Archive for September, 2016

When Brett McMurphy reported a few weeks ago that the Big 12 had at least twenty expansion candidates, the most common comment that I saw in my Twitter feed was that this was just like “The Bachelor”. As an admitted former viewer of the show* and considering the latest report that the Big 12 is down to circa 12 candidates, it’s a perfect comparison. Out of the reported survivors, we have:

  • The “First Impression Rose” candidate that seems like a natural fit (Cincinnati);
  • A contender that is absolutely perfect on paper and The Bachelor has lots of chemistry with… yet also has some serious baggage that puts it at risk of getting the final rose (BYU);
  • Someone that the producers (AKA politicians) clearly want to keep on the show regardless of how The Bachelor personally feels and, even with lukewarm chemistry, may end up in the final rose ceremony through attrition by keeping everything on the down-low and not acting bats**t crazy (Houston);
  • A contestant that seems to have all of the right attributes yet lives on the other side of the country from The Bachelor with a lot glaring cultural differences (UConn);
  • Twins that The Bachelor sees a lot of potential in but no one has any idea if there’s a long-term relationship there (UCF and USF);
  • A candidate that questions whether a relationship here will work and where The Bachelor might actually be more interested in the contender than the contender is interested in The Bachelor (Air Force);
  • A bachelorette that attracts the adventurous side of The Bachelor in outdoor activity dates like rock climbing, but no one is sure whether they will be any good in the one sport (football) that The Bachelor really cares about (Colorado State);
  • The smart ones with multiple advanced degrees that are easy to talk to… and 99.9% certain to end up in the friend zone (Tulane and Rice); and
  • A couple of others that used to be in the power ranks back in the day and may at least get a date card (Temple and SMU).

(* In my opinion, the flagships of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” have been getting a bit long in the tooth for several years. However, I’m ALL IN on “Bachelor in Paradise”. It’s like watching The Lord of the Flies in reality-TV form. I love everything about it.)

It’s unclear whether Memphis has survived (my gut feeling is that they’re still alive), but if they move on to the next round, it’s because they’re a contender with loaded parents that are willing to buy their way to the final rose ceremony.

As for all of the other candidates, it appears that they have been eliminated in the very first rose ceremony without even an obligatory make-out session with The Bachelor (although no one can discount a surprise return from one or more of them in later episodes). The Big 12 seems content with dragging this expansion process out until a conference leadership meeting on October 17th, so we’ll likely be talking about the remaining contenders ad nauseum for the next few weeks. Therefore, in the spirit of Chris Harrison, let’s take a moment and say our goodbyes to those that did not receive a rose:

