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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.