As I continue to follow the Illini (NIT) championship run with bated breath and brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack, I wanted to address this interesting story from Dennis Dodd. The Pac-10 has explored the possibility of staging a conference championship game with its current league of 10 teams. Of course, this would require changing the NCAA rule that mandates that a conference have at least 12 schools and divisions where the members of each division play an intra-division round robin in order to stage an “exempt” championship game. (“Exempt” refers to the fact that such championship game won’t count against the 12-game regular season schedule limit. Please see NCAA bylaw 126.96.36.199(c).) This reminds me of the “Amendment to Be” song from The Simpsons – “If we change the Constitution, then we can make all kinds of crazy laws!”
Regular commenter Adam has pointed out the byzantine process in which it would take to change the NCAA rule on this matter, which made it seem only slightly easier than going through a Senate confirmation hearing for a Supreme Court nominee or having to tell Suge Knight that you don’t have the money that you owe him. What’s interesting from Dodd’s article was that changing the conference championship game rule would supposedly be “non-controversial”. Who knows why it would be non-controversial today when the ACC was rejected several years ago in its attempt to stage a championship game with less than 12 members prior to adding Boston College. Maybe schools in all conferences (whether BCS or non-BCS) believe that changing the rule would result in more conference membership stability or at least avoid having conferences add schools simply for the sake of a championship game.
The Big Ten could use a rule change to its advantage in a number of ways. On the one end, the Big Ten could simply stand pat at 11 schools and stage a conference championship game without expansion. This would yield an instant boost in revenue without having to add another school to split it with. Other conferences that are at risk of being poached by the Big Ten (particularly the Big XII and Big East plus possibly the ACC) would likely be very supportive of this rule change if it meant that they could save the status quo as a matter of survival.
On the other end, though, the Big Ten could push for a further change to the championship game rule in exchange for supporting the Pac-10 on its proposal: remove the division requirement. Why would the conference want to do that? Because if the Big Ten goes up to 14-schools, not having divisions could ensure that all conference members would play each other at least 2 out of every 4 years in an 8-game conference schedule. Each school could have 3 permanent annual rivals and then play all other conference members 2 years on/2 years off. This solves all of the headaches of trying to figure out which schools should go in which divisions and making sure that every single currently protected annual rivalry is maintained. The Big Ten is NOT like the SEC where it’s going to be acceptable for schools to go 4 straight years without playing each other – most Big Ten members freak out when they skip playing Michigan or Ohio State only 2 years per decade. The lack of divisions also has a side benefit of having a stronger conference championship game by pitting the top two schools in conference regardless of geography, so there won’t be the 2008 Big XII worry about having 3 national championship contenders in one division and a bunch of scrap metal in the other division. Adam has had a solid argument that if the 2008 Big XII South situation didn’t result in a change to the championship game rule, then nothing would. However, I think the circumstances have changed as a result of all of these expansion talks and that conferences are going to want a lot more flexibility either immediately (10-school leagues wouldn’t have to expand) or in the future (12-school leagues would be more open to going up to 14-schools with such flexibility).
I’m tending to think that the Big Ten would want championship game rules to account for the latter scenario. As I’ve stated from the beginning, the conference championship game is NOT the primary driver for Big Ten expansion. (This is in contrast to way too many media pundits that continue to insist that the Big Ten just wants to expand so that it can maintain relevancy for the last couple of weeks of the season, which is ridiculous when you take two seconds to think about it since that could simply be solved by the conference scheduling regular season games in December just like the Pac-10 and Big East.) The main revenue driver in this expansion process is and always will be new basic cable households and higher fees for the Big Ten Network. The revenue that comes from that cable property blows everything with respect to a conference championship game out of the water. So, the Big Ten isn’t going to drop expansion plans simply because it might have the ability to stage a championship game with 11 schools. In fact, changes to the NCAA rules could embolden the Big Ten to have a larger expansion since it removes the concerns the scheduling concerns that I’ve described above.
The other important takeaway from Dodd’s article is that it appears that the Pac-10 is going to be very hesitant to expand. It noted that the conference members were having a “hard time finding value” in two extra members (which would likely be accurate if one of those extra members isn’t Texas). This doesn’t surprise me at all – I said back in January that I thought that the Pac-10 would end up standing pat no matter what happened.
