October 26, 2011
I said it on Tuesday, and it's worth repeating: The first rule in conference realignment is, Nothing is a done deal until it's a done deal. I should have stopped there.
Because while everyone from the New York Times to the West Virginia dailies in West Virginia was literally proclaiming the Mountaineers' pending defection from the Big East to the Big 12 "a done deal" — local outlets even went ahead with the obligatory "Meet the new rivals" stories — the actual deal was about run into a big, L-shaped wall:
After being informed by Big 12 officials that it would be admitted to the conference, West Virginia now finds itself in a holding pattern.
A Big 12 conference call Tuesday night was expected to be a formality on West Virginia's road to admittance. Instead, objections were raised.
A late push by Louisville has put political pressure on the Big 12 and opened the possibility of Louisville's being the university that is admitted instead of West Virginia. Two people with direct knowledge of the situation said that lobbying by the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, including to David Boren, the president of the University of Oklahoma and a former senator, helped slow West Virginia's admittance to the Big 12.
Again, the locals confirmed the eleventh-hour backtracking. A source "with direct knowledge" of the negotiations told the New York Times "it's 50-50 right now between West Virginia and Louisville" to replace (presumably) SEC-bound Missouri as the tenth team at the Big 12 table, and the issue may not be settled until the next Big 12 board meeting on Monday night. If the Mountaineers remain a tentative favorite, obviously the question is a long way from being settled.
It's not one either side is likely to concede, either. If the reports of West Virginia's exit were greatly exaggerated, the reports of the Big East's impending demise as a major football conference were not: Losing Louisville would leave the league in the same position, standing by with five remaining members — Cincinnati, Connecticut, Rutgers, South Florida and West Virginia — and a continental expansion plan — Air Force, Boise State, Houston, Navy and SMU — that doesn't go far enough to take its automatic bid to a BCS bowl game off the bubble, risking its demotion to the ranks of the Have-Not leagues.
In fact, if Boise and Co. aren't convinced that the new alignment secures the bid past 2013, they may decide to take their chances in the pending Mountain West/Conference USA merger, and the Big East will be forced to join or die. The lone invitation to the Big 12, with its rock-solid BCS bid, is like the letter of transit in Casablanca.
If high-ranking senators are directly involved in the lobbying process, the dollar signs in someone's office are already blinking with a vengeance. And as Rich Rodriguez — or anyone who's read about his exit from Morgantown in the new book "Three and Out" — can tell you, the combination of politics and football in West Virginia is not for the feint or trusting of heart. That goes double where there's big money involved. It goes triple where they feel like they've been betrayed. I hope McConnell and the Cardinals came to play hardball, because the fight for the last ticket out of the desert is about to get ugly.