  • East Carolina – In Bachelor terms, ECU is the candidate that all of the other contestants seem to like but The Bachelor has no interest in at all. Under my conference realignment maxim (“Think like a university president and NOT like a sports fan”), ECU is a classic sports fan thinker’s choice. Fans see that ECU has excellent football attendance with a core group of passionate backers and a typically competitive on-the-field football team. University presidents, though, see a school that doesn’t fit the applicable academic profile and is located in a small market in what is already the most over-saturated state in the country for power conference sports (North Carolina). The Pirates had to give it the old college try to apply for Big 12 expansion in order to provide their fans some hope, but I doubt anyone at the school realistically believed that the Big 12 was actually going to call them up.
  • Boise State – If ECU is a candidate that other contestants seemed to like, then Boise State is the audience favorite that was eliminated early and would be in line to be named “The Bachelorette”. There might be no better example of a “Fan’s Choice” that conflicts with the “University President’s Choice” in conference realignment than Boise State. The on-the-field performance of the Broncos for the past decade speaks for itself for fans, but the university presidents still see a lack of an institutional and academic fit in a small TV market. The primary reason why Boise State was considered at all is that they arguably have the most valuable national TV brand out of any non-power conference school. However, the off-the-field academic reputation is still a killer (both with the Big 12 here and the Pac-12 in the future).
  • San Diego State – The Aztecs could look good on paper for the Big 12, but if UConn already lives pretty far from The Bachelor, then San Diego State is effectively on another planet. In my Big 12 Expansion Index post, I gave SDSU some high marks since it was an evaluation that largely discounted geographic proximity as a factor. However, reality might be setting in here that there needs to be some semblance of geographic proximity in conference realignment. For all of the complaints about the power conferences expanding the geographic boundaries to large distances, the reality is that every power conference move made since 2010 was with a school in a state that was geographically contiguous to the then-existing league footprint, as applicable… with the exception of West Virginia going to the Big 12. It was just difficult to see the Big 12 turning an already bad geographic situation into a comically horrific geographic situation.
  • UNLV – Similar issues here as San Diego State. Now, I’ll say that both the San Diego and Las Vegas markets are still quite ripe for the picking for college sports since they are among the largest TV markets that don’t have legitimate power conference representation. If the Raiders end up moving to Las Vegas (and as much as I don’t want to condone owners holding cities hostage for publicly financed stadiums, anyone without Oakland-tinged glasses can see that Las Vegas and the Raiders are perfect for each other), that could create a state-of-the-art stadium that might be shared with UNLV. At the end of the day, though, the issue for both SDSU and UNLV is that they are not institutionally or academically-aligned with the Pac-12 and their geography with the Big 12 is a problem, so they’re stuck at this time.  Improving off-the-field academic items will be much more of a factor for the future conference realignment prospects of San Diego State and UNLV compared to on-the-field football ability.
  • New Mexico – There’s nothing wrong with New Mexico: it’s a solid flagship university in a growing state with a very good basketball fan base that’s contiguous to the existing Big 12 footprint. The issue is that there never seemed to be a spark between UNM and the Big 12 as other candidates seemed to cover the Lobos’ positives just a little bit better. If the Big 12 really wants a basketball-oriented flagship, then UConn has elite programs for both men’s and women’s hoops and is there for the taking. If the Big 12 wants geographic proximity, then there are schools like Houston, Rice, SMU, Tulane and Memphis available. If the Big 12 wants a solid overall school in a new market, then Cincinnati covers even more bases in a larger TV market and recruiting territory. So, New Mexico isn’t the worst option, but it also one of the best options, either.
  • Northern Illinois – There is no more damning charge in The Bachelor when someone is accused of “not being there for the right reasons”. When a contestant is clearly angling for a spot on “The Bachelorette” or “Bachelor in Paradise” or looking for free advertising for a home business, then “The Right Reasons” Police come out. I know that my brain is turning to mush due to an excess of conference realignment Tweets when (a) someone participating on a contrived reality TV dating show believes that they have the moral authority to accuse another of “not being there for the right reasons” and (b) I always totally agree with the accuser. “The Right Reasons” Police are always right. Now, I’m certainly not saying NIU was doing anything nefarious here (and I’ll be upfront and state that NIU is personally my favorite Group of Five school), but let’s face it: the Huskies knew that they weren’t getting a Big 12 invite. Instead, this presentation to the Big 12 was really aimed toward convincing the AAC and/or Mountain West Conference to consider NIU if/when those leagues lose any schools. NIU senses an opportunity to move up the pecking order even if it might be just one rung up from the MAC as opposed to a rocket to the top.
  • Arkansas State – Similar issues here as NIU, where Arkansas State knew that their Big 12 chances were zero but wanted to go through an audition for other conferences (such as the AAC or Conference USA). There could very well be a large shakeup in the Group of Five non-power conferences even if the Big 12 only adds 2 new members and the current Arkansas State home of the Sun Belt Conference is the most vulnerable. Positioning for a potential new home outside of the Sun Belt would be prudent for any member of that league.

