Over the weekend, we linked you to a story from The Kansas City Star in which writer Sam Mellinger wondered if Missouri was now having regrets about leaving the Big 12. (Two notes: 1. That damnable Mia Hamm ad will pop up as soon as you click the link. 2. Yes, Tiger fans, we know you think Mellinger is a pro-Kansas, anti-Missouri man.) Well, Mellinger’s item got me thinking about how things in the SEC, Big 12, ACC and — if all heck breaks loose in the next two months — all of college athletics might have been different had one school not shot itself in the foot more than two decades ago.
Everything at present time is moving in circles. Mellinger just must not have realized that. In writing about how the new SEC-Big 12 agreement has made the Big 12 more stable than anyone would have imagined a year ago, he stated:
“There is no way to know the answer for sure, but there are now plenty of college sports insiders who believe MU wouldn’t have left for the SEC if it knew this is how the thing would turn out.
The SEC is the most powerful league in college sports, so it’s dishonest to call joining up a mistake, but it’s easy to imagine that in their most unfiltered thoughts the MU decision-makers are now less certain they did the right thing.
The mantra all along was stability, the Tigers saying their best situation would be a firm Big 12. Turns out that’s exactly what they left behind.”
Actually, no. That’s not what Missouri left behind.
When Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC, it was the fourth founding member to leave the league in about 18 months time. Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State had all just been had their bids for membership in the Pac-12 rejected. The league Missouri left was splintering. (Heck, Oklahoma even came close to scuttling the conference’s plans to add West Virginia to replace Mizzou.)
It was Missouri’s departure that actually helped make the Big 12 stable again. Scared that the league would blow itself to pieces and Big 12 teams would land everywhere from the ACC (who Texas also approached), the Pac-12, the Big Ten, the SEC and who knows where else… ESPN coughed up a huge payday for a 10-school league that covers just five states (including Iowa, Kansas and West Virginia, which are all rather sparsely populated). ESPN feared that it would either a) have to renegotiate television contracts with every league under the sun or b) risk losing some games to other networks which were ready to bid — NBC/Comcast, Fox, etc. As a result, the Big 12 got more than market value from ESPN (and from Fox).
But if Missouri doesn’t leave the Big 12, the only thing that’s made the league stable — all that television money — most likely doesn’t reach the levels it did. Yet still, some question whether the Tigers should have just stayed put and enjoyed the Big 12′s current riches.
See the circle in all that? Here’s another one.
Over on the Atlantic Coast, John Swofford’s basketball-first league tried to become a better football conference way back in 1991 by adding powerhouse Florida State. In 2004, the ACC took things further and raided the Big East for Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. People forget that BC went to eight bowls in a row under Tom O’Brien and was averaging about nine wins per year when the ACC nabbed them.
But FSU’s program fizzled under an aging Bobby Bowden. Miami’s program was undone by NCAA violations. Virginia Tech never could win “the big one” and claim a national crown. Boston College saw it’s successes diminish when O’Brien left for NC State in 2007.
The league’s football fortunes turned sour just as television contracts — which are driven almost entirely by football rights — were booming. Now some of those very same football schools are talking about leaving the ACC which could ultimately bring down roof on Swofford’s head.
Had the ACC not added all those schools and had it remained a tight-knit, basketball power it likely wouldn’t be as rich as its neighboring leagues, but it certainly would be tougher to blow apart than it is now. Dumping 60 years of tradition is tougher than walking away from 20. Or eight.
Want another circle? Let’s focus on Florida State.
In 1990, the Southeastern Conference put on a song and dance routine in Tallahassee in an attempt to lure the Seminoles into the SEC. There were no certainly roadblocks from the folks in Gainesville 22 years ago. FSU officials decided instead that the ACC was the better place for them. They could dominate in football and bellying up to the lectern with strong academic institutions like Duke, North Carolina, and Virginia put a charge in the bow ties of FSU’s academicians.
But as noted above, FSU’s dominion over the ACC and college football ended. In the 90s, the move looked sound. In the 2000s, not so much. State became an average football team and that helped drag down the value of the entire ACC as television rights fees grew. State fell behind the SEC and rival Florida in the money race. FSU’s fans complain about having to play basketball schools like Wake Forest on the gridiron (maybe because the Demon Deacons have taken four of the last six from the Seminoles).
Now Florida State is on the verge of leaving the ACC because it can make more money elsewhere. Even though it’s the top reason the ACC isn’t worth as much.
See the circle? Now look at it in big picture form.
If Florida State had had the foresight in 1990 to join the conference that was clearly the best fit for it, the school would probably be healthier and wealthier today. But it snubbed the SEC for the ACC. The SEC got rich without FSU. It’s landmark television deals in 2008 set off a series of conference moves that wound up destabilized the Big 12. Eventually, that led Missouri to leave its old Big Eight rivals and flee the Big 12 for Mike Slive’s league. ESPN then threw huge cash at the Big 12 in the hopes of saving it. It worked. And now Florida State is eyeballing a possible move from the ACC to the Big 12.
If FSU had simply done the sensible thing in 1990, the SEC’s roster of teams would definitely look more sensible on a map today. Florida State would be on solid ground. The ACC might have remained a basketball-first power and not brought in schools that would have no problem leaving and splitting up the conference. Missouri might not have had a greener pasture to head to and might have stayed put in the Big 12 to preserve its old rivalries. And perhaps leagues across the nation wouldn’t be trembling with fear over more possible expansion, realignments, and breakups today.
If FSU had moved to the SEC, Missouri might not have. And if Missouri hadn’t left the Big 12, FSU might not be contemplating a move to the the Big 12.
And we all might never have become trapped in what seems to be a never-ending cycle — make that circle — of change.