Commentary

Search for stability sets off panic

Originally Published: September 21, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

The announcement by Pacific-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott on Tuesday night that the league would not expand is a one-paragraph statement that emphasized collegiality, equality and the trust that has developed among the 12 members. You know, a conference.

[+] EnlargeLarry Scott
Getty ImagesLarry Scott's statement Tuesday night seems to have slowed the realignment carousel -- for now.

And sanity prevailed throughout the land.

Maybe not everywhere. The Big East still looks like the set of "Survivor: Providence." The remaining members held a tribal council in New York last night and that UConn guy is still trying to join another tribe.

Maybe, just maybe, the Pac-12's exhalation is a sign that normalcy has returned to the college landscape. The last several weeks could spawn a thousand graduate theses in psychology. The search for stability, to defend home and hearth, is hardwired in all of us. When that is endangered, stress levels go up.

"There might be a psychological issue. There could be a sense at the university that the future is uncertain," said Jason Winfree, a University of Michigan economics professor whose specialty is sports. "I don't know how you would prove that. I don't know that there is a lot of evidence for that."

You want evidence? Oklahoma and Texas, partners for nearly a century, are at odds. Syracuse, a founding member of the Big East, packed up and left its conference home since 1979 without a word of warning. Members of the Big 12 and the Big East discussed assembling a conference.

There is evidence all around us. When you are at risk of losing the roof over your head, you act strangely. Ask the American homeowner whose mortgage is under water. Ask the college president whose conference is falling apart. Nike Pro Combat be damned -- panic is what everyone who is anyone in college athletics has been wearing.

"The sad part of it is, theoretically, this should be the most important week in the history of Mountaineer football," West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said Tuesday. "'GameDay' is here. The No. 2 team in the nation [LSU] is coming in. Of course, the focus is on expansion and where do we end up."

Luck said this after the ACC turned aside West Virginia's entreaties and before the emergency meeting called last night by the Big East football members, all six of them.

"I've never seen this level of uncertainty," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. And his league is safe.

As the American economy lumbers forward, a rhino in quicksand, college football is one of the few industries off Wall Street that is printing money. Over the last two years, one television contract has been more lucrative than the next. Live sports, as Big East commissioner John Marinatto said last month, are DVR-proof.

Yet university presidents and the regents/trustees who employ them suddenly became convinced that stability is a necessity that they must leave home to find. They tossed aside rivalries built over decades in a matter of weeks.

"Stability and money are what are driving the moves," Luck said. "… It affects the swim team, the volleyball team, baseball. Football is the umbilical cord. If that gets cut or damaged, it damages more than football."

In the real world, Americans are downcast about the economy and pessimistic about their future. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, in a June survey, found that 91 percent of Americans believe the economy is fair or poor, and 69 percent of them believe nothing will improve in the year to come.

And that was before the debt ceiling debacle of the summer, which only darkened the national mood.

"I think this is being driven by media rumors," Winfree said. "The conferences are competing with each other. They don't want to be left out."

[+] EnlargeRed River Rivalry
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireCan Texas and Oklahoma find common ground now that the Pac-12 is out of the equation?

The arson inspectors will decide in due time what set off this conflagration. It may have been the arrogance of Texas, or the inability of Texas A&M to deal with that arrogance (you'd think if anyone knew how …). But once the Aggies threw up their hands and began talking to the SEC, they set off an emotional chain reaction that only now has begun to calm.

Intercollegiate athletics in September 2011 resembles the second-floor lobby of the Bailey Building & Loan, overrun by anxious depositors.

"Can't you understand what's happening here?" George Bailey asked them. "Don't you see what's happening? Potter isn't selling. Potter's buying. And why? Because we're panicky and he's not. That's why. He's picking up some bargains. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We've got to stick together, though. We've got to have faith in each other."

And in the end, as you recall, every depositor in Bedford Falls abandoned Bailey for the Pac-16.

Actually, that's not what happened. Cooler heads prevailed, Clarence got his wings, George avoided a stint in Leavenworth and the Bailey Building & Loan remained in the Big 12.

Meanwhile, back here in Swofford Falls, the ACC picked up a couple of bargains in Pittsburgh and Syracuse. With the Pac-12 announcement last night, maybe the bank run has ended. Stability has begun to reassert itself. Maybe sanity is not far behind.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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