In witnessing the Big 12 expansion process unfold, there seem to be a few overarching takeaways (none of which are surprises except for the last point):

(1) Politics Matter – Politics, both the procedural kind (politicians trading favors) and the societal issue kind, are no stranger to the history of conference realignment. Just look at how heavily politicians got involved in the original formation of the Big 12 in the 1990s and the ACC expansion of the early-2000s (with a key role played by current Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine in leveraging the vote of UVA to get Virginia Tech into the league). As a result, anyone that discounts the open and unambiguous statements from the Governor and Lt. Governor of Texas in support of Houston to the Big 12 ignores them at their own peril. One of the most common comments that I get on Twitter is that the non-Texas-based Big 12 schools don’t want to add another Texas member. My general reply is, “So what?!” There are few complaints that I’ve heard over the years more than the belief that the Big 12 is beholden to UT, yet there is now this argument that the other Big 12 schools will suddenly ignore UT on expansion. That makes zero sense to me. From a pure vote counting perspective, the Big 12 needs 8 schools to approve any expansion and the university presidents at Texas and Texas Tech are already on-the-record of wanting (or needing) to vote for Houston. It’s not exactly a stretch that politicians that have stuck their necks out for Baylor and/or TCU in conference realignment matters previously are going to call in some chits to secure their support for Houston, too. All it takes it one of either Baylor or TCU to bow to political pressure and there is now a Texas-based group that has veto power over all expansion in the Big 12 (similar to how UVA effectively had veto power in the early-2000s ACC expansion process since UNC and Duke had come out as firm votes against any type of expansion). Saying that the Big 12 will expand without the support of Texas is like saying that Donald Trump can win the White House without winning Florida: the electoral math doesn’t work.

At the same time, as I explained in my last post, BYU is dealing with rapid changes in society with respect to LGBT rights and pushback against the language in the school’s Honor Code regarding homosexuality. What might have been a socially “acceptable” position in 2010 regarding the treatment of the LGBT community is not necessarily going to be a socially acceptable position in 2016, just as there was a sea change in the public’s viewpoints regarding racial segregation and civil rights from 1960 to 1966. As result, the “religious liberty” argument isn’t going to work for BYU in this context. Instead, the school is going to need to assuage the legitimate practical concerns of the Big 12 presidents regarding any prospect of discrimination against the LGBT community and possibly amend its Honor Code so that it does not specifically reference homosexuality (similar to what Baylor did last year). I have some faith that this would actually occur (and not just because of Big 12 expansion, but simply in response to societal changes in general). The Honor Code is not a set-in-stone document that is mandated by the Bible or Book of Mormon and can certainly be changed to reflect the times while continuing to be consistent with the school’s underlying religious beliefs (similar to adjustments made by a Baptist school like Baylor or many Catholic universities across the country over the years). I’ve said this many times before: on traditional conference realignment metrics, BYU is the most valuable option for the Big 12. However, the political issues matter greatly here and they’re significantly more important today compared to only a few years ago.

Of course, the ultimate irony is that the Texas politicians that have openly pushed against gay marriage while trying to defend the ability to discriminate on “religious liberty” grounds are now the same ones that are advocating for Houston going to the Big 12… and the best way for Houston to get into the Big 12 is for BYU to be rejected by Big 12 presidents that don’t buy anti-LGBT discrimination as being justifiable based on “religious liberty” at all. Politics can make for strange bedfellows.

(2) Academics Matter – As I’ve noted with some of the fallen candidates above and time and time again, conference realignment decisions are ultimately made by university presidents as opposed to fans, coaches and athletic directors. Those university presidents simply have a different worldview. It’s not just overall academic snobbery. Instead, think of it from the personal incentive perspective of a university president. For a football coach or athletic director to go from, say, Kansas State to Rice, that is generally deemed to be a step down in money and prestige. However, a university president going from Kansas State to Rice (an academically prestigious AAU member) is considered to be a major promotion in the world of academia. Heck, it’s arguably an upgrade for any of the Big 12 university presidents (outside of the University of Texas) to take the same job at Rice or Tulane. Therefore, no one should be surprised that those academically elite schools are still in the process. The Big 12 university presidents are going to be quite nice and cordial in speaking with the respective administrators, board of trustee members and donors at schools like Rice and Tulane since those same presidents might be on the other side of the interview process with those schools looking for a job later on.

