Conference peace has arrived
Having completed the greatest comeback in modern times, the once-hated, now-venerated Bowl Championship Series left behind a long list of accomplishments. The BCS expanded interest in college football from regional to national. The BCS proved to be the rising tide that lifted all boats, from Boise State to Central Florida, not to mention the Alabamas and Ohio States in between.
But the BCS also brought about the greatest upheaval in the history of intercollegiate athletics. A total of 44 FBS schools will compete in a different conference in 2014 than they did in 1997, the last pre-BCS season. That number doesn't include the schools that hopped from league to league as if they were speed-dating (TCU, Marshall, Temple, et al). Nor does it include the 12 schools that have moved up from the FCS or started programs from scratch over the past 16 years.
"I think it's startling," Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford said. "I took this job in 1997. If you had told me those numbers at that point in time, I would have thought you were crazy."
The Big West and the Western Athletic are gone. The Sun Belt and Mountain West are alive. The Big East has sort of become the American. If you need an explanation of that, you'll have to pack a lunch.
Whether your school benefited from the musical chairs or merely tried to survive them, it is difficult to find anyone who isn't enjoying the current lull. Though Rutgers, Maryland and Louisville will execute their moves this coming season, the schools in the five equity conferences have not announced another move since those three did so in November 2012.
No more moves are expected any time soon, either, much to the dismay of Cincinnati and UConn. Both schools are trying to strike a come-hither pose that might lure the ACC or the Big Ten or the NBA Eastern or any conference that may rescue them from the American.
The conferences with the biggest media rights packages carry the most allure. With the exception of the Big Ten, which will negotiate new rights deals next year (the league's current contracts expire in 2016), the ACC, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC have media agreements that extend into the next decade.
In other words, the tectonic plates that produced one earthquake after another over the past 16 years are done shifting for a while. And peace and quiet settled over the land.
"I believe that it's true and I hope that it's true," Swofford said, "because I think the collegiate landscape athletically needs that for a period of time. It will be healthy for major college athletics."
It creates stability not only for our conference but the overall landscape." -- ACC commissioner John Swofford on granting the league's media rights
Swofford and his members are responsible for the end of the dance. The ACC schools, by granting their media rights to the conference last April, legally decided to live together. Media rights are what other conferences covet. That's what they sell to the networks for big bucks.
Of the five equity conferences, only the SEC schools have not signed their media rights to the league. No university in the conference has any desire to look elsewhere -- the SEC generates more money than the rest of the conferences. The ACC schools had never granted their rights because they didn't feel it was necessary. No one had left the league since South Carolina in 1971. But when Maryland left, and speculation over which of the league's members would go where refused to simmer, the presidents realized what they had to do.
The decision benefited not only the ACC members, but everyone else, too -- it took the most desirable schools off the market. Don't misunderstand; the ACC took action to protect itself. But the conference presidents also realized that their decision would reduce the fever pitch that had gripped the FBS the same as it had in previous rounds of conference-hopping.
"That was part of our conversation," Swofford said. "It creates stability not only for our conference but the overall landscape."
The changes are done. We have become accustomed to Nebraska in the Big Ten and Texas A&M in the SEC. Colorado has won a Pac-12 men's basketball tournament. Five of the eight programs that played Big East football in 1997 will play ACC football in 2014. Rutgers and Maryland will renew their once-annual backyard rivalries with Penn State in the Big Ten.
"Change is not easy for people," Swofford said. "It's not easy to manage. It's not easy for people to accept. But it's also a constant in life. There's just been, in terms of this particular topic, a lot more of it in a relatively condensed period of time. So it feels even more dramatic."
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, Swofford believes intercollegiate athletics is better off now than it was 16 years ago. But the relief in his voice is apparent. Realignment is receding. At long last, we can set aside the pencils and write conference standings in ink.
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