(The National will return in its usual slot tomorrow.)
For the last couple of years, the primary presumption in realignment has been that the endgame would be sixteen-team megaconferences. Endless words have been spilled regarding the inherent badness of the idea, primarily due to the idea that those conferences would really be two separate 8-team leagues in an alliance rather than a "real" conference. One argument that hasn't been made enough, however, is that giant conferences simply don't work. Yesterday, news broke which adds another bullet to that clip. An existing megaconference, with a notable split in culture and philosophy between its football-playing members and those members without football, is breaking up.
No, it's not the Big East, but it's a disturbing parallel, and a good jumping-off point to discuss the entire concept of megaconferences.
In 1924, West Virginia and Marshall helped form the West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Association. They soon left, but over the years the conference continued gathering in members. Starting with the addition of the state's two historically black college (West Virginia State and Bluefield State), by the 1990s every four-year college in West Virginia save the two FBS schools and Mountain State was a member of the conference, and they still weren't done. West Virginia Tech left to join the NAIA, but were replaced by the conference's first out-of-state members in Pitt-Johnstown and Seton Hill, and the WVIAC sat at 15 members. (A proposal to add a 16th member, Virginia-Wise, was rejected in 2011).
Six of the conference's fifteen schools do not sponsor football. Yesterday, the nine football schools announced that effective in July 2013 they would be departing the WVIAC to start a new league, with the intention of adding three schools from... somewhere... in order to get to twelve members. Obviously, this leads to the death of an important league in the small-college ranks; the WVIAC has the distinction of operating the nation's oldest continuous post-season tournament, having determined its champion that way since 1936 -- even before the NIT came into existence. It will also signal the death of a completely unique quirk among all college athletic conferences, as due to its size and the lack of a balanced round-robin the WVIAC has used a ratings system to determine its final standings in every sport save football -- and has done so for literally decades now, even before the use of objective criteria became a mainstream thing. That will go away when the conference splits, and although most people are completely unaware of this quaint little practice, the loss of a unique quirk is a loss to the flavor of college sports.
Of course, most people don't care about any of this. The important part of this, to most people, is what it may mean going forward for Division I.The tribulations of the WAC, of course, are well documented. Any college sports fan with even a moderate interest in what goes on beyond his own team's games and the Top 25 knows the story; once a perfectly viable league known for its high-octane offenses, the WAC made the fateful and doomed decision to expand to sixteen teams in the wake of the Southwest Conference's collapse. It only took three years for the beast to collapse, as the old-school members, infuriated over the loss of annual rivalry games with familiar faces and a crazy pod system where teams switched divisions in order to accommodate a rotation, broke away to form the Mountain West. Thirteen years later, the WAC will have exactly zero of those 16 schools on the membership rolls come 2013, and is dead as a football conference (and possibly as a conference, period).
Unfortunately, the WAC is the only piece of data most people know to point to as evidence that mega-conferences don't work out, and it's a point which can easily be dismissed by most by suggesting that it was just a case of "inviting the wrong schools" and "ridiculous travel demands". Those two points are accurate; they're also irrelevant.
We can set aside antediluvian beasts such as the SIAA, which once included seemingly every school south of the Ohio River before morphing into the Southern Conference and then losing first the SEC schools, then the ACC schools. Obviously, there are parallels even here, but attempting to compare the breakup of the SIAA to anything is foolish; it should be obvious to everyone that such a conglomeration couldn't exist in any modern environment. Setting aside pre-WWII organizations, then, there have been a total of 21 conferences which have expanded to 14 or more teams. Only four of them still exist with 14 or more football-playing members. Here's a capsule look at all of them, just for the sake of comparison:
Atlantic 10 Conference: Basketball-only, and robust enough to hold onto its membership count by picking off the best mid-majors. Status: Lost Temple and Charlotte, shrugged, grabbed Butler and VCU. 14 teams, non-football.
Big East Conference: There's really not much I can say about the Big East's situation that you're not all perfectly aware of. It's the most high-profile example of how a large membership with wildly disparate aims simply cannot achieve stability, and indeed must resort to sheer lunacy just to stay afloat. Status: Still relevant in basketball, but consigned to second-tier status in football. 18 members, 8 non-football, plus three associate members for football.
Mid-American Conference: The fourteen-team MAC lasted for basically the duration of an athlete's eligibility, shrinking back to 12 when Marshall and Central Florida decamped for Conference USA. Status: Stable, but no longer in the 14+ club. They tried to get back there, but then Temple went and bailed before UMass could join the party. 13 teams, 1 football-only.
Southeastern Conference: We just don't know how this is going to work, although obviously the money's there to keep everyone honest for a long time to come. Still... it's only 14 members, not 16, right? Status: Added Missouri and Texas A&M. 14 teams.
Western Athletic Conference: For all that the expansion to 16 teams was an abject failure, had they simply stopped at 14 -- leaving San Jose State and a Texas school out -- they may have survived. Since 1999, it's just been one disaster after another. Status: Still desperately trying to stay alive as a basketball league, but even that's going to require raiding the Great West. Doomed as a football conference, barring a massive influx from FCS. 5 teams, 3 non-football.
Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference: The former home of current D-I doormat New Jersey Tech, and the current home of legendary small-college program Philadelphia (formerly known as Philadelphia Textile). It's a bit of a cheat to put the CACC on this list, as Georgian Court is a women-only school. Status: they're stable, but they also have no football schools (a theme) and are concentrated in a very tight geographic footprint. 13/14 members.
Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: Mostly notable as the home of all those weird hockey schools you've never heard of that play Michigan, and as the home of football power Grand Valley State. Status: mostly stable for the moment, but cultural differences between the long-term members in the North Division and the relative newcomers in the South Division, as well as the creation of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference and the pressures of multiple NAIA schools in Ohio now jumping to D-II, may result in the loss of several schools down the road. There is no football/basketball divide here; only Lake Superior State has no football program, and the league has consistently included an associate member in that sport to take their place. 14 members.
Great Lakes Valley Conference: For 34 years, this was a basketball-only conference, and with the exception of Missouri-Saint Louis had no presence west of the Mississippi. Now, over half the conference is either in Missouri or downstate Illinois after rapid expansion to 16 members, and the conference will be sponsoring football beginning this fall. Status: Already taking hits. Kentucky Wesleyan, which does field a football team (badly), jumped to the new GMAC, while Northern Kentucky, a powerhouse in basketball which has no football team, is moving up to D-I and the Atlantic Sun. Just last week, the league applied a band-aid, "stealing" Truman State from the much more powerful MIAA just as they had Missouri-Rolla several years before. There's a reason those schools were willing to make the move, however: they weren't going to be winning any championships in the MIAA anytime soon. 16 members, only half of whom play football.
Gulf South Conference: The home of D-II powers North Alabama, Valdosta State, and Delta State. Between 1993 and 2000, the Gulf South made a bold series of moves to expand into Arkansas, aided by the collapse of the Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference as its members started moving from the NAIA to D-II. Seven Arkansas schools eventually joined the conference, in addition to Alabama-Huntsville, West Florida, Montevallo, and Christian Brothers. In 2005, the GSC had 17 members. Twelve played football, five did not; six were in Arkansas, eleven were not. Status: Those two dichotomies have led to a major fracture. Central Arkansas jumped to D-I, which had nothing to do with anything, but Lincoln Memorial and Montevallo both left to get away from the football powers. Worse, though, was the defection of all the remaining Arkansas schools last year to help form the Great American Conference, which left the Gulf South stable for basketball, but crippled with only five members in football. (That three of those five made the D-II playoffs last year is relevant, but it's still a problem.) New Orleans was going to join and start playing football, but bailed out to stay in D-I; Shorter and Union are moving from the NAIA to shore up the foundation. Yet the conference is still on the verge of disaster, as North Alabama is very, very seriously considering a move to D-I, and it's an idea that is not out of the question for Valdosta or Delta either. 10 members, down from 17.
Lone Star Conference: From 1995-2000, had seventeen members, and fifteen from 2000-2011. Then the Oklahoma schools (except Cameron, which doesn't have a football team) split to join the Arkansas schools in the Great American Conference. Status: Now down to eleven members, one of which has no men's sports, and another with no football. They'll survive just fine, especially since there's a new D-II school in Texas they can snatch up (McMurry, whose football team is now being run by Hal Mumme). 11 members, down from 17.
Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association: A long-stable league which in the 1990s shored up their losses to D-I (Missouri State, Southeast Missouri State) by adding the remnants of the old Central States Conference (Pittsburg State, Washburn Emporia State, Fort Hays State, Missouri Southern, and Missouri Western). Another long period of stability ensued before the league embarked on an audacious expansion plan, swelling their membership to 16 teams and planning to turn their back on non-conference football play altogether. Status: The problem: those 16 teams never managed to come together. The first addition, Nebraska-Omaha, turned around and bolted for D-I a full year before Nebraska-Kearney, Central Oklahoma, Lindenwood, and Northeastern State were even able to arrive. Truman State's departure for the GLVC is actually a blessing in disguise for the conference, as it saves them from the trouble of trying to figure out how to schedule with 15 teams. 14 teams, up from 10 but down from an expected 16.
Northeast Ten Conference: Apparently, it's impossible to have the word "ten" in your conference's name and actually have ten teams. The conference has posted a net gain of four members since 2000. Status: Mostly stable, despite seven of the sixteen members not sponsoring football. This is the counter-example, although its stability can be explained: the conference is geographically compact, and is a basketball powerhouse while essentially treating football as a lark (i.e., no school in the conference really views becoming a D-II football power as a major life goal). Further, none of these schools seem inclined to jump to D-I, though three schools have in the last 25 years (Hartford, Bryant, Quinnipiac). 16 teams, 9 football.
Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference: Half of this conference wasn't here seven years ago. The landing place for the remnants of the defunct North Central Conference, which collapsed when the Dakota schools and Northern Colorado jumped to D-I. Status: Still growing, but it's now reached maximum density with the addition this year of NAIA expatriates Minot State and Sioux Falls. The conference seems mostly stable, but part of that stability rests in the conference's explicit recognition that it is, for all intents and purposes, two leagues operating under one banner. Conference leadership has also been very careful to avoid allowing that split to turn into an "old guard vs. new guys" paradigm by dividing the league north/south rather than east/west. The lack of any non-football schools is also a plus, as is the conference's geographical location itself; only an actual split of the conference could induce anyone to leave. Warning sign: There are four teams in this conference who could, with a little work, jump to D-I. 16 teams, up from 8 in 2005.
Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference: The most stable possible grouping of 16 teams imaginable, and even then there are a couple of cracks in the pavement. The conference really is two leagues operating as one, so much so that the schedule for the final week of the football season is not set in stone until the division champions are determined. Status: The conference consists of the 14 state colleges in Pennsylvania, plus two private schools in Erie; obviously, geography AND institutional ties are a big factor in the stability of the PSAC. (In football, Long Island-C.W. Post replaces Mansfield, which dropped football.) However, the WVIAC's decision to break up may have an impact, as you can bet the new WVIAC is going to be lobbying some of these schools to defect. 16 teams.
Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference: Let's be honest here. You can't ever assume the stability of a conference which looks back on the days when it counted Colorado, Colorado State, Utah, BYU, Wyoming, Montana State, and Denver among its members. There have been two other major alterations to the RMAC's lineup; first, the temporary inclusion of Fort Hays State, Washburn, and Southern Utah in the 70s, and then a merger with the former Colorado Athletic Conference, which brought in the current non-football schools. Status: Potentially combustible. The conference loses Nebraska-Kearney to the MIAA this year, and their response move was to add Black Hills State. That expands the travel footprint, and accomplishes little else other than to keep the roster from depleting. Further expansion would be disastrous -- yet is entirely possible, as South Dakota Mines is sitting there begging for an invitation. 14 teams, 4 non-football.
West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference: already discussed, of course.
American Southwest Conference: The stability of this conference has always been sort of non-existent beyond the core membership. Status: Four teams are leaving over the next two years, two of them departing in order to bolster the ranks of the only other conference from which the ASC could steal members. 16 teams, 7 non-football; dropping to 12 teams, 5 non-football in 2013.
New England Football Conference: Golly, this used to be the ur-example of how to do 16 teams right. What happened? Status: The eight schools which are components of the Massachusetts State system -- and, oh by the way, which have always competed in the MASCAC for all other sports -- are leaving, along with Plymouth State, in 2013 and just having the MASCAC sponsor football. What a crazy idea, huh? 8 teams.
American Mideast Conference: Sometimes, it's not sponsoring football at all that kills you. At one point, this conference had 22 members. Status: Bled dry by schools moving to D-II or opting against all geographical logic to play in the Mid-South Conference, this conference is now essentially defunct. 3 teams, none with football, all desperately looking for a home.
Mid-States Football Association: Another case of "we're really two different leagues", so much so that the division champions both receive automatic bids to the NAIA playoffs. As such, only listed as a technicality. Two leagues, six and eight teams.
Southern States Athletic Conference: A bold expansion swept up all the... ah... how to put this... okay, let's just be blunt. The Gulf Coast Athletic Conference was an odd mix of moneyed white schools and small private HBCUs. The HBCUs got left behind when five schools bolted to join the SSAC. I don't see any underhanded motivation there, do you? Status: There's nothing really holding this conference together other than geography and a lack of melanin. Indeed, they lose a member this year, as Shorter jumps to D-II and joins the Gulf South; Coastal Georgia, converting from a JUCO to a four-year institution, replaces them. 15 teams, only two with football.
What's All This Tell Us?
The immediate response some people might have is, "So what? The money's not there to tie these guys together. It will be in D-I superconferences." This misses a very cogent point, however. In the case of D-I conferences considering an expansion, money is the only justification -- so much so that perfectly logical moves are not being made because they don't add to the bottom line. In every case listed above where the 14+ model has thus far been successful, there is some compelling reason why those schools are remaining tied to one another, be it tight geography, institutional cohesion, or simply decades of familiarity (and even that excuse, as we now see with the WVIAC, doesn't cut it when other matters surge to the forefront). The lack of money is just as relevant a point as its existence. The Arkansas and Oklahoma schools didn't leave the Gulf South and Lone Star conferences over revenues. They left because their connection to their former conferences simply wasn't in their DNA. For that matter, the WAC expanded for money, seeking the additional revenue the conference championship game would bring, and then later the MWC schools didn't leave the WAC over money. They left because they just didn't fit.
Even those conferences that are stable at 14+ have major risks involved. The safest of them, the PSAC, is a potential target right now, as we speak. Am I arguing that 16 teams cannot work? No. Not at all. In fact, the presence of Division I television money does alter the mechanism. But I think it's critically important that when looking at the possibility of a mega-conference, one must take into account all the former attempts at forming one, and look at why they failed or succeeded. Florida State to the Big 12 sounds like lots of fun, and financially it would be a good thing for all parties involved... but there are other aspects that must be considered. Adding the wrong team (or teams) in an effort to chase anything -- be it money, regional dominance, or simply regional stability -- can ultimately destroy your entire conference. You need to consider that risk before stepping into the lion's den.