- Ed McGrogan, Tennis.com
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In the fantasy draft that is college athletic conference realignment, it's been said that basketball bears scant influence on whether a school ends up in the ACC, the SEC or -- gasp! -- the Big East (if it even exists a week from now). Football and television viewers make universities such as Texas and Oklahoma so coveted, while Kansas, one of basketball's traditional powers, is a surprising afterthought.
If that's the case, what impact does a sport like tennis -- with a national footprint that must be something like 1/10,000th of college basketball's -- have on all these proceedings? You guessed it: absolutely none. But that doesn't mean tennis isn't being impacted by everything that's going on.
Take Syracuse. The Orange and Pittsburgh ignited this latest round of changes when they bolted the Big East for the ACC this past weekend. The Orange's football program received a boost by leaving a mediocre, if BCS-eligible, conference. It's debatable whether the same can be said about its basketball program, considering how strong Big East hoops has been recently, but watching North Carolina at the Carrier Dome and Syracuse in Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium is nothing if not tantalizing. But, oh yeah, how's tennis doing?
"I've already gotten so much more interest in my program in the last 72 hours, since now we're an ACC school," says Luke Jensen, women's tennis coach at Syracuse. "For me personally and what I'm trying to do at Syracuse, I could not have put it together better."
There are lots of reasons for Jensen's optimism, but recruiting is the most significant. Leaving aside the oft-shivering weather in upstate New York, Jensen's biggest obstacle to overcome is competition. Not necessarily how it stacked up to Syracuse on the scoreboard -- rather, to have worthy opponents on a consistent basis.
"In the Big East, all the [schools' tennis programs] weren't fully funded; everybody had different agendas. It just wasn't a fair fight," says Jensen. "The one thing that's killed me is when a top recruit asks me, 'Who am I going to play?' I've lost so many recruits because of a lack of a dominating schedule."
That will change for Syracuse once it begins ACC play -- at a time still being determined. Instead of facing, in some cases, "a club team," Jensen will guide his squad through "the elite conference of women's tennis." Even if that journey requires a great deal of travel outside the Northeast.
"For us, we're traveling anyway to get to games. The great thing about this schedule is, now they're going to have to come to us, too," says Jensen. "They can't dodge us, skip us or avoid scheduling us. It's on the docket, and we're competing nose to nose with the best in the nation."
Of course, not every college is as happy as Syracuse. Take Baylor, the alma mater of Benjamin Becker and a member of the Big 12, another conference whose days may be dwindling. Its women's tennis program just won its seventh consecutive conference title, but if the majority of the Big 12's members leave -- a process that seems inevitable, with the SEC's overtures to Texas A&M and Missouri -- what will become of the powerful Lady Bears? Baylor may be on the outside looking in at the new megaconference model, a system Jensen seems to suggest is unavoidable.
"The super-conferences, there's no doubt there's hardship based on that fact that we're going to miss some traditional rivalries. I get that. But the bottom line is, the whole thing revolves around, 'Can you upgrade your facilities? Can you update and evolve and upgrade every aspect?' And that costs money. Everybody says it's about money -- it is. And the people that act first are going to be the winners."
It's far too early to conclude who the real winners of realignment are -- many dominos have yet to fall, and it will be years before a gain or loss is realized as it relates to all college sports, not just football or tennis. What we know is that tennis coaches and programs will be forced to react to a tectonic shift wholly out of their control. Jensen, who feels that tennis and the super-conferences will develop a beneficial, symbiotic relationship, says he learned about Syracuse's move on ESPN and later validated it with the athletic department.
"We want to win national titles," says Jensen. "It's really no different than any of the big-time football programs or basketball programs: If you want to be the best, you've got to have the best facilities, the best schedule and show the blue-chip recruits that are coming up that you can take kids to the next level."
As far apart as tennis and football are in the grand scheme of things, Jensen's words ring true, as all college athletic programs face these constant challenges -- with many new ones possibly on the horizon.
The ongoing conference land grab is bound to become even messier. And though it may profoundly alter the landscape of college football and basketball, let's not forget the affect it will have on less-prominent sports -- like tennis.