Through the Wire with TCU and N to the Izz-O, V to the Izz-A

I’ve been spending the last couple of months powering through The Wire for the first time on my Netflix queue.  (I just finished Season 4.  Until further notice, if anyone mentions a word about Season 5, I will hunt you down like Omar.)  The overarching theme of The Wire is that our institutions in society are largely intractable, where “good soldiers” that follow orders and tow the party line are rewarded with promotions while bold thinkers usually end up getting demoted, fired or shot.  “The System” is fixed in place with little hope for change, whether we’re talking about the drug trade, police tactics, political maneuverings or old people continuously believing that young people like the Black Eyed Peas.  (As depressing as that sounds, The Wire manages to weave in at least a few laugh out loud moments in each episode and I understand why plenty of critics call it the greatest TV drama of all-time.  I can’t believe that it took me this long to watch it.)

What the conference realignment process over the past year has shown is that college sports has its own entrenched system.  Slant reader duffman put together some incredibly detailed analysis of various college football programs over the years (here and here), with some of the takeaways being that decisions and circumstances from the early 1900s set up the system that we have today and not much has really changed in the sport’s hierarchy since World War II.  (This doesn’t count institutions that voluntarily de-emphasized athletics since then, such as the University of Chicago, Ivy League schools and service academies.)

When I first wrote the Big Ten Expansion Index post, I imagined conference commissioners and university presidents taking a Machiavellian approach in raiding each other to advance their own interests.  However, it has borne out that risk aversion largely rules the day.  For all of the talk about demographics, geographic footprint and basic cable subscribers, the Big Ten performed the equivalent of Berkshire Hathaway buying stock in Coca-Cola by adding tradition-bound and geographically contingent Nebraska.  (To be sure, it was definitely the right move.)  Texas, despite having the most powerful college program in the country on paper, couldn’t shake off the political shackles of Texas A&M and Texas Tech… assuming that it wanted to shake them off at all.  Big IIX commissioner Dan Beebe somehow kept the conference together based on a bunch of pie-in-the-sky promises regarding exit fees from Nebraska and Colorado (which have turned out to be about a third as much as predicted) and supposed future increases in TV revenues.  Now that the Big IIX has averted the Conference Grim Reaper, Texas-based politicians are likely going to keep it alive in perpetuity.  I know a lot of people believe that Texas is on the road to becoming independent in a few years, but I don’t see it.  Texas is in a very different situation than Notre Dame, not the least of which is having to answer to a whole lot of politicians and members of the general public that are going to demand UT to spread some wealth as opposed to just its fanatical alumni base.  Besides, Texas wants to own a massive plantation and sip mojitos while watching a bunch of worker bees from Lubbock and Waco do the landscaping work.  Notre Dame, on the other hand, just wants everyone to get the f**k off its lawn.  Both Texas and Notre Dame are power-hungry, but have different approaches in seeking/maintaining such power.

It took a guy from the world of women’s tennis in the form of Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott to attempt a truly revolutionary move.  Yet, in Wire-esque fashion, the Pac-16 proposal was rejected at the very last moment and the Pac-10 had to settle for the “good but not great” additions of Colorado and Utah that may not even raise conference revenues much compared to the status quo (if at all).  Plus, ESPN, who is still the ultimate sugar daddy for every conference (even the Big Ten), came down hard against the prospect of 16-school conferences and appears to be willing to pay up in order to prevent them from ever forming.  As a result, I’ve become extremely skeptical that there’s going to be much change for the foreseeable future among the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-10, ACC and Big IIX.  (On a side note, the commenters have been discussing what the new name for the Big IIX ought to be.  My vote would be for the Big Country: instant association with a band and song that you won’t be able to get out of your head for 8 hours straight after hearing it along with the ability to use Oklahoma State alum Bryant Reeves as the official conference mascot.)

This brings us to the Big East, which is the epitome of institutional dysfunction.  The conference has reportedly has offered Villanova a spot to move up from FCS and is in talks with TCU.  Now, TCU receiving an invite makes complete sense to me and I said as much back in February for a whole host of reasons.  What’s amazing to me, though, is that the Big East-related people that I’ve talked to believe that if it came down to having only a single spot for either Villanova or TCU, then the invite would go to Nova since the conference is hell-bent on preserving its hybrid format at all costs.  This would be the case despite the fact that Villanova has less history, a smaller student population and alumni base and worse stadium situation than Temple, which is a school that the Big East kicked out as a football member in the same Philadelphia market that has proven to focus almost completely on pro sports.  Of course, I’m not an advocate of the Big East splitting for the sake of splitting in order to add a bunch of C-USA schools at the expense of breaking up arguably the nation’s best basketball conference, but the last thing that the Big East needs to be doing is trying to add in an FCS program.  That’s a WAC-fighting-for-its-survival move as opposed to an expansion worthy of a BCS AQ conference.  (By the way, please see this incredibly honest and straight-forward email from the athletic director of current FCS program and prospective WAC member Montana that several people sent to me and went into great detail as to what it would take to move up to FBS and how the FCS playoffs are losing money.)

This is a display as to how entrenched schools and conferences can be within their own microsystems at the expense of programs such as TCU and BYU that by every reasonable measure are BCS-level schools TODAY.   The Big East was formed as a basketball conference that later tacked on a football component as a matter of convenience and that attitude still permeates even though the economics of college sports have changed over the past 2 decades where football rules all.  True to form, the Big East decided to replace the retiring Mike Tranghese with his long-time lieutenant John Marinatto as commissioner this past year as opposed to going after a Larry Scott-type outsider that could actually make an unbiased judgment as to how the conference is perceived in the outside world.  Combine that with former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue being brought on board as an advisor (who has an unabashed interest in preserving the hybrid as a trustee of Georgetown) and it feels as though we’re more likely to see a remedial or reactionary move by the Big East geared toward placating the delicate balance between the Catholic schools and football members than a forward-looking one in the form of inviting TCU and/or other worthy programs.  I have nothing against Villanova, but the thought of that school having an easier time being granted BCS AQ status over a whole host of other schools is ridiculous.

With my understanding that the Big Ten isn’t going to be looking to add anyone unless Notre Dame and/or Texas suddenly have a change of heart, any members of the Big East that want to better themselves are likely going to have do it individually instead of looking toward the conference.  Pitt, realizing that a Big East network isn’t on the horizon and likely wouldn’t work even if it ever came to fruition, has actually started its own TV network called PantherVision, which is largely made up of coaches’ shows, Olympic sports telecasts and bits of real panther, so you know it’s good.  It would behoove the other Big East schools that have strong local fan bases (i.e. Louisville, West Virginia, Connecticut) to start their own similar channels because I certainly wouldn’t have much confidence in the lackluster leadership in Providence if I were running any of those institutions.

The shuffling among the non-AQ conferences will certainly continue with the WAC on the endangered species list.  Among the power conferences, though, expect more of the same (with maybe a Big East addition or two) as opposed to bold moves for the next few years.  I hope that the Big East does the right thing and invites TCU, but don’t be surprised if the institutional bias in that conference ends up elevating Villanova alone.

(Follow Frank the Tank’s Slant on Twitter @frankthetank111)

(Image from What’s Alan Watching?)