When the University of Connecticut is officially announced Thursday as a new/repeat member of the Big East Conference, it will provide a fitting full-circle moment to what has been the Decade of Realignment in college athletics.
In 2010, Nebraska agreed to join the Big Ten. Then Colorado and Utah announced their moves to the Pac-12. Over the next couple of years, every conference joined in — radically rewiring the circuitry nationwide. Geography was flouted, rivalries were extinguished, revenues have spiked and a new power grid was established.
As the 2010s wind down, it’s time to ask: How has the Decade of Realignment played out? College sports are richer than ever, but it’s debatable whether they’re better than ever. While there is more money, there also is far less lockstep acceptance of the college model. All those massive media rights deals spawned by realignment came with an unintended cynicism tax that has been quite costly.
But that’s the macro level. The question here today is micro: Who has the Decade of Realignment blessed, and who has it punished? A list of winners and losers:
Despite the news of the week, wherein the Huskies wisely reclaimed their basketball identity and moved back to a league that will nurture it, this is still a school that blew its big chance. UConn was on the cusp of Atlantic Coast Conference membership in 2011 and ’12, circling and waiting for an opening — yet when Maryland left and the opportunity was there, the school’s football program had cratered at precisely the wrong time. Louisville swooped into The Power Five Club, UConn was outflanked and the damage appears to be permanent. After playing in the 2011 Fiesta Bowl, the school made arguably the most costly football hire in history (Paul Pasqualoni), and what followed has been two more bad hires and eight straight losing seasons. Last year’s 1-11 football squad was literally the worst defensive team in FBS history. Now the football future appears to be a test drive of independence — spoiler alert: It won’t go well — with no good fallback options. UConn can reconnect with its hoops DNA, but it could have had much more to go along with it.
Leagues starting their own TV networks has been a key element of Power Five realignment. The Pac-12 Network’s distribution failure has been a persistent anchor, and the combination of lagging revenue distribution with big expenses (commissioner Larry Scott is the highest paid in college athletics, at $5.3 million) has created a widening Power Five money gap. That coincides with an extended run of revenue-sport futility: The league has missed the College Football Playoff two straight years and three of the past four; it hasn’t won a men’s basketball title since 1997; and it has placed just one team in the men’s hoops Final Four this decade. This isn’t directly attributable to the additions of Utah or Colorado, of course, but the Decade of Realignment has become a Decade of Retreat in marquee sports.
The decade’s first domino hasn’t created much of an impact since falling. After an extended run at the forefront of the Big Eight, the Cornhuskers were always an uneasy fit in the Texas-centric, hybrid Big 12. But changing conference addresses has failed to restore the school’s football prominence. After making the 2012 Big Ten title game — and surrendering 70 points to Wisconsin — Nebraska hasn’t won a division title since. The Huskers’ football record the past four years is 23-27, their worst 50-game record since 1957-61.
There is only one flourishing football independent, and BYU isn’t it. The Cougars announced their intention to leave the Mountain West in 2010, and what followed has been a mediocre decade of treading water (and a near-drowning in 2017). Hopes of joining the Big 12 fizzled a couple years ago, and a lot of BYU’s drawbacks then will be drawbacks come future realignment. The program is free of Group of Five limitations, but also lacking its potential bonus — a guaranteed New Year’s Six bowl bid for the top team in that group. Scheduling is an adventure, as this year’s slate indicates: An opening gauntlet against Utah, Tennessee, USC and Washington, followed by a hodgepodge of opponents that make sense (Boise State, Utah State, San Diego State) and those that don’t (Liberty, Idaho State and UMass on successive November Saturdays).
You could argue that Rutgers has been the biggest dumpster fire of the Big Ten’s eastward expansion, and you’d be 100 percent right. But the Scarlet Knights were admitted to The Club by the Big Ten, whereas Maryland already had Club membership and chose to abandon its ACC niche for more money, less identity and roughly identical competitive struggles. The Terrapins’ football record their final five years in the ACC: 24-38. Their record the first five years in the Big Ten: 25-37. Basketball has fared slightly better in the Big Ten than the latter years in the ACC, but the lather produced by Tobacco Road rivalries cannot be replicated by playing Iowa and Minnesota.
The Longhorns bullied their way to a splintering of the Big 12, and have virtually nothing to show for it other than some Longhorn Network loot. The football team has lost at least four games every season this decade, after never losing four in a single season the previous decade. The basketball team has not made the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 a single time this decade, after advancing at least that far five times the previous decade. Meanwhile, rival Texas A&M’s move to the Southeastern Conference — derided as a doomed venture by many Texas fans from the moment it was conceived — has elevated the Aggies to revenue peers with the school in Austin. Tom Herman may be on the verge of bringing the ‘Horns back in football, but that looks more like a story for the 2020s.
