Tis’ the season for debating who’s the #2 team in the country (personally, I feel that Oklahoma State’s better wins trump Alabama’s better loss) and unsubstantiated Internet rumors spreading like wildfire. Coaches are getting hired and fired, conferences are giving away free tickets to championship games, BCS systems are about to get dismantled*, the founder of Jimmy John’s is going to bankroll a Division I hockey program at Illinois and, of course, the Big 12 is getting ready to kill the Big East again. Kirk Bohls of the Austin American-Statesman lit a match the other day stating that the Big 12 presidents would be discussing expansion again this week while Big East Coast Bias passed along some tidbits that Louisville football coaches were telling recruits that the school would be switching conferences soon. If there’s one thing that I know, it’s that I’ve never, ever, ever heard of a coach misleading a high profile recruit in order to induce him to commit to a program. Why do you think Urban Meyer was named after a pope? A coach stretching the truth with a recruit would be an unprecedented event in the history of the NCAA, so what’s being passed along by the Louisville coaches must be ironclad solid information.
(* With the prospect of a return to a late-90s bowl system, I sincerely wracked my brain to think of a way to incorporate a Semisonic reference into my last post, but to no avail. Lo and behold, Grantland published a full-scale analysis the very next day about the staying power of the band’s singular hit “Closing Time” after all of these years. Note that this song came out right smack dab in the middle of my college years and I allegedly went to a lot of bars during that time period where this had to be played every night at last call, so that Grantland piece was right in my wheelhouse. My nomination for a contemporary song that will be the equivalent of “Closing Time” in the next 10 to 15 years: Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite”. It’s a peppy song that can be played in a whole variety of venues (it seems to be inexplicably replacing the more topical “Freeze Frame” by the J. Geils Band as the standard crowd music during NFL replay challenges), slightly kitschy but not so much where it crosses into limited life gimmicky territory (unlike many songs by Katy Perry and that no talent assclown Ke$ha), and incredibly simple earwormy lyrics that everyone from toddlers to grandmothers can instantly remember. Let me know if you have any other suggestions, but I have a feeling that “Dynamite” is going to still be played in every club across America at least once per evening in 2020.)
(** Furthering the college nostalgia kick, my best friend from college (a random freshman roommate placement success story) and I ate enough sandwiches at the Urbana Jimmy John’s at 3 a.m. to fund their entire expansion into Chicagoland. We deserve a hockey team, dammit!)
So, let’s enter into a mode of suspension of disbelief where there is a world that allows the Big 12 to make more television revenue by going to 12 schools instead of staying at 10 and Texas is willing to add more members. From what I see, there are three potential pairings from the Big East – two of them have been talked about quite a bit, while the third is what I would do if I were Big 12 commissioner:
Conservative Option: Add Louisville and Cincinnati – This is the straightforward geographically-friendlyish option that would connect West Virginia with the rest of the Big 12. The problem that I see here is that if the Big 12 really wanted to go this route, it would’ve been done already. There aren’t any strings attached to these schools in the manner of BYU, so this is too easy of a move for the Big 12 to be waiting on as an ultimate plan. (The same could be said about the prospect of the ACC taking both Rutgers and UConn. If that was really the league’s expansion plan, it would’ve been done months ago.) I’ve always believed Louisville was a very viable option for the Big 12, but Cincinnati seems like they’re being used as a stalking horse in the same manner that the Big Ten used Missouri and Rutgers. The next option has a slight variation…
Aggressive Option: Add Louisville and Rutgers – This scenario was given credence in an interview by Oklahoma president David Boren, who mentioned both of these schools by name in connection with future Big 12 expansion. While Rutgers obviously has a distance disadvantage from the rest of the Big 12, the addition of West Virginia has made a potential move further into the Northeast much more palatable. West Virginia is actually about equidistant from both Rutgers and Louisville (about a 6 hour 30 minute drive from each), so Morgantown could be looked as a geographic pivot point. The Big Ten and ACC may not find Rutgers delivers enough of the New York/New Jersey market to justify adding them, but the Big 12 has a lot more leeway to take a risk there. This scenario seems much more realistic to me with more upside for the Big 12 compared to a Louisville/Cincinnati combo. However, there’s one other option that I haven’t really seen…
Nor’easter Option: Add Rutgers and UConn as all-sports members and Notre Dame as a non-football member – Whoa! You’re probably asking what I’m thinking here. Well, let’s go back to the premise that West Virginia makes further inroads into the Northeast much more feasible for the Big 12. Rutgers and UConn as a pair would have a much more powerful network effect in the Tri-State area than if Rutgers was taken alone. Just as the theory when those schools were being considered for the Big Ten was that visiting schools like Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State would drive interest in the New York City metro, it would be the same with Texas and Oklahoma coming in to play.
