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Sunday, September 18, 2011
Updated: September 20, 5:31 PM ET
College sports: survival of the fittest

By Gene Wojciechowski
ESPN.com

So during the Atlantic Coast Conference's Sunday morning dog-and-pony conference call -- the one welcoming Syracuse and Pittsburgh to the league -- I asked Syracuse chancellor Nancy Cantor the following question:

What were her concerns regarding the future of the Big East Conference and why did those concerns lead to Syracuse's defection to the ACC?

And her opening comments were a stunner:

"I would say that our concerns are really forward looking with respect to the ACC," said Cantor, casually blowing off the part about the Big East. "The issues for us is that we have increasingly strong Olympic sports across the board, women sports -- the ACC is a wonderful match for that for us. And we really are obviously very excited about that."

Wait? What? Did the chancellor of Syracuse University just say that one of the primary reasons her school can justify ditching the Big East as a founding member is because she thinks the ACC has better Olympic sports programs? She can't be serious, right?

John Swofford
John Swofford said the ACC is happy at 14 teams, but didn't rule out a move to 16 teams.

Anyway, for sheer comedy, bureaucratic double-speak and non-transparency, you couldn't beat the hour-plus-long conference call featuring ACC commissioner John Swofford, Cantor, Syracuse athletic director Daryl Gross, and Pittsburgh chancellor Mark Nordenberg and athletic director Steve Pederson. Get used to it -- there will be more of these things as more conferences and schools change their letterhead.

Sunday it was Syracuse and Pitt putting on the ACC smiley face. Monday it could be Oklahoma that files its walking papers and bolts from the fragile Big 12. Same goes for fellow Big 12 member (for now) Texas.

Texas A&M is circling the Southeastern Conference runway, waiting for clearance from the SEC's legal department to land. When those wheels touch ground, does OU follow? Could, say, Big East members (for now) West Virginia and Louisville be far behind? Or would the SEC consider poaching the ACC's Florida State?

Out west, Pac-12 (for now) commissioner Larry Scott can point to the recent moves made by Swofford and SEC commissioner Mike Slive and say to his own league presidents and chancellors, "I know you wanted to stay at 12 teams, but we'll get left behind if we don't expand again." Does he already have a deal in place with Texas, OU, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State? Or are the Longhorns already doing a dance with the ACC, with its more attractive Eastern time zone?

And if the Big East crumbles, does that force Notre Dame to seek full conference shelter? Hello, tag-team deal with Texas to the ACC? Anything is possible these days. After all, Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick have close working relationships.

Meanwhile, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, one of the voices of reason during this seismic activity, insists his league is content to stay at 12 teams. But if the ACC, SEC and Pac-12 make land grabs to complete 16-team configurations, will Delany have to reassess that plan and reach out, for a third time, to Notre Dame? And elsewhere?

Here's what we know for sure:

• The ACC is a carnivore. In two big gulps, it has swallowed Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech, followed this time by Syracuse and Pittsburgh. In essence, it has knee-capped the Big East while increasing its own member count to 14. And in all likelihood it won't stop there. During the conference call, Swofford did little to refute a 16-team ACC model.

• If you want to leave the ACC, you'll now have to pay a $20 million exit fee. Swofford said it was a show of solidarity between ACC members.

That's one way of spinning it. Another way: It's a very useful financial deterrent if other conferences want to recruit ACC schools.

• Swofford used the word, "sacred," when describing the ACC philosophy of equal revenue sharing between league members. But when I asked him if that applied to schools with their own TV networks (Texas' Longhorn Network) or own network affiliations (Notre Dame and NBC), he said the ACC hadn't analyzed those specific scenarios.

Yet.

In other words, Swofford isn't closing the door on the possibility of an accommodation. And presumably Texas would be open to restructuring its Longhorn Network deal.

• The Big 12 and the Big East need oxygen masks.

The Big 12's fate could be decided as early as Monday, when board of regents meetings are held at OU and Texas. Maybe something is decided, maybe not, but the ACC's expansion could force the Sooners and Longhorns to look elsewhere, and fast.

As for the Big East, it was always a bastardized conference. Some members played football, others didn't. Notre Dame had favored nation status -- an independent in football, but a Big East member in everything else. At some point it figured the welds would loosen and break.

• According to Swofford, a "double-digit" number of schools have approached the ACC about membership. He wouldn't say which schools had made inquiries, which was convenient. Nor would he comment about the possibility of Rutgers, Connecticut, Texas or anyone else (Merchant Marine Academy? Bob's Barber College?) joining the ACC, which was also convenient.

• Texas Christian must want to kill itself.

TCU is bound for the Big East. If there is a Big East by the time the Horned Frogs get there next season.

• Syracuse and Pitt reps made sure to acknowledge Big East commissioner John Marinatto.

How sweet. I'm sure Marinatto will be touched by the gesture.

• The Big East bylaws say Pitt and Syracuse will have to wait 27 months before they can leave the Big East.

Fat chance. Look for a negotiated settlement.

These are Darwinian times -- survival of the fittest and all that. Loyalty, as it relates to conference realignment, is on the brink of extinction. It's about market share, revenue, looking out for your own interests, commerce.

"It's a great day in Syracuse," gushed Cantor. "It's a great day for New York."

It isn't a great day at 15 Park Row West, Providence, R.I.

That's the address of the Big East offices.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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