Meanwhile, the schools that aren’t in a strong position academically have a massive strike against them in the power conference realignment game. The lowest ranked school in the US News national university rankings out of all of the 5 power conferences is West Virginia at #175. Out of the 20 reported Big 12 candidates, 12 schools were ranked higher than WVU (Rice, Tulane, UConn, SMU, BYU, Temple, Colorado State, Cincinnati, San Diego State, USF, and UCF along with Air Force that had scores in the national liberal arts rankings that would put it in the elite category)… and 11 of those schools have moved on in the process (with San Diego State being the only exception). Out of the 8 schools that were ranked lower than WVU (New Mexico, Houston, East Carolina, Memphis, Northern Illinois, UNLV, Boise State and Arkansas State), only Houston is confirmed to have moved on (aided greatly by the political factor in point #1) and the status of Memphis is unclear. That doesn’t mean that the Big 12 is going to expand with Rice and Tulane, but lack of an academic reputation has shown to be a direct elimination factor for all of the power conferences.   Great academics might not get a school into a power conference, but poor academics can keep a school out of one.

3. Geography Sort of Matters – As I noted in my comments about San Diego State and UNLV, conferences will only ignore geographic issues up to a point. The Big 12 has already expanded eastward to West Virginia, so extending the league footprint further east with UConn and/or Temple as options is at least on the table. Likewise, the Big 12 was once in the Rocky Mountain region when Colorado was in the conference and they would like to be in it again (hence the interest in BYU, Colorado State and Air Force). However, the thought of expanding the lague all the way to the West Coast with a school like San Diego State really pushed the limits of practicality. There’s bad geography in conference realignment (e.g. Nebraska to Rutgers), and then there’s BAD GEOGRAPHY (e.g. West Virginia to San Diego State).

4. Confidentiality Does NOT Matter – In recent conference realignment history, there has been quite a bit of laughable subterfuge and public media denials of what was actually occurring behind the scenes up until actual expansion announcements were made. Recall Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany stating back in 2010 that he would give a conference that he wanted to poach from a lot of notice… and that “notice” consisted of calling the Big 12 a few hours before he was going to hold a press conference that the Big Ten was adding Nebraska. The subsequent additions of Maryland and Rutgers by the Big Ten came out of nowhere timing-wise. The SEC would continuously deny that they were even looking at expansion despite reports galore that Texas A&M and then Missouri were ready to join. The Pac-12’s attempt at creating a new Pac-16 conference with Texas, Oklahoma and other Big 12 schools ended up getting exposed to the public, but even to this day, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott won’t provide details of how close they were to sealing the deal. The ACC has a well-established track record of making conference expansion decisions with very few leaks.

By comparison, the current Big 12 expansion process is a veritable fire hose of open quotes and comments. Candidate schools haven’t even tried to hide the fact that they are applying to the Big 12 and, in many cases, are openly going on the record about the application process. At the same time, while conference realignment observers could reasonably guess who was being considered by the Big Ten, SEC and ACC in recent expansion discussions, there hasn’t been the direct and specific confirmation from conference offices about candidates in the way that we see with the Big 12 now. I can’t imagine the type of confirmed information that’s already out there about the Big 12’s expansion moves ever leaking out of the Big Ten or SEC. Mike DeCourcy of The Sporting News notes how crass the Big 12 process has been up to this point.

Now, from the perspective of a conference realignment blogger, this openness is great and provides a ton of material that isn’t just pure speculation. However, there could be a whole lot of burned bridges among administrators of different schools and university leaders with their own alumni and fan bases when probably only 2 (and no more than 4) schools end up with Big 12 invites and over a dozen schools are left behind at the alter. (Lord help us if the Big 12 decides to not expand with anyone at all.)

As always, we’ll keep an eye out for the latest conference realignment news. Until then, enjoy the start of the football season!

(Image from Yahoo!)

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