If there’s one thing that the Big 12 showed when it chose West Virginia over Louisville as school number 10, it was that when push came to shove, old money trumped the noveau riche. Rutgers is certainly old money as a participant in the very first college football game. Meanwhile, UConn is a very interesting case that makes it difficult to judge how other power conferences value them in realignment. From a pure football standpoint, UConn is a newbie with a Division I-A program that isn’t even a decade old yet. This is a massive negative to the Big 12, Big Ten and ACC that I don’t think many realignment observers and UConn supporters fully appreciate. Power conferences want to see a long football history, even if it’s a bad one like Rutgers has. (If UConn ultimately gets left behind while other Big East teams leave for greener pastures, it will be for this reason. That would be a shame as UConn really has done a pretty good job building up the respectability of its football program in a very short period of time.) However, UConn looks like an old money school in other ways as a flagship university with solid academics and an extended history of success in the Big East in non-football sports (especially men’s and women’s basketball). Fitting for a Big East school, it’s truly a hybrid.
We also need to take into account the gorilla waiting in the mist: Notre Dame. Recall that DeLoss Dodds has openly stated that he would happy to invite Notre Dame as a non-football member and Chip Brown reported that the Irish were looking to do just that. So, Texas is certainly on the record that it’s willing to play ball with Notre Dame in their quest to preserve independence, and where Texas goes, the Big 12 usually follows. If the Big 12 were to add Rutgers and UConn, that would remove a massive reservation that Notre Dame has in joining that conference, which is that it doesn’t have any Northeastern presence as of now. This ends up being a pretty good setup for Notre Dame where it would be in a league that has a couple of East Coast schools along with other athletic departments like Texas that are much more like financial peers to the Irish (unlike the other Catholic members of the Big East).
To be sure, I’ve previously warned that the non-Texas Big 12 members may not be keen on allowing Notre Dame to have partial membership as that would set a dangerous precedent for Texas to do the exact same thing down the road (which would be disastrous for the rest of the Big 12). Still, there are certainly benefits if Notre Dame agrees to an iron-clad scheduling arrangement where the Irish play 3 or 4 games per year (which is much more realistic than the 6 suggested by Brown) against Big 12 opponents. Schools that would not get a sniff of an opportunity to play Notre Dame would get to do so and a couple Domer games per year would get into the Big 12’s TV package. Plus, there’s value to the Big 12 in keeping Notre Dame as an independent. Notre Dame is an effective requirement in order for either the Big Ten or ACC to expand, and if either of them get the Irish, they could very well grab more Big 12 teams (most notably Texas itself) on top. (The same applies to the Big East, which is why that conference was always willing to tow the line for Notre Dame. The Irish could unilaterally sign the death warrant of the league at any time by joining either the Big Ten or ACC.) The point is that if any conference is going to kill the Big East, they’re going to want to do it in a way where either Notre Dame joins such conference or stays independent. What no one wants to do is kill the Big East and then see Notre Dame head to some other league for football.
The Big 12’s lack of consensus of whether it should be at 10 or 12 members is inherently because there aren’t obvious options that jump out at them. Most expansion candidates for the league have some type of major flaw (i.e. small market, bad geography, not great football program, etc.), so that makes it difficult to achieve an agreement on any moves. Getting Notre Dame involved, though, can change the equation drastically for the Big 12. If adding Rutgers and UConn is the combo that ultimately induces the Irish to move its non-football sports to the Big 12, then that’s something I could see the conference pulling the trigger. Semisonic really does sum up conference realignment well: every new beginning is some other beginning’s end.