Sadly, NCAA conference expansion news again overshadows action on the field


Pittsburgh Coach Todd Graham leads the Panthers out onto the field. Pittsburgh and Syracuse reportedly have applied for membership in the ACC. (DON WRIGHT/Associated Press)
Jason Reid
Columnist September 17, 2011

On a day of good college football matchups, backroom maneuvering again threatened to steal the conversation. Politicking was as much a part of the story as rivalries. Another seismic shift in college sports seemed even closer.

Amid ongoing speculation about the potential realignment of major conferences, reports Saturday revealed Big East cornerstones Pittsburgh and Syracuse have applied for membership in the ACC. And if those schools do bolt, that’s a big problem for the Big East. Losing the Panthers and Orange could be a staggering 1-2 blow at a time when conferences are chasing bigger cuts of football-generated revenue. Potentially facing an era of even more powerful “super conferences,” the Big East would be in a bad spot because of two high-profile defections. That’s not the best way to remain relevant in these unsettling times.

Jason Reid is a sports columnist with the Washington Post. He joined the Post’s Redskins team in 2007 after 15 years covering many beats at the Los Angeles Times. View Archive

Over the last 10 years, anyone who has followed the musical chairs knows that no move is done until it’s official. If it turns out, however, that Pittsburgh and Syracuse do not wind up in the ACC, some other schools most likely will.

In college sports today, it’s either raid or be raided. Poaching is all the rage. Aggression is acceptable. Even encouraged. The betterment of the student-athlete isn’t part of the agenda. None of this is geared toward providing players with better academic support or increased financial assistance. There’s little focus on enhancing the experience of the people responsible for generating the lucrative television contracts and apparel sales. The aim is to benefit those who direct the hypocrisy, enabling them to get a bigger percentage at the expense of other schools that were simply slower on the draw.

Although clearly ruthless and predatory, the ACC is rolling the right way under the circumstances. The current climate in college sports basically is to eat or be eaten, so the ACC is choosing self-preservation. Better to do it before it’s done to them. If the athletic standing of neighboring institutions is decimated in the process, so be it, because that’s how dirty business works. And exactly what positive life lessons are student-athletes supposed to take from the backstabbing?

While West Virginia raced to a 24-point lead and held off Maryland, 37-31, at Byrd Stadium, the structure of their conferences may have shifted around them. (With everything that happened on and off the field, even Maryland’s uniforms were overshadowed.) The Terrapins and the entire ACC would benefit — especially in basketball — from welcoming programs with pedigrees such as Pittsburgh and Syracuse. Undoubtedly, the Mountaineers and other remaining Big East members could have a lot to overcome if they’re on the wrong end of the expansion race.

For some time, the ACC has eagerly anticipated this week’s slate of games, with members Clemson, Miami and Florida State hosting powers Auburn, Ohio State and Oklahoma, respectively. Add on the Pittsburgh-Syracuse development, it was also a big day for the conference’s decision-makers.

No matter how everything shakes out, the possible addition of the schools indicates ACC Commissioner John Swofford has been quietly proactive. When the landscape changes, it’s time to adjust. Bold action is needed — this qualifies.

During the past few weeks, the chatter has focused on the Big 12 and Pacific-12. Texas A&M is looking to jump from the Big 12 to the Southeastern Conference, though legal wrangling could delay its change of address. Texas and Oklahoma are in the spotlight as the Pac-12 continues its expansion efforts.

On Monday, the Board of Regents of Oklahoma and Texas are scheduled to meet to discuss realignment. With that unstable backdrop, the ACC apparently operated slyly.

Again, if it happens, luring Pittsburgh and Syracuse makes sense for the ACC. Syracuse, a one-time football powerhouse, has struggled for years, and Pittsburgh isn’t among the elite, but they’re Football Bowl Subdivision programs. When it comes to making money in college football, FBS are the most important initials.

The ACC is a better football conference than the Big East, which has only eight football-playing members. Texas Christian University, expected to join the conference next year, would increase the total.

Conferences are fighting for survival, and bolstering the football side of operations is a wise approach. When conferences lose members, they look elsewhere to fill holes, as the Big East did when it last experienced getting dumped.

The ACC successfully recruited Virginia Tech and Miami in 2004 and Boston College came aboard the following year, prompting the Big East to grab Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville, Marquette and South Florida (DePaul and Marquette joined as non-football members). There’s a chance that standing pat would leave the ACC vulnerable once the dust settles from the Texas-Oklahoma machinations.

Let’s say another conference suddenly must fill multiple spots. Perhaps Virginia Tech and Florida State are targeted. And maybe the Hokies and Seminoles listen, fearing they could get left out at the beginning of a new day. Very soon, four 16-team conferences essentially may control college football.

The addition of FBS schools, regardless of recent won-loss records, bolsters a conference. Membership changes affect television contracts. There’s just more money to be made all around.

Then there’s the basketball factor of a possible Pittsburgh-Syracuse move.

The Big East is the premier basketball conference. Reigning national champion Connecticut and Villanova would still lead a formidable group. The ACC’s new lineup may make it at least as talented. Duke, North Carolina, Pittsburgh and Syracuse — enough said.

As for the future of the Big East under this scenario, who knows? Presumably, the Big East has another contingency plan. The key is retaining the conference’s automatic Bowl Championship Series bid in football, and the millions in revenue for television rights to the top bowl games.

At some point, after the most profitable alliances are formed, the upheaval will end. The buzz from the boardrooms won’t compete with the fun on the field. Stability will return to college sports. At least until greed starts it all over again.

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