O’Neil: Latest conference realignment shows stunning lack of thought or foresight


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So every time the threat of a snowstorm blows into the Northeast, people dash to the grocery store and wipe out all of the eggs, milk and bread. As if a good batch of French toast will hold them over while they are cut off from civilization for weeks on end. Even people who are perfectly well stocked in eggs, milk and bread find themselves at the checkout at the Acme because it seems the thing to do. Never once do they stop and think that if the storm truly cuts them off from civilization, odds are the perishables will perish in the refrigerator having been severed from the invariable loss of electricity that traditionally comes with end-of-days storms. Or if, in the more likely scenario, they get two inches of snow, they’ll have so many eggs and so much milk and bread, it will go bad.

Welcome to the college athletics blizzard. After days of dithering, reneging, posturing and blathering, the Big Ten has added two schools it could have added a year ago but deemed unworthy, ostensibly killing a 108-year-old league just because it could. Never mind that it does not need Oregon and Washington to survive, that odds are Oregon and Washington weren’t going anywhere and would otherwise remain in the picked-over carcass of the Pac-12, and that the Big Ten isn’t really better because it added the Ducks and the Huskies.

The Big 12 added Colorado and might add other schools, and well, we need the damned eggs!

This is where we are. Ostensibly bright people are instead acting like lunatics, a lethal combination of pinheaded panicked presidents and carnivorous conference administrators forging a future that is no more stable than the past, while giving exactly zero consideration to their athletes and not even thinking about what the market might bear out in 10 years.

If conference realignment has taught us anything, it is that it is never aligned. “We’ve been waiting for a year, and there is so much enthusiasm in my time across the country with alumni and parents, I really couldn’t wait until July 1.’’ Colorado chancellor Philip DiStefano said that in 2011, as the bells tolled on his campus 12 times to signify the move to the Pac-12. Don’t let the door hit you, Phil.

That’s the great joke in all of this, that somehow these college enterprises are collegial. They are loyal to no one and beholden only to their bank accounts. In the midst of the mayhem, Florida State felt compelled to threaten the ACC with its departure … as if it were 1988, and Wide Right still mattered. (Though God bless Oregon State for pledging its undying love to the Pac-12. Which is kinda like saying the prom is an archaic rite of passage, when, in truth, no one has asked you to go). All of 12 hours ago, Big Ten presidents reportedly weren’t all on board to add Washington and Oregon, and yet now here we are. Grab hands, sing Kumbaya, and grit your teeth. Meanwhile Arizona and Arizona State are still mullinh their move to the Big 12, which does not exactly read like anyone is super eager to join.

If the past has taught us anything, rarely do these reconfigurations work. How many teams or leagues have truly gotten better, or made their league better? Since all of this shook out, only one realigned team has made it to the College Football Playoff (TCU), while only one (UConn) has won a men’s college basketball title — and UConn was misaligned to the American; that does not count.

If anything, they’ve all been diluted by their bloating. Boston College athletics is hanging on a missing poster inside every campus post office. Maryland, Syracuse and Pitt basketball, all successful and proud members of their former associations, have struggled to carve new identities in the Big Ten and ACC, respectively. Texas A&M football joined the SEC in 2012. And? And while the Big Ten keeps getting bigger, it still hasn’t won a college hoops championship in 23 years. The small but mighty Big East, meantime, has won three in the last seven.

Didn’t the Pac-12 essentially just prove that neither Oregon nor Washington was enough to attract more money from TV packages?

And still we gather eggs, not merely overlooking the value, but given zero care to the consequences, long term or short. At its core, all of this is about TV money. As one college basketball coach once quipped, “the Fox Conference versus ESPN.” Yet just this week, the New York Times reported that ESPN’s profits plunged 29 percent in the last six months. Disney is so concerned about its once fatted calf that it’s considering spinning off minority stakes to a professional teams. Why? Because the network has spent a gajillion dollars on rights fees at a time when people are cord cutting, and the presumed cash cow of streaming hasn’t exactly paid off.

But very often boons are followed by busts, and much like the homeowner never sees his or her property value tanking, university presidents seem immune to the idea that the steady flow of cash is not forever. Right now, people are still tuning in to college football, but just how much interest that Washington-Northwestern traditional battle draws remains to be seen.

Also, basic math lesson for the academics: The more teams you add, the more you have to spread the wealth.

Granted, Arizona-Kansas hoops — if the Big 12 expansion shakes out — could be fun, but please let’s not pretend this is about basketball. Or anyone other sport. It is not, nor has it ever been. We can invite Bill Walton to conduct last rites on Pac-12 basketball, but no one making these decisions truly mourns its death. Or frankly even considered the idea it was killing it. Chip Kelly (27-29 at UCLA) > John Wooden (620-147).

Perhaps down the road the brain trust that wants to expand the NCAA Tournament will realize how this could backfire. It’s kinda hard to get more of your cruddy teams into the bracket when the size of your conference could mean not all of your members will even make the conference tournament. That might catch their eye. Not because the athletes won’t get a shot in March; because they won’t get more NCAA tourney shares.

But odds are, right now at least, that hasn’t crossed anyone’s mind. Nor has the idea that while the football players load up in their charter flights for their grueling weekend trips, there will be a volleyball player somewhere grabbing a middle seat in coach to travel across the country on a Wednesday in December and take a chem lab in the Hyatt ballroom.

Way back when — in this case, Monday — Big Ten people discussed how diligent they’ve been at tackling the new travel for USC and UCLA. The diligence in this case meaning that they had discussed it — not that they had a solution. In fact, they lauded the fact that the Los Angeles airport as a West Coast hub made things a lot easier for everyone. Two schools neatly tied to the big airport, easy entry and exit for anyone.


USC, UCLA and the race to solve the Big Ten’s toughest travel puzzle

So did anyone, in this mad dash to grab Oregon and Washington, consider the Eugene to State College commute? Maybe the conference is divided into divisions. Iowa City to Seattle is still not exactly a puddle jumper for Olympic sport athletes who rely on the ever-reliable commercial airline industry.

Also just curious: USC and UCLA beach volleyball? On the banks of the old Raritan? Or Lake Michigan?

Right. None of that occurred to anyone.

Because Colorado blew in from the Rockies and into the Big 12.

All anyone thought about was grabbing the eggs.

(Photo: Rich von Biberstein/ Associated Press)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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