Major Conferences Should Use Realignment for Leverage Against NCAA

Ravi LullaAnalyst IJuly 8, 2011

Since Jim Delany became commissioner of the Big Ten, he has changed the way conferences do business.
Since Jim Delany became commissioner of the Big Ten, he has changed the way conferences do business.Eric Francis/Getty Images

At the end of the classic film Space Jam, the formerly tiny aliens-turned-basketball Monstars get verbally abused by their chubby alien boss whom they now dwarf in size.  Michael Jordan, just having hit another buzzer-beating game-winner simply asks the Monstars a simple question: Why do you let him treat you that way?  

Their answer reveals their first moment of self-awareness.  They say, "He's bigger...than we used to be."  Upon this epiphany, the Monstars stuff their tyrannical former leader into a spaceship and blast him off into oblivion.

Now, you are probably asking yourself: What on earth does this have to do with the major conferences' relationship with the NCAA? And that is a very fair question.  Hear me out.

For basically the entire history of major college athletics, the NCAA has called the shots and its member institutions have had to comply with whatever the governing body said.  Being part of the exclusive club of the NCAA's highest division was very much a part of a school's identity.

The NCAA held all the cards in that most—if not all—of the most prestigious schools (athletically speaking) were counted in its ranks.  Therefore, in order to be taken seriously in collegiate athletics, a school had to be an NCAA member and thus had to play by the NCAA rules.  While other athletic governing bodies did and still do exist (such as the NAIA), these organizations have not posed a serious threat to the NCAA's stronghold in decades.

Nebraska joining the Big Ten appears to be the first big domino to fall in the movement towards super conferences.
Nebraska joining the Big Ten appears to be the first big domino to fall in the movement towards super conferences.Eric Francis/Getty Images

NCAA officials have long played the roles of judge, jury and executioner.  If an institution didn't like it, it could take a trip down to Southern Methodist University and see what happened when one of the members refused to fall in line.

When the University of Nebraska opted to join the Big Ten last summer, it not only marked a shift in the balance of power in college football, it also hinted at a potential shift in power in college athletics.

As Nebraska and Colorado left the Big 12, it appeared as though the college football landscape was on the verge of realigning into so called super conferences.  These super conferences would have consisted of probably about four—maybe as many as five—conferences of approximately 16 teams each.

The only thing that stopped this all from happening was that Texas decided to stay put after getting approval to start its own television network.  Had Texas bolted, the desirable Big 12 South teams would have been divided up between the Pac-12 and SEC.

The SEC may have completed its conference by raiding the ACC (purely speculating, perhaps something to the tune of Florida State, Miami and Virginia Tech).  The Big Ten likely would have filled out its membership by picking the remains of the Big 12 (Missouri), taken a couple teams from the Big East (Pittsburgh and Rutgers were rumored) and the holy grail, Notre Dame.

SEC commissioner, Mike Slive (seen here with Tim Tebow) has been critical of the NCAA's policies on agents contact with student-athletes.
SEC commissioner, Mike Slive (seen here with Tim Tebow) has been critical of the NCAA's policies on agents contact with student-athletes.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

What was left of the Big 12, Big East and ACC would have likely formed the fourth super conference, with many teams being hung out to dry (again, purely speculative, the fourth conference may have looked something like: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia, Wake Forest, Kansas, Kansas State, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Louisville, TCU, Syracuse, West Virginia).

That would leave the Big Ten as its current members plus Missouri, Pitt, Rutgers and Notre Dame.  The Pac-12 would be its current members plus Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech.  The SEC would add Florida State, Miami, Virginia Tech and Texas A&M.  The fourth super conference was outlined above.  Of the major conference teams, that leaves Baylor, Iowa State and South Florida flapping in the wind.  Significant non-major conference teams left out include Boise State and BYU.

Look at those imaginary super conferences for any amount of time at all and you realize that essentially every relevant team in the two major revenue sports in college athletics (football and men's basketball) is included in one of those four conferences.

This means the four commissioners that would run these conferences would suddenly have essentially all the influence in college athletics.  If they all put their minds together toward a specific goal, is there anyone—including the mighty NCAA—that could stop them?  How long do you think it would be before the leaders of these four conferences would realize that they don't even need the NCAA anymore.? Can you feel the power shifting now?

I know what you are thinking.  Those conferences are imaginary.  Everything I have speculated is based on the premise of those conferences.  I would suggest those conferences are much more real than it currently seems.  It only takes one domino to fall before most, if not all, of what I have laid out would fall into place.  Is it really that hard to imagine that Oklahoma will get tired of playing second fiddle to Texas and bolt for greener, more equitable pastures?

The Pac-12 was ready to move to 16 teams last year, and there is no reason to believe anything has changed since then.  The Big Ten has proven to be extremely aggressive under commissioner Jim Delany and was rumored to be looking at a 16-team conference last summer as well.  You know the SEC, which considers itself the king of college sports, would not allow itself to be left behind.  The remaining three BCS conferences would have to collaborate just to compete.  And there you have your super conferences that seemed like such an improbability just a moment ago.

I will admit the jump between forming super conferences and those super conferences forming their own governing body is quite the leap, but it's not as big of one as you think.  The commissioners of the Big Ten, SEC and Big 12 are already calling for significant and sweeping changes in the way the NCAA does business.

The NCAA is not an organization that likes to be told what to do.  Rather, this is an association known for flexing its muscles and making examples out of rogue schools.  Obviously, getting the NCAA to change its ways will be a tough negotiation and the most important commodity in that conversation will be leverage.  

Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick
Notre Dame AD Jack SwarbrickFrank Polich/Getty Images

If the BCS schools decide to form super conferences, they will have the leverage.  At that point, all it would take for the super conferences to declare independence is the NCAA being too stubborn to back down from its often irrational set of rules.  

Let's be honest. We all know that part of this scenario is entirely possible.

For what it's worth, I am not the only one who thinks this is coming.  The part about super conferences many people view as the direction college sports is heading, and for evidence look no further than the events of last summer.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick views super conferences forming their own division as an "inevitability."  The only question is whether that division will be a part of the NCAA or an entirely new association.  For the answer, let's get back to Space Jam.

The conferences as they currently sit are the tiny aliens working for their fat dictator of a boss (the NCAA).  When realignment finally occurs and we have four super conferences, they will form the Monstars (giant, super-athletic aliens vaguely resembling NBA players from the '90s).  

When the super conferences realize they don't have to be oppressed by the NCAA anymore because they are now aware they hold all the power...

Well, let's just say I think they will stick the NCAA on the first rocket ship out of town.


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