After almost two months of a public kabuki dance marked by Board of Regents meetings, authorizations authorizing prior authorizations and accidental web postings of press releases, Missouri has finally been officially invited to be the third group of Tigers in the SEC. Most people that have followed college conference changes closely over the past year (like most of the readers here) understand that it was pretty much a no-brainer move for Missouri. When I first started writing about conference realignment in connection with Big Ten expansion, I urged people to “Think like a university president and not like a sports fan.” In many ways, Missouri moving to the SEC is the ultimate example of this way of thinking (and why, as Andy Staples aptly points out in SI.com, a lot of fans not attuned to the business issues at hand have a hard time understanding it). Missouri is giving up several rivalries that have lasted over 100 years (including its most important one with Kansas), a Midwestern culture that most of the state’s population is a part of (even if certain parts such as Branson, AKA “Vegas for people without teeth”, might be more southern in nature) and Texas recruiting grounds all the while joining a meat grinder of a football conference. To many sports fans, this is insanity for Missouri to leave for the SEC. To university presidents that are looking for financial stability over everything else, though, the only insane choice would’ve been for Missouri to stay in the Big 12. It comes down to this: if you had to wager your life savings on whether the SEC or the Big 12 would be around in 10 years, which would you choose? Seeing how many times the Big 12 was placed on its deathbed over the last 18 months, it’s pretty simple to see that Missouri had to take a lifeline to head south.
In tandem with the Missouri news, West Virginia and the Big East are slapping each other with lawsuits with respect to the Mountaineers’ move to take the Tigers’ place in the Big 12. The core issue is the 27-month notice period that the Big East requires for schools that leave the conference. Now, as a lawyer that has the Lt. Kaffee “So this is what a courtroom looks like?” approach to litigation, I see the word “buyout” whenever I come across any long notice period in a contract. In practicality, most parties that intend to end a business relationship want to get it over with ASAP. At the same time, the law generally favors the payment of monetary damages as compensation for a breach of contract instead of specific performance. Putting aside the fact that West Virginia’s lawsuit against the Big East looks like it was written in crayon (this complaint is really about WVU trying to avoid having to pay any monetary damages at all, which won’t fly), there’s absolutely no freaking way that the school will be forced to stay for that entire 27-month period (which prevent a move to the Big 12 until the 2014 season). The Big East has to take a hardline posture on the notice period publicly in order to preserve its leverage against West Virginia (and, for that matter, its defectors to the ACC of Syracuse and Pittsburgh), but this is exactly the type of situation that calls for a financial settlement instead of specific performance. I could see the three Big East defectors staying for the 2012 season if the conference isn’t able to add its own expansion targets prior to that time (in which case, specific performance is necessary as a result of the Big East not having enough members to exist as a football league in 2012 if those defectors left at that time). However, with the expectation being that the “new Big East” would be in place in 2013, there’s little reason why West Virginia, Syracuse and Pitt would need to stay beyond that point provided that they pay monetary damages. (Note that while Syracuse and Pitt seem to be publicly quiet on the notice period issue, no one should take that to mean that they accept it. Rest assured, they’re trying to get out of the Big East with the same amount of urgency as West Virginia.)
Speaking of the Big East expansion targets, my football-only Big Country Conference dream has taken another step forward with the Idaho State Board of Education approving Boise State taking steps to join the Big East (although that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re joining as of yet). Boise State president Bob Kustra (who was actually Lt. Governor of Illinois under the Jim Edgar administration in the 1990s) actually had to be very forthright with the Board regarding the possible domino effect of the school’s potential move as it could very well impact the University of Idaho’s home of the WAC (which the Board also oversees). He noted that WAC members Louisiana Tech and New Mexico State could head to Conference USA while Utah State and San Jose State may end up in the Mountain West. That would mean that Idaho would be left behind with only newly admitted members Texas State and Texas-San Antonio. With all of the political issues with separating and/or joining schools in other states (i.e. Texas politicians forcing Baylor and Texas Tech into the Big 12, the Virginia legislature forcing UVA to get Virginia Tech into the ACC, the binding of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, etc.), it’s interesting to see that the Idaho State Board of Education is willing to send the Vandals’ entire athletic department to the intensive care unit so that Boise State can get an AQ conference football-only invite.
As I’ve stated in previous posts, I actually like the Big East’s intended expansion (adding Boise State, Navy and Air Force as football-only members and Houston, SMU and Central Florida as all-sports members) as a form of AQ status triage. If the Big East could get BYU to join as a football-only member, it would be an absolute coup. However, one major impediment (outside of BYU catching Notre Dame-itis in its view of its self-importance as an independent) is the widely rumored belief that Comcast/NBC may go after the Big East’s TV rights next year. (From everything that I’ve seen, this rumor is completely blog and message board speculation without any backup, so we must assume that it’s true!) Seeing that the entire reason why BYU left the Mountain West for independence was to get away from Comcast, I have a hard time seeing BYU joining the Big East if a Comcast deal is on the horizon. In turn, I also can’t see the Big East foreclosing any future media rights opportunities simply to add BYU. As with the Big 12, BYU’s TV rights situation is going to be the real issue with the school being an expansion target for the Big East as opposed to the red herring of Sunday play (which wouldn’t even apply in the case of a football-only invite).
Finally, we’ve gotten to the point in conference realignment where I hear “San Diego State is a Big East candidate” and don’t even flinch. Frankly, I like the Aztecs as much as any non-BYU western candidate for the Big East. The Big Country Conference is destined to be born.
(Image from In 10 Words)