For three years, there wasn't an offseason—and, eventually, a month—that went by where conference realignment wasn't a major issue in college athletics.
Technically, conference realignment has been around for decades, from the end of the Southwest Conference in 1996 to the expansion of the Pac-8 and SEC. In 2003 Miami and Virginia Tech announced they were leaving the Big East to give the ACC 11 teams. Boston College soon followed.
But realignment chatter didn't really pick up until 2010 when the Big 12 nearly dissolved, and the Pac-16, which would have included Texas and Oklahoma, nearly came to fruition. (Nebraska' did move to the Big Ten, however.) Those scenarios provoked a domino effect of moving parts that trickled down to every level of college athletics.
Need proof? In 2012, the WAC, which no longer sponsors football after being picked bone-dry by conference realignment vultures, added Grand Canyon University. The irony of a school named after a giant hole in the ground helping the WAC dig itself out of its own hole isn't lost here.
|School||Old Conference||New Conference||When|
|Nebraska||Big 12||Big Ten||2011|
|TCU||Mountain West||Big 12||2012|
|Texas A&M||Big 12||SEC||2012|
|West Virginia||Big East||Big 12||2012|
Realignment has affected every one of the major power conferences. The ACC, which added Pittsburgh and Syracuse in 2013, has expanded to 15 teams with Notre Dame as a partial member. The latest addition, however, is Louisville.
The Cardinals replace Maryland, which is departing for the Big Ten. Also joining the Big Ten is Rutgers of the American Athletic Conference (née Big East).
The SEC added Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big 12, which also lost Colorado to the Pac-12. In order to keep 10 teams, the Big 12 added TCU and West Virginia.
Then there were the "almost" realignment moves. Boise State was slated to join the Big East—until it didn't in December 2012.
The list could go on, but the real question is how has realignment affected the major programs?
Let's not pretend. Money is, has been, and always will be, the reason for conference realignment—that, and stability. It is not about academic prestige and cultural similarities, as farcical statements from university admins suggest. Mostly, revenue comes in the form of renegotiated television contracts that now reach into the multi-billion dollars.
Maryland President Wallace Loh made no secret that money was important when the university announced it would join the Big Ten in time for the 2014 season.
"Membership in the Big Ten is in the strategic interest of the University of Maryland," Loh said via Gary Mihoces of USA Today. "We will be able to insure the financial sustainability of Maryland athletics for decades to come."
In July 2012, Maryland eliminated seven sports (H/T Mark Giannotto, The Washington Post). One goal of joining the Big Ten, Loh explained, was to reinstate some of those programs.
"We vowed that will never happen again," Loh said.
Money—and in turn, exposure—is also a driving factor at the mid-major level. In an interview with B/R, North Texas athletic director Rick Villarreal, whose program moved from the Sun Belt to Conference USA in 2013, explained.
"For us, the biggest benefit has been the additional appearances on television," said Villarreal. "We were on TV nine or 10 times this past season. That means more national recognition."
Villarreal couldn't specify the projected revenue UNT will bring in for 2013-14 but did say that the school is seeing financial benefits.
Missouri and Texas A&M enjoyed instant financial riches thanks to full revenue-sharing. The Tigers and Aggies made $20.7 million in conference revenue alone during their first year, according to Dave Matter of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
It doesn't end there. According to USA Today, A&M ranked No. 6 nationally by pulling in nearly $120 million in total revenue in 2012. That's still over $40 million behind Texas, but a significant jump from the roughly $87 million the school recorded during 2011.
Not every school receives a full share of conference revenue right away; in fact, that's rarely the case. According to David Ubben, formerly of ESPN.com, TCU and West Virginia received a half-share of conference revenue, $11 million, for 2012-13. The two will receive 67 percent shares this year, 84 percent shares in 2014-15 and full shares in 2015-16.
Similarly, Nebraska won't receive a full share of Big Ten revenue until 2017. According to Henry Cordes of the Omaha World-Herald, the university received $15 million last year. That's less than what the Huskers would have received in the Big 12.
But the Big 12 didn't renegotiate its new TV deal—a 13-year agreement with ESPN and FOX—until after Nebraska left. Once 2017 rolls around, Nebraska will not only receive full payout, but a full ownership share in the Big Ten Network.
Just because the money is flowing doesn't mean every program is in good financial standing. According to a February 2013 article from Register-Herald reporter Mickey Furfari, West Virginia's athletic department was nearly $13 million in debt. The school's $20 million Big East buyout and coaching salaries played a significant role in that number.
By switching conferences, many programs hope they'll gain access to better players.
There are several factors that play into recruiting: coaches, television exposure, geographical pipelines, facilities and so on. And there's something to be said about the excitement surrounding switching conferences.
Chris Fhurmeister of SB Nation expanded on the recruiting impact of realignment on Tuesday in a must-read piece (HERE). In short, major realignment schools were a mixed bag on the recruiting trail after switching conferences.
(Since B/R uses 247Sports Composite rankings, the same information used in the study, any data compiled would have been similar, if not exactly the same.)
Chris Fhurmeister, SB Nation
Perhaps no program in college football has enjoyed the fruits of its move from one conference to another more than Texas A&M. The Aggies benefited from two other independent factors: the emergence of Heisman winning quarterback Johnny Manziel and head coach Kevin Sumlin. Manziel, in fact, committed to A&M when it was still in the Big 12.
