The trickle-down effect of realignment
There is no truth to the rumor that the Ivy League is expanding, but take note: The Princeton men's squash team ended Trinity's 13-year national championship streak this year, and that could make the Tigers mighty attractive at some point in this whole conference realignment thing.
That's only slightly facetious, because if we haven't jumped the shark entirely when it comes to conference realignment, we are most certainly on the ramp. In fact, it would behoove teams over the next few years to pin a "Hello, My Conference Is " tag to team uniforms to help fans keep track of what has become a jiggering of the national college landscape befitting an Abbott & Costello routine.
Florida International and North Texas are leaving the Sun Belt to join Conference USA. Before they even complete their one and only season in the WAC, former Southland schools Texas State and Texas-Arlington will leave for the Sun Belt in 2013, where they'll be joined by current CAA member Georgia State.
Nevada, Fresno State, Utah State and San Jose State are leaving the WAC to join the Mountain West. Louisiana Tech is leaving the WAC to join Conference USA, which lost Memphis to the Big East. Temple is leaving the Atlantic 10 join the Big East, and Charlotte, which once left Conference USA to join the A-10, is now leaving the A-10 to re-join Conference USA.
Got all that?
Well, don't get too comfortable.
With rumors still swirling that the Big 12 isn't quite finished and that the Big East has work to do, we are back at the corner of Bedlam and mayhem, now all the more chaotic thanks to the inevitable trickle down of the shifting landscape -- a description that has been used so much it's lobbying for official entry in to the sports lexicon, catalogued between double shift and hockey line shift -- to second-tier conferences.
"I still think there are other changes that will occur, and it's all linked,'' said Sun Belt Conference commissioner Karl Benson, himself a realigned leader, having dashed from the fading WAC to the Sun Belt in March. "If the Big 12 does something, the Big East will react. If the Big East does something, Conference USA will react. If Conference USA does something, we'll react. You're already seeing the Colonial, Horizon and Atlantic 10 with changes, conferences that had been untouched through all of this. I think there's still a lot of movement that will occur.''
What's different about these changes is that many now directly involve basketball. In the first round, hoops was left on the side of the road or grudgingly brought along by its football big brothers. Remember those frantic weeks when the Big 12 was crumbling and Kansas looked like it might be without a home?
Granted, realignment remains football-centric -- Charlotte athletic director Judy Rose admitted she convinced her chancellor to add football because she knew it offered stability. ("When Kansas was just sitting there,'' she said, "that was a real eye opener and very scary.")
But finally the basketball folks are getting together, deciding to merge their assets in ways that will benefit them instead of just taking whatever leftovers their pigskin peers want to offer.
"The schools that don't have football, there's still that desire to get to the Final Four, and that's just as important and just as meaningful as any bowl game,'' George Mason athletic director Tom O'Connor said. "If you're in the BCS, you want to win a national championship. If you're in a situation like us and some other things, it's the same thing. So you want to be in a position where you can build and maintain a quality program and move ahead.''
Exhibit A of that new attitude is the Atlantic 10, which has suffered some blows -- losing Temple to the Big East and Charlotte to C-USA -- but made its own bold move, adding Butler to the fold.
There are rumors, too, that the basketball-first league isn't done, with potential additions of VCU and George Mason.
[Editor's Note: On Friday afternoon, several hours after this article was published, the Colonial Athletic Assocation announced that George Mason has decided to continue its membership in the CAA]
About 18 months ago, the presidents of the Atlantic 10 put together a strategic plan for the league's future. First and foremost was a simple acceptance of what the league is and where its strengths are.
Devoid of football, the A-10 didn't consider itself powerless; instead it argued it was unique.
"We all looked around and realized that we're very proud of our success in basketball and our academic success,'' commissioner Bernadette McGlade said. "It was important to embrace that because that is our strongest asset.''
Of course, the whole trouble with realignment is that one conference can only strengthen itself by weakening another. With Butler bolting for the A-10, the Horizon League is in search of a new member, an opening that Oakland coach Greg Kampe is openly petitioning for. That move would mean the Summit would be down a member and so on.
And the A-10's gain could be the death of the Colonial Athletic Association, an equally strong basketball-centric league.
CAA commissioner Tom Yeager declined a request to talk for this story, but he did tell the Associated Press this week: ''I'm the optimist that we're OK, but who knows?'' Yeager said. "Watching what's going on around the country, it's crazy."
There is little out there to quell any unease he might be feeling about his league's shaky future.
"We've enjoyed our relationship with the CAA,'' O'Connor said. "Tom Yeager is one of the quality people both personally and professionally in this business. But when opportunities present themselves, you have to take a look. All we've done is taken a good, hard look. You have to make the best choice within the goals of your program.''
Even schools that have jumped haven't found Utopia. Charlotte moved back to C-USA to give its future football team a home, but in doing so denied its basketball team more solid footing. The Atlantic 10 has had a great deal more success in recent years earning at-large bids. And with Memphis taking its game to the Big East, C-USA's flagship program will soon be gone.
And certainly if more dominoes fall, C-USA could lose additional members.
"I was very honest with our basketball coaches,'' Rose said. "I told them that we may take a short-term hit in basketball and by that I mean, I recognized that the Atlantic 10 was ranked seventh last year and Conference USA 10th, but that's not a huge gap. We wanted to make a move where basketball was protected.''
Even Rose acknowledged that protection and security aren't guaranteed.
Just after Charlotte inked its move to C-USA, John Marinatto resigned as Big East commissioner, igniting more rumblings that the Big East might be in for some more overhauling.
In fact, no one thinks that this second wave of realignment is anywhere near the finish line.
Benson only took over the Sun Belt in March and estimates that no less than 90 percent of his workload has been dedicated to realignment, whether that be trying to entice new members or (ineffectively) convinces others such as FIU and North Texas to stay. The other 10 percent he's devoted to finding a 12th member and figuring out what potential geographic divisions could look like.
"What's that old saying?" McGlade asked. "Nothing is constant except for change.''