That’s contrary to the widely mistaken perception that the Pac-10, which is hunting for revenue in order to catch up to the Big Ten and SEC, would supposedly be more willing than the Big Ten to bend its traditional requirements to maybe take in schools like Texas Tech in order to lure a school like Texas. Here’s the problem with this line of thinking: the Pac-10 has a unanimous voting requirement for expansion. Let me repeat that again: the Pac-10 has a unanimous voting requirement for expansion. I need to beat this into all of your heads one more time: the Pac-10 has a unanimous voting requirement for expansion. (As someone that grew up and continues to work in Cook County, where vote counting is an art form as opposed to a science, I’m hyper-sensitive to voting requirements.)
So, now that we know that the Pac-10 has a unanimous voting requirement for expansion, then we also know that all it takes is a single school to nix all conference expansion plans. You can completely count on Stanford to be that school. If the public thinks that the Big Ten university presidents are too methodical (and in reality, they are actually very forward-looking considering that they invited Penn State before it was fashionable to look for new markets and created the Big Ten Network when it was considered to be extremely risky), then Stanford is downright reactionary by comparison. Stanford might be the one school in the entire BCS that literally doesn’t give a crap about TV money – the school has an endowment that is valued at over $1 million per student and its academic standing is right alongside Harvard, Yale and Princeton. The Cardinal rejected Texas back in the 1990s, so even if the Longhorns are acceptable now, you can be sure that there’s NFW schools like Texas Tech will even be considered. I think you’d be very hard-pressed to get Stanford to approve even a match-on-paper like Utah. Stanford is in a position where it’s not going to compromise at all on academics and, as a result, the rest of the Pac-10 won’t be able to do anything even if the 9 others thought that some of the 16-school plans that I’ve seen in the comments were brilliant money-makers. The Pac-10 can’t be aggressive because its voting requirements are specifically built to prevent such aggression. (As a side note, you’ve haven’t lived until you’ve played EA Sports NCAA March Madness in mascot mode with the Stanford Tree vs. Otto the Orange at 2 am while hammered. All I can say is that the visions on the screen must be what Keith Richards experienced non-stop from about 1965 through 1989.)
All of this means that the Big Ten’s chances to grab Texas (however small they might have been in the first place) could drop precipitously. As plenty of observers such as Barking Carnival have noted, while Texas might want to switch conferences in a world without crazy-ass Lone Star State politicians, it would take the Pac-10 taking Colorado from the Big XII to give the school the political cover to make a move. I’ve never bought that the Big Ten is seriously interested in Missouri, so I doubt that the conference would go after the Tigers simply to get Texas to act. Therefore, if the Pac-10 is gridlocked in its expansion plans, there isn’t the requisite instability in the Big XII for a major Texas/Texas A&M shakeup. That’s not to say that it still can’t happen (and no one should ever assume any school would preemptively reject any conference proposal without performing its own due diligence), but it pushes the chances of a Westward Big Ten expansion clearly down below an Eastward move.
If I had to bet on where the Big Ten goes in terms of expansion as of today (and I’ve changed my mind on this numerous times), I’m feeling that “JoePa’s Dream Conference” with Notre Dame, Rutgers and Syracuse would be the most likely. (Yes, I know there’s a contingent out there that think that I overrate Syracuse as an expansion candidate. I still think it would be a big mistake to leave them out in an NYC-centric strategy.) Jack Swarbrick all but said that Notre Dame would join a conference if the Big East was destroyed, so it would make little sense for the Big Ten to take any Big East school without the Irish coming, too. Securing the New York/New Jersey area as much as it can be locked down is really what takes the Big Ten to the next level in an Eastern-based expansion (although as I’ve stated elsewhere, the conference really needs Notre Dame in the mix if it wants to successfully pursue that strategy). I wouldn’t be surprised if my opinion changes on this as more details come out, but if Texas is off of the table, then the Big Ten needs to add a population base that’s the size of the New York City market in order to make a 3-school expansion financially acceptable to the current members.
(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)
(Image from Retro Music Snob)