We have now entered conference realignment's Stage 3. Or is it Stage 4? It's hard to keep track.
Part of the reason it's so hard to definitively describe the where we are in the realignment process is because Stage 1 remains alive and well. Conference realignment isn't Harold Hill. It doesn't stop by one conference, convince university presidents they need a bigger television deal, and then skip town when the con is up. Conference realignment is a virus. It infects cells one by one, but remains thriving in its previously infected hosts, even as it spreads further and further outward. We're almost two years past the Big Ten's opening moves, and the Big East is still flailing, the Big 12 is still looking, and UConn is still trying to get into the ACC. ("Come on, Boston College, let's bury the hatchet!")
The only difference now, as our Dana O'Neil examined in today's look at realignment's latest stage, is that everybody's in on the game. The WAC, the Mountain West, Conference USA, the Sun Belt -- there is no untouched, pristine land left. As Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson told Dana:
"I still think there are other changes that will occur, and it's all linked,'' said Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson, himself a realigned leader, having dashed from the fading WAC to the Sun Belt in March. "If the Big 12 does something, the Big East will react. If the Big East does something, Conference USA will react. If Conference USA does something, we'll react. You're already seeing the Colonial, Horizon and Atlantic 10 with changes, conferences that had been untouched through all of this. I think there's still a lot of movement that will occur.''
To wit: On Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Oakland, the dominant Summit League team of the past five seasons, is openly pushing for an invitation to the Horizon League. Long-time Oakland coach Greg Kampe tried to make the push a decade ago, but the University of Detroit, skeptical of sharing the Detroit market with an in-conference foe, kept the Golden Grizzlies at bay. From the AP:
"I know that's a fact because I called the athletic director then, Brad Kinsman, and he told me," Kampe said.
Kinsman said Wednesday that Kampe's recollection is accurate.
"The feeling back then was that it didn't make sense to share this market with another school in the same conference," said Kinsman, who retired in 2006. "Times have changed, coaches have changed, but I don't know what the thinking is now."
From a sheer performance standpoint, Kampe's desire is hardly outlandish. The Golden Grizzlies would have been near the top of the Horizon League in the past three seasons in attendance and RPI, which is what really matters. In terms of actual on-court performance, the Golden Grizzlies' Ken Pomeroy average adjusted efficiency rank over the past four seasons is 116.5; that would have put them right in the thick of last season's Horizon League, whose average KenPom rank was 174.6 and had only four teams rank higher than the Grizzlies overall. (In 2011, Oakland's best season in decades, Kampe's team ranked No. 66 in efficiency. Only Butler, at No. 41, ranked higher.)
Plus, there are good common sense reasons why it could work. Kampe cites the travel footprint as beneficial; teams could play Oakland and Detroit within two days' time and "wouldn't even have to change hotels." And then there's the potential of a budding rivalry:
"I think an Oakland-Detroit rivalry would be huge in southeast Michigan," he said. "When we played, there would be full houses, we'd be on the front page of the Detroit News and Free Press. There also would be television exposure that would help both schools and the Horizon. I don't see how it would be a negative for Detroit to have us in the same league."
I admit I'm not as familiar with the dynamics of the Detroit college hoops scene as some; would an Oakland-Detroit rivalry really generate front page local interest? That seems a little ambitious, right? (Commenters, please enlighten us). But even if Kampe is overstating the case, the points are valid. Oakland almost feels like a Horizon League already. This makes sense.
But the point of this isn't the suspense -- oh, the suspense! -- of a possible Oakland-to-Horizon move. It is, as Dana wrote, that realignment is no longer merely about the big boys. It is not longer just about football. Football is still a major concern, of course, but now that conferences large and small are doing everything in their power merely to survive as leagues, the doors are opening and closing everywhere. Basketball is a concern. In many cases, it is the only concern.
I don't know what we call this stage of realignment. The "technology adoption lifecycle," originally developed by three researchers studying agricultural innovation patterns at Iowa State University, produced the Rogers' bell curve, which looks like this. Maybe we're in the "late majority" stage? Or maybe agricultural innovation adoption has nothing to do with conference realignment, and this entire paragraph was pointless?
Maybe so. But rest assured, no school and no league wants to end up labeled a "laggard." No one -- and for what seems like the first time since this whole thing started, I mean no one -- wants to risk being left behind. Everyone is moving; everyone is looking. The question is: Where do we stop?