Tuesday, August 16, 2011

As the conference turns, pt. 1

One year ago, I pegged the Big 12 athletic conference's life at five years, tops. Turns out I was being way too optimistic. With Texas A&M's whirlwind courtship of the Southeastern Conference these past couple of weeks, it's obvious that when things fall apart, they fall apart quickly.

This all began, really, back in 1995 when the old SWC went belly-up. That particular death sentence was put in motion several years earlier when Frank Broyles, the athletic director at Arkansas who ran off several coaches--including Ken Hatfield--because of incessant meddling, decided the Razorbacks would profit immensely by joining the SEC and forming a 12-team super conference with a lucrative championship game. Up until that point, such and animal had never existed at the DI-A level of college football. Yes, the NCAA had a rule provision allowing 12-member leagues to split into divisions and hold and extra championship game, but it was originally written for lower-level competition. Trouble is, the NCAA never actually wrote that intention into the rule. The SEC seized the opportunity and soon became the best football conference in the land. Arkansas crashed and burned. Several things worked against Arkansas in the move: Firstly, Broyles refused to admit that more money was the reason behind the conference switch, instead making the duplicitous claim that the Razorbacks needed "better competition" after winning back-to-back SWC titles. You can imagine the embarrassment when the entire SWC--even post-death penalty SMU--pounded the Piggies in their final two seasons of competition before joining the SEC. Secondly, Arkansas had no existing rivals in the SEC, and suffered through an awkward, new-kid-at-school phase where they didn't know anyone and were picked on mercilessly. Third--and this is the biggest issue--Arkansas stocked its football roster with Texas players via its century-long association with the SWC. With A&M, Baylor, Texas and the rest refusing to schedule them after their departure from the SWC, that recruiting dried up quickly. Arkansas made more money in the SEC than it could in the SWC, yes, but the other setbacks took the Razorbacks a decade to overcome to the point where they're only now, 20 years later, consistently competitive in their new league.

Many people point to Arkansas' experience in the SEC as a cautionary tale for A&M as it looks to jump ship. The fact that A&M has lost two games against Arkansas and one to LSU, both SEC powerhouses, in recent years adds to the perception that a move to the SEC is a bad one for the Aggies. The Arkansas experience isn't necessarily relevant for A&M though. Firstly, the A&M recruiting base in Texas won't evaporate as it did for Arkansas, because the Aggies will always play at least half of their games in College Station--a short drive for mamma and daddy to come see junior play. Some argue it will actually help A&M, that in-state blue chippers who want to play against such legendary SEC teams as Alabama, Tennessee, Florida and Georgia will now have an in-state option. Others argue it will open up Texas recruiting to those same SEC programs and hurt all the Texas schools. That's debatable. I see it as a wash, more or less. A second reason the A&M move wouldn't be like Arkansas' is that A&M already has long-standing relationships with several of the schools they'd be playing. Familiarity with Arkansas exists from the SWC days and the recent renewal of that series at the neutral site of JerryWorld up in DFW. LSU is a long-standing rivalry that stirs the passions on both sides. LSU's abrupt cancellation of a long-term contract in the early 90s after A&M had won five games in a row (coupled with a similar break in the series under similar circumstances back in the 70s) merely adds fuel to the fire. And anyone who knows anything about college football knows A&M's ties to Alabama via Paul "Bear" Bryant and Gene Stallings. Finally, A&M isn't pretending the reasons for this potential move are for anything other than what they are: A chance for more money, more stability, and a chance to get out from under the oppressive thumb of the Texas Longhorns--or, more specifically, Texas Athletic Director Deloss Dodds.

Will the Aggies dominate SEC play and rack up a bunch of national championships right away? Not likely. That's not what this is about. There's a huge shakeup coming in college athletics, and for once, A&M wants to make its own destiny for good or ill, rather than tag along on someone else's coattails.

Next: The birth and untimely death of the Big 12.

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