Realignment rumors again rampant
On Wednesday in Indianapolis, a collection of university presidents, conference commissioners and NCAA administrators hailed a return to sanity in college sports.
On Monday in College Station,Texas, a school that hasn't been a top-10 football program in 17 years could do something that basically mocks the optimistic outlook in Indy. And in the process Texas A&M could shove the entire nation into another round of mercenary mergers and acquisitions.
So we're back to the brink.
This is the uncomfortable and often nonsensical place we were a mere 14 months ago, when college sports teetered on the edge of complete turmoil. It took an 11th-hour salvaging of the Big 12 to keep the peace then. Nobody thought that agreement would last forever -- but most of us thought it would at least hold for more than one academic year.
Now it may not. If A&M bolts the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, that could be the trigger for a realignment free-for-all. Hard to believe a program that is a whopping three games over .500 in the past nine football seasons could decide the future of an entire nation, but that may be where we're headed.
I'd expect the SEC to woo a 14th member. Then you wonder whether 16 makes more sense than 14. And you wonder what happens to a completely destabilized Big 12 -- does it poach or get poached? Do the Big Ten and Pac-12 follow through on last year's flirtation with 14 or 16? Is the Big East in big trouble? What about Notre Dame, which holds a lot of cards but must play them with extreme care? What about Texas, which holds even more?
Thus the hamster wheel of speculation spins yet again.
But as we wait for all this to play out (or not play out), the bigger picture of where college athletics stands has been shaken into focus.
Presidents can talk all they want about academic initiatives and student-athlete welfare, but it's proving to be a sideshow conducted while the real business is done in back rooms. Television dollars and rampant egos are running the show in college sports, no matter how much the academic side of campus aspires to exert control.
Don't believe me? Look at the catalysts for this return to the brink:
Texas' multimillion-dollar Longhorn Network deal with ESPN rekindled the belief in Texas A&M people that it will never be able to command equal footing with their rivals from Austin. And equal footing with Texas is everything for the Aggies.
I remember being in College Station in 2006 and listening to A&M officials chafe at Texas for building its new "Godzillatron" video board to be bigger than the Aggies' new one. A&M went huge, at 53 by 73 feet. Texas went huger, at 55 by 134 feet.
That's the way it's always been for the passionate fans of A&M. And Texas fans delight in that fact.
"We are the Joneses," is a favorite saying of Longhorns athletic director DeLoss Dodds, meaning that it's up to everyone else to try to keep up.
The advent of the Longhorn Network seems to have helped crystallize the realization for Texas A&M that the only chance of ever beating Texas over the long haul is by leaving the Horns' side. Change conferences, chart a different path and get out of Bevo's shadow once and for all.
The problem is what could be lost in the process.
For one thing, the burning rivalry between the two schools would seemingly be reduced to nothing more than theoretical comparisons. Forget the Thanksgiving football meeting, and every other meeting in every other sport. Why would Texas continue to schedule A&M in anything if the Aggies walk out on the Longhorns?
Faced with the potential death of an on-field rivalry, fans on both sides of the divide must deal with the fact that their off-field rivalry is both so deep and so petty that it is irreconcilable. Is winning the argument at the country club, the barber shop and the water cooler so important that it's worth never playing each other again?
Problem No. 2: Texas A&M has less chance of achieving kingpin status in the SEC than in the Big 12. That's not even debatable. What's gained in autonomy could be sacrificed in glory. Put it this way: Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor don't play in the SEC.
Problem No. 3: The convulsions that could grip the rest of the nation and turn conferences against each other like never before. See above.
If it all goes down, Texas A&M officials can justifiably say they can't be held responsible for whatever additional dominoes fall hereafter. That's not their concern.
But the rest of us have to deal with the aftershocks, and they won't be good for the overall condition of college sports. Even when the presidents are trying to build a better system, more powerful forces are at work tearing it down.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.
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