Mountain West Conference
A league that once had TCU, Utah, BYU and Chris Petersen-led Boise State has lost its spot at the top of the Group of Five food chain to the American Athletic Conference. (The average Sagarin Rating for the AAC has been better than the MWC four straight seasons.) The high end of the conference isn’t as good as it was a decade ago, and the low end is worse as well.
The Cardinals make both lists — first, the bad. The climb into The Club came at a cost: architect Tom Jurich was forced out after financial controversies and successive basketball scandals; the hoops dirt also cost Hall of Fame coach Rick Pitino his job and the school a national championship banner; another NCAA investigation is ongoing; and Bobby Petrino 2.0, a hire that earned nationwide mockery, ended in a 2-10 debacle. What price ambition?
They’re both on great football runs, but they’re also both stuck outside The Club with their noses pressed to the glass. Both schools quickly lost the coaches who took them to their best seasons — Tom Herman to Texas and Scott Frost to Nebraska, because that’s how it works when playoff access is a long shot. UCF has seen (and complained about) the limitations placed on an undefeated G5 team. Life can be good at the top of the AAC, but only so good.
The commissioner of the Big 12 was ousted in 2011 after that league ruptured, and has maintained a low profile ever since. Even the great Dan Beebe parody Twitter account has gone dark for the past two years.
Big East Diaspora Not Named UConn
First, Syracuse and Pittsburgh escaped a crumbling football league for the stability and revenue of the ACC. Then, West Virginia evacuated for the Big 12. And then Louisville landed its ACC membership. Taking each separately:
Syracuse transitioned its heavyweight basketball program from one great league to another and experienced a football breakthrough in 2018. Life After Boeheim looms as an unsettling venture, but that would be the case in any league.
The Panthers rode the Orange’s coattails to a destination they scantly deserve, given the futility of the overall athletic program, but don’t ask the Panthers to apologize. If The Club is dumb enough to take you, accept. Football did win the Coastal Division in 2018 (while going 7-7) and basketball should be crawling out of the smoking crater that was the Kevin Stallings Era.
The Mountaineers are geographic outliers in the Big 12, but it beats being stuck in the AAC. Revenue checks, playoff access and better bowl tie-ins make trips to Ames and Stillwater more tolerable than trips to Tulsa and Greenville, North Carolina. Revenue-sport credibility has been quickly established within the league, although Year One looks like a challenging one for football coach Neal Brown.
As mentioned above, the Cardinals are not without baggage accrued during their status climb. But they enhance the ACC basketball product, are very good in several non-revenue sports and should be on the rebound in football after the 2018 implosion.
The Aggies gave a defiant Gig ‘Em salute to Texas on the way out of the Big 12, and have done fine outside the Longhorns’ shadow. Revenue has flowed in massive amounts to fund the football arms race and inflate the overall athletic budget to something commensurate with Texas’ at the top of the college sports heap. Now all A&M has to do is dethrone Alabama and actually win something bigger than Johnny Manziel’s Heisman.
Which football program went nowhere during realignment and still won big? This one. The Fighting Irish got everything they wanted out of the shuffling: a quality ACC home for basketball; enhanced competitiveness for Olympic sports; academic compatibility with the elite schools in the league; continued football independence; and continued NBC money it doesn’t have to share with anyone. No wonder Jesus is still signaling touchdown.
Not only did the Horned Frogs jump into The Club, they have done very well since arriving. Three times in the last five years TCU has won at least 11 football games, including a 12-1 season in 2014 that arguably should have earned a spot in the College Football Playoff. The men’s basketball program scored a coup by hiring alum Jamie Dixon, who has delivered three straight 20-win seasons for the first time this century. And it’s much easier selling Metroplex recruits on staying home when the road schedule doesn’t feature Laramie, Albuquerque and Fresno.
See TCU. This Mountain West refugee has not been quite as successful in football as the Frogs, but the Utes have been a solid contender in the Pac-12 and won the South Division last year. This season they could do it again. Men’s basketball has been better than average in a conference that is wildly underperforming. Recruiting in California, always a priority, is certainly easier as a member of the Pac-12.
The Tigers stunningly won SEC East titles in their second and third seasons after joining the conference, and have never played the football stepchild role many expected. Were Florida, Georgia and Tennessee complicit in this by underachieving at various points this decade? Sure. But Mizzou was ready to capitalize on the opportunity. Barry Odom has been a .500 coach in three seasons with a 12,000-yard career passer, so there are some questions still to answer. The men’s basketball program has underachieved, but has at least revived after the Frank Haith desertion and dreadful Kim Anderson Era.
No league was put through the realignment grinder quite like this one, and yet it has emerged with its soul intact — perhaps reassembled would be the better word. A conference built on basketball found itself abandoned by football, then regrouped and went back to what made it great to begin with. The Big East owes a lot to Villanova for winning two national titles this decade and providing some heavyweight clout, but the rest of the lineup includes relevant modern programs in major media markets. And now UConn comes back to add another major player.
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