that was all it needed to be for years. Its collection of Northeastern powerhouse programs like Connecticut, Syracuse, Villanova and Georgetown all vied for basketball supremacy in the nation besides just their conference, culminating with the annual Big East Tournament at the ultimate venue, Madison Square Garden. It was so deep in the 1980s that 1985 saw three Big East teams reach the Final Four.

Sadly, the good times were not to last. On Sunday, March 17, 2013, Louisville defeated Syracuse in the tournament final, and the conference as it has been known for years ceased to be. The Big East will still exist, and MSG will still host the tournament, but it may be a shell of its former self thanks to football, greed and bitterness tearing it apart.

Earlier this season, a collection of schools within the bloated conference, which became known as the “Catholic 7” for all the schools being affiliated with that sect, declared they were splitting up with the ever growing number of other schools that was approaching 18 and might never have stopped. Negotiations finally allowed them to officially part following the 12-13 seasons and take the Big East name with them.

This was only the final blow in what had been boiling for years. As the conference began adding more and more teams further and further away from the Northeast to try and increase its status as a football school, it saw its older teams depart – West Virginia to the Big 12, Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the ACC. This was years after they had already lost Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC. After the conferenced declared it would add SMU, Houston, Boise State and San Diego State, the Catholic 7 finally said enough. No more of long time traditional basketball schools like Georgetown, St. Johns and Villanova having to travel further and further for conference games so this group could claim it was a football conference – a sport that none of the Catholic 7 played at the D1 level anyway. They were being disrespected and cast aside like the red-headed stepchild, and they were finally taking their ball and leaving.

They would take the name, but the tradition was lost for good in the breakup, as the departures of Syracuse, West Virginia and Pitt had already guaranteed the conference would be beyond anything people would recognize.

One might wonder why this story is being told on a site dedicated to North Texas sports. But the scene is all too familiar to what happened in this state nearly 20 years ago, when another tradition-rich conference ceased to be due to greed and infighting. Granted, the Southwest Conference was more known for football, and the Big East isn’t completely dissolving like the SWC did in 1995, but the similarities are there.

Many still point the finger at the small campus in Dallas’ backyard for the SWC’s end, blaming SMU’s “death penalty” scandal in 1987, but that’s a cheap scapegoat. Once the path was cleared for conferences to negotiate their own TV contracts, the Southeastern Conference poached away Arkansas, who gave up its status as the SWC’s outsider to a lifetime of mediocrity in the SEC. (Though the Razorbacks have won a national championship since the move – in BASKETBALL.) With the SEC forming the first “super conference” with a championship game, Texas jumped at its opportunity to make big money and partnered with Texas A&M, Texas Tech and the Big 8 to form the Big 12, and the SWC was dead. Feelings were hurt everywhere with the conference’s end, especially in Fort Worth, where they felt the Big 12 pulled a dirty deal with then-governor Ann Richards to bring in her alma mater Baylor over TCU.

The aftermath of that divorce is still felt in Texas. SMU and TCU have refused to be part of the same conference since the Frogs left the WAC – the second of five conference changes TCU has made since 1995. SMU was willing to become a real outsider in the Big East for a shot at a BCS game – a shot that no longer exists. And then, the most shocking breakup of all: Texas A&M leaving the Big 12 and ending its rivalry with Texas due to the Longhorns’ arrogance and the Aggies’ jealousy over the Longhorn Network, which almost tore apart the Big 12 as well.

Fans of college sports in Texas are now forced to hear from their schools that A&M playing Mississippi and Florida or SMU facing UConn will be just as good as when they all faced each other for bragging rights in the Lone Star State.

Now the fans who grew up with the Big East and looked forward to their rivalries are being forced to hear the same snake oil sale. So what that UConn may never play Syracuse again? They now get to face Clemson and Florida State! C’mon, West Virginia fans – you can get just as fired up for playing Texas Tech and Baylor as you did for Pitt!

But no, it won’t be the same. College sports were built on regional rivalries – being able to brag to your compatriots that your school beat their school from just 50-100 miles away, not the school 900 miles away.

As the Catholic 7 look to find members to flesh out the new Big East and the dumped other members that include SMU, Houston and Cincinnati try to find a name for what’s left of their conference, the fans who looked forward to those road trips to old rival teams and bragging to familiar opponents at MSG are the ones getting the shaft.

Just like the fans of the Southwest Conference got it in 1995. All because of greed tearing tradition apart.