Joining the SEC has helped significantly, however. The Aggies signed the No. 5 class nationally for 2014. Many top in-state prospects, which Texas used to sign, are now going to College Station.
TCU has seen the biggest difference on the recruiting trail. Not surprisingly, the Frogs made the jump from the Mountain West, a so-called non-automatic qualifier conference. Still, there's work to do. Head coach Gary Patterson said in a Nov. 19 story from Ralph Russo of the Associated Press that it would take "a few years" for TCU to match the depth of its conference counterparts.
Missouri has been on the opposite end of the spectrum. The Tigers' 2014 class finished 13th in the SEC and 39th nationally. Now in the SEC East, the program is recruiting more heavily out of Florida and Georgia; Texas, once a hotbed for the Tigers, is basically nonexistent as a pipeline. The biggest recruiting victory, obviously, was Dorial Green-Beckham, the No. 1 prospect in the country in 2012.
Like West Virginia in the Big 12, Mizzou is more of a geographical outlier, which can make things difficult in recruiting.
Colorado hasn't seen a recruiting boost since joining the Pac-12. In fact, things have gone the opposite direction, but that's more of an indication of the overall state of the program. The Buffs have finished at or near the bottom of the conference in recruiting every year since joining. Not even second-year coach Mike MacIntyre has been able to change that yet.
On the Field
Generally, realignment schools have been average-to-good on the field; at worst, they've been non-competitive.
In all, there have been two conference championship appearances between two teams and eight losing seasons among five teams.
A&M—again, with Manziel's help—has been one of the biggest success stories with a 20-6 record since joining the SEC.
Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel took himself all the way off the hot seat in 2013 by leading his team to a 12-2 record and a SEC championship game appearance. A&M, for all its success, doesn't have that on its resume.
However, things were tough for Mizzou in the SEC at first. The Tigers, hit hard by injuries, went 5-7 in their first year.
The state of Nebraska football has been largely the same as it was in the Big 12. The Huskers have gone 28-12 since joining the Big Ten in 2011, losing four games each season. Head coach Bo Pelini has led the team to one Big Ten title appearance in 2012, a 70-31 loss to Wisconsin.
Colorado's transition to the Pac-12 has been rough for myriad reasons, many of which predated the move. Former head coach Dan Hawkins never panned out after elevating Boise State's program. Jon Embree, who led the Buffs into their first season in the Pac-12, won four games in two years.
Utah has had back-to-back 5-7 seasons.
Pittsburgh and Syracuse, and TCU and West Virginia, have had identical records in their new conferences. The Panthers and Orange went 7-6 in 2013, while the Frogs and Mountaineers were 11-14 in two seasons.
"When you move into, say, the Big 12, the schools there have been recruiting Big 12 talent for years," Villareal explained, pointing to TCU. "The talent level can be difficult to deal with."
Facilities are vital to the competitiveness of any program. With realignment programs receiving, or scheduled to receive, major paydays, those funds often go straight into facility improvement.
A&M is in the middle of a $450-million renovation and expansion to Kyle Field, which will seat 102,500 when it is completed. That will make it the biggest stadium in the SEC and the state of Texas.
The Aggies aren't alone. Utah, West Virginia and TCU have rigorously upgraded facilities. The Utes built a brand new football and sports medicine facility this past year, and the Frogs have poured $164 million into renovating and expanding Amon G. Carter Stadium.
Even Nebraska dedicated $63.5 million to renovating and expanding Memorial Stadium by 6,000 seats.
On the other hand, Colorado is an example of what can happen when facilities are neglected. By the admission of former athletic director Mike Bohn, facilities were a major problem. Here's what Bohn, now at Cincinnati, said in 2012 via John Henderson of the Denver Post:
As we've looked around the Pac-12 Conference, everywhere we've gone we see the commitment. We see what we're up against. The bar is raised high. It's higher than it's ever been. This is a monumental challenge for everyone.
Since realignment is all about the Benjamins—not to be confused with yours truly—pretty much every move has been considered positive. Beyond that, though, how many additions have really paid off? Time to dole out the grades:
Which program was the best addition to its new conference?
The Verdict: Without Colorado and Utah, there would be no Pac-12, no multi-billion dollar TV agreement, no Pac-12 Networks. So, technically, the Buffs did a lot for their new conference. Just not on the field.
The Verdict: The biggest question mark for the Tigers is coaching. Pinkel is entering his 14th year with the program. He's still got it, clearly, but his long-term success will depend on the talent he can land.
The Verdict: Nebraska's move to the Big Ten has been exactly what its grade indicates: pretty good but not great. Fans are anxious for a conference title, and the full share of conference revenue can't come fast enough.
The Verdict: Still pending. There's always the boost in basketball, though.
The Verdict: Things are trending downward for TCU now, but the program is capable of rebounding and becoming a more competitive member of the Big 12. TCU is a geographical, and given the recent success of the program, a natural fit for the Big 12. Still, it has a lot to prove that it was a good acquisition.
Which program was the worst addition to its new conference?
The Verdict: No major program in the recent conference realignment era has improved its health from its move as much as Texas A&M.
Verdict: Like Colorado, Utah has struggled to be a serious contender in its new conference. Overall, though, the state of the program is in decent shape. There's upside, to be sure.
The Verdict: West Virginia was able to jump off the sinking ship that was the Big East. So this move has to be considered an "A" in its eyes. Since then, however, the Mountaineers haven't done or added much to their new conference.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. All recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports Composite rankings.