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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.

Baylor’s Basketball Success Proves TCU Can Have It, Too

At 0-3 and staring at a game in Stillwater against No. 8 Oklahoma State, things do not look promising for Trent Johnson’s program, to say the least.

It’s not just that they’re winless in conference, they’ve barely been competitive, losing their last two games by an average of 22 points, Yes, they were against ranked opponents, but such is life in this conference.

But in that most recent loss, to the now No. 12 Baylor Bears, may lie the spark of hope that this dormant program can in fact be revived.

The Frogs are already looking at another year of finishing at the bottom of the highest ranked conference in the country unless something spectacular happens soon. Given that and the absolute apathy toward college basketball in DFW, one could call it a helpless cause to ever make TCU basketball relevant. But that can be countered with one simple response:

“If Baylor did it, why can’t we?”

It’s beyond amazing that Waco, Texas has suddenly become the epicenter of Big 12 athletics, likely to the chagrin of the two schools equidistant from Baylor (TCU for still stinging that Baylor got the original Big 12 bid over them, and Texas because… they’re Texas, they think they own everything). But what has happened at the Ferrell Center has to be considered leaps and bounds more miraculous than what has been happening at the soon-to-be-gone Floyd Casey Stadium.

For it was only 11 years ago that Baylor’s men’s basketball program was mired in what had to be the worst scandal in NCAA history, at least until what happened at Penn State in 2011. Yes, far, far worse than what happened at SMU in 1987.

A dead player murdered at the hands of a teammate? The coach trying to destroy the reputation of the slain player to hide the actual offenses he himself was committing? These were things not even the most shameless film director would put into a TV movie of the week.

Baylor received perhaps the worst NCAA sanctions ever outside of getting the actual death penalty, including being banned from non-conference games for a year. With that and one of the worst stigmas to stain any program, recovery for Baylor had to be considered non-existent in a conference where that have to deal with the likes of Texas, Kansas and other powerhouses.

Yet here Scott Drew’s program now stands, with an Elite Eight appearance and an NIT crown in the past two seasons.

So how can anyone following TCU in any capacity say no chance to Trent Johnson’s program doing it?

Several more steps need to be taken, but many of them are. Daniel-Meyer Coliseum, which my biased mind has called the worst of the three college buildings in the immediate Metroplex for years, is about to undergo a $45 million renovation that will include more seating and new locker rooms. Meanwhile, Johnson may want to have a lunches with Gary Patterson to learn some tips on how he launched his program into the spotlight.

TCU basketball still has a lot of work to do to get out of the cellar they’re in. But they don’t have the history of a murdered body among their player alumni. And if one program can rebuild around that, anything is possible.

Gary Patterson Represents the Good in College Football

Randy Galloway doesn’t call them “The Whiny Orange” for nothing.

Within days of the University of Texas announcing Charlie Strong as its new football coach, the high-dollar boosters began moping that their Brinks trucks of orange money could not lure the likes of Nick Saban, Art Briles or Jon Gruden to Austin, led by Red McCombs going on San Antonio radio and coming off like the ultimate racist hick upset that a black man will lead his team for the first time ever.

I have heard from people with connections to the UT athletic department that essentially, people like McCombs are the reason no high-profile coach will come to UT. Sure, there are boosters like that at every major school, but UT’s base may be the absolute worst at having their claws sink into the department – unless people like Strong and new AD Steve Patterson can wrench them out.

Time for the Orangebloods to come down to earth: Texas is not THAT much better of a job than Alabama, a program that won six national championships before you won your first, And Briles? If you CAN beat them, don’t join them. And Gruden has such a cushy job with MNF that he should never coach again.

None of those coaches were going anywhere. But it’s amazing that one other coach was not in the running – unless it’s already accepted that he’s never going anywhere else. And that is among the reasons why that coach is one even I can salute.

People want me to say something good related to football? Here you go. With accused rapists leading their teams to national championships and programs getting slaps on the wrist for violations worse than what SMU did in the 80s, one shining beacon of hope has been the man running the show over in Fort Worth.

Who would have thought that Gary Patterson would still be the coach at TCU today? When Patterson took over for the departing Dennis Franchione in 2000, many thought that, at best, he could maintain what had been going for three years and then bolt for greener pastures like his predecessor.

Instead, what we have seen is nearly a decade and a half of Patterson running The Little Program That Could, causing fits to the big boys and the national sports pundits who kiss those schools’ butts. And his program is dang proud of it.

He wouldn’t stand for his team being disrespected for playing the “little sisters of the poor,” but he ultimately let his players answer that by beating Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl and earning the program’s highest raking ever. He wouldn’t let the school’s constant shifting from conference to conference affect his program, which has consistently won from the WAC to Conference USA to the Mountain West.

What’s more, Patterson has proved that his program will be run with integrity. In the Frogs’ first ever Big 12 season, he did not hesitate to suspend his starting quarterback for drug use. Let’s see him do that, even for a greater offense, at UT or, say Florida State, and survive.

That brings us to another group of people that deserve some credit: The TCU boosters. They keep ponying up the cash to keep Patterson at their school, but they don’t meddle. They trust that he’s doing the right thing. And that’s why Patterson should get the time he needs to build the program to the level where it can compete with Texas and Oklahoma consistently. Hey, if Baylor found a way to do it…

He might have gotten more money going somewhere else. But by staying at TCU, he has achieved something more valuable: The status of a legend.

Maybe I’m naive, but it’s starting to look like the attitudes of college coaches may be changing. The practice of breaking contracts to get more money at a “high-level” program may not be happening as often as people think. Why take a few million more for the headaches of unrealistic expectations if you can still get a good salary AND the chance to do something really special where you are?

And if that mindset is beginning to take hold, a lot of credit should go to Gary Patterson, whether he meant to or not, for making it popular.

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.

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.