That relatively new and dollar-oriented college sport, conference musical chairs, is in the midst of an extended break. But once the major players gather in Nashville this week, there is reason to believe the action will pick up.
The various reform packages under discussion at the NCAA Convention and their ultimate fate will determine the direction for a number of Division I programs. Some are overextended and attempting to retrench. Others are gauging the angles to see where they can reap more dividends.
One of the big wait-and-see items is the Southeastern Conference's attempt to set up a football playoff, now that it has the required 12 teams for a two-division setup with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina. The NCAA regulation governing such playoffs was designed with Division I-AA in mind, but if it is approved for I-A and the TV wise men come bearing lucrative gifts, other leagues could be tempted to grow up to such possibilities.
It is significant that the Big Ten has retained its name, despite Penn State's new status as member No. 11. Unless the fellowship is planning to boot out noncompetitive Northwestern, there could be a move afoot to expand to 12, with Nebraska prominently mentioned.
The Big Eight and Southwest conferences could unite their slipping forces for another 12-team organization. Although the Pacific-10 insists it is happy with 10 teams, it would have no trouble reaching the magic 12 by picking up Brigham Young and Colorado.
A lot depends on whether TV will view a conference playoff as a major new item or will consider it merely another regional matchup in an ever-longer season.
However, if the College Football Association's television contracts with ABC and ESPN are overturned, as the Federal Trade Commission has proposed, it could set off a flurry of individual conference deals. That scenario could trigger fresh moves to build strength for the negotiations.
Schools that maintained independent football programs while placing other sports under a conference banner suddenly have moved toward the security of shared revenues.
A good example is Miami, which earned almost $15 million over the last five years from football bowls. The Hurricanes chose to move into the Big East, which agreed to take only 10 percent of Miami's football revenues while offering annual basketball payoffs of $750,000 or more to a program that lost $285,000 last year.
"Our football has way too much financial pressure on it," Athletic Director Sam Jankovich said as he negotiated the hookup in his final act before heading to the NFL as general manager of the New England Patriots. "We have been relying far too much on a January 1 bowl bid."
The other Big East members with I-A football programs -- Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College -- had been looking toward all-sports conferences and the Big East was happy to get Miami. Now, if the Big East is able to sign up two or more schools from among its invited four -- Virginia Tech, West Virginia, Temple and Rutgers -- as football-only associates, it will have buried a major concern.
It was Penn State's decision to join the Big Ten 13 months ago that triggered the upheaval. Arkansas ended a 76-year Southwest Conference affiliation to join the Southeastern Conference and was followed by South Carolina, which had split from the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1971 over academic matters.
Florida State, like South Carolina a football independent but Metro Conference entity in other sports, was accepted by the ACC, which was looking to add a sizable TV market.
With the Metro falling apart, two other members, Cincinnati and Memphis State, opted to join a new group, the Great Midwest Conference. Other charter members included De Paul, a longtime independent; Alabama-Birmingham of the Sun Belt Conference, and two Midwestern Collegiate Conference schools, Marquette and St. Louis. The Sun Belt also lost Old Dominion, which took Navy's place in the Colonial Athletic Association.
Navy's shift to the Patriot League was one of the few moves not directly inspired by TV money. Instead, the academy was looking for a suitable Division I shelter for its women's program, which had been competing in Division II, an option likely to be closed during the NCAA Convention.
Army and Navy had discussions with the Big East and ACC, among others, but chose to keep their football programs on an independent basis.
"We looked at a lot of options, trying to be ahead of the power curve, but we need flexibility in our scheduling," said Navy Athletic Director Jack Lengyel. "We have to play Army and Air Force, as well as Notre Dame, which is a traditional rival. We also want to play regional games or national games that service recruiting areas and naval installations. To restrict us to seven or eight teams within a conference would inhibit our objectives.
"By not having conference sharing of TV revenues, though, we need alternate revenue. That is why things like corporate marketing of logos, skyboxes and parking mean so much."
Navy expects to be able to fill out its schedule without difficulty, but some of the others in the dwindling pool of football independents face trouble. A good example is East Carolina, a Colonial member in all sports except football. The Pirates have Syracuse, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Pittsburgh and West Virginia on their 1992 schedule and all figure to be faced with increasing conference commitments.
"The pool is shrinking," said East Carolina Athletic Director Dave Hart. "Scheduling is one of the positives of conference affiliation, and what all independents need now, whether we want it or not, is a scheduling alliance, if not a conference alliance. Scheduling is a big problem primarily in October. There's always flexibility in September and November, but most conferences play conference games every week in October.
"I don't think conference expansion is complete, but it will slow down for a while. As we come to the end of the TV contract, I don't think anybody can predict what will happen. Most of it, obviously, is financially motivated."