College conferences are going through a major upheaval – perhaps the biggest in the history of college sports.
In the past year, we’ve seen Nebraska join the Big Ten, Colorado and Utah join the Pac-10, and, this week, Syracuse and Pittsburgh join the Atlantic Coast Conference – geography be damned. In fact, DePaul, Marquette and Texas Christian University just joined the Big East. Which raises the question: Just how big is the East, anyway? Big enough to swallow half the Midwest and a chunk of Texas?
I’ve noticed a lot of people who don’t care that much about sports seem to care a lot about this. For non-sports fans, college conferences are kind of like your parents as you get older. You might not check in with them every day, but it’s good to know they’re there, safe and sound.
Our conferences have been there much longer, of course. Way back in 1895, seven university presidents – not athletic directors or coaches – created what we now call the Big Ten. Those seven presidents didn’t do it to make money. They thought it unseemly for a university to charge anybody anything to watch their students play football. The presidents didn’t discuss marketing or “branding,” either. They simply wanted to ensure everybody representing their university was a bona fide student, an amateur athlete, and safe. A good start. The Big Ten served as the model for just about every conference that followed, coast to coast.
Like so much that is great about college athletics, those conferences formed organically and authentically, bringing together schools of similar size, quality and character. They also defined our regions better than any labels.
What is the Midwest? Depending on who’s talking, it could span from Pennsylvania to Montana, and from North Dakota to Oklahoma. But when someone said “Big Ten Country,” you knew they meant the Great Lakes. The Big Eight meant the Plains States – nearby, maybe, but night and day to those of us who live in Big Ten Country. The Southeast Conference was fundamentally different from the Atlantic Coast Conference. And the Ivy League – well, that one always spoke for itself.
Schools bragged not just about their teams, but about their leagues, painting the logos on their fields and their courts. Books were written about those leagues – lots of them. If you went into a sports bar in any of those college towns, you’d see the banners of all the league teams hanging overhead – including those of their rivals, of course. And no sport has better rivalries than does college football.
I have never attended Indiana or Wisconsin or Michigan State, but I’ve visited all those beautiful campuses many times, and met their proud graduates in Chicago, where every Big Ten alum seems to end up.
This stability shuffled a bit in the 1990s, when independent schools started joining their nearest conferences, but that only seemed to strengthen both sides of the equation. But now the whole jigsaw is up in the air, and it’s all based on two things: Money, and fear – the fear that some other football team will make more money than you. These changes threaten just about everything that millions of us love about college sports, including its unique geography, history, and even identity. They tear apart rivalries that go back to the beginning of modern sport.
The contemporary carnival barkers who make these deals never ask the fans, or even the coaches. And certainly not the players.
I believe in amateur athletics, and I believe in the ideal of the student-athlete – and I’ve gotten to know hundreds of true student-athletes over the past three years. But the arguments for these principles get harder and harder to make when cynical and crass conference free-for alls threaten the very foundation of the entire enterprise.
One thing I’ve learned the hard way: the fans of college football love it much more than the people who run it.
About the author: John U. Bacon is the author of the upcoming “Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football,” due out Oct. 25. You can pre-order the book from Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor or on Amazon.com.
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