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Frenzy of conference realignments threatens things we love about college sports

At a Big Ten event.
Big Ten Facebook page
At the Big Ten Football Kickoff Luncheon. The Big Ten Conference now includes twelve schools.

College conferences are going through a major upheaval – perhaps the biggest in the history of college sports.

In the past year, we’ve seen Nebraska join the Big Ten, Colorado and Utah join the Pac-10, and, this week, Syracuse and Pittsburgh join the Atlantic Coast Conference.  DePaul, Marquette and Texas Christian University just joined the Big East.

Which raises the question: Just how BIG is the East?

Big enough to swallow half the Midwest and a chunk of Texas. 

A lot of people who don’t care much about sports seem to care about this.

For non-sports fans, college conferences are kind of like your parents as you get older.  You might not check in with them every day, but it’s good to know they’re there, safe and sound. 

Our conferences have been there much longer, of course.  Way back in 1895, seven university presidents – not athletic directors or coaches – created the Big Ten. 

Those seven presidents didn’t do it to make money.  They thought it unseemly for a university to charge anything to watch their students.  They didn’t mention marketing or “branding,” either.  They simply wanted to ensure everyone representing their university was a bona fide student, an amateur athlete, and safe.

The Big Ten model was so good, just about every college around the country followed suit, forming conferences coast to coast. 

Like so much that is great about college athletics, those conferences formed organically and authentically, gathering schools of similar size, quality and character. 

They also defined our regions better than any labels. 

What is the Midwest? 

Depending on who’s talking, it could span from Pennsylvania to Montana, and from the Dakotas to Oklahoma.  But when someone said “Big Ten Country,” you knew they meant the Great Lakes.  The Big Eight meant the Plains States – nearby, maybe, but night and day to those of us who live in Big Ten Country.  The Southeast Conference is fundamentally different from the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Ivy League – well, that one speaks for itself. 

These conferences were so stable for so long, it was easy to identify with them.  Schools bragged not just about their teams, but about their leagues, painting the logos on their fields and their courts. 

Books were written about those leagues – lots of them. 

If you went into a sports bar in any of those college towns, you’d see the banners of all the league teams hanging overhead – including those of their rivals, of course.  And no sport has better rivalries than college football. 

This stability shuffled a bit in the 1990s, when independent schools started joining their nearest conferences, but that only seemed to strengthen both sides of the equation, like when Penn State joined the Big Ten. 

But now the whole jigsaw is up in the air, and it’s all based on two things: Money, and fear – the fear that some other football team will make more money than you. 

These changes threaten just about everything millions of us love about college sports, including geography, history, and even identity.  They tear apart rivalries that go back to the beginning of modern sport. 

These contemporary carnival barkers don’t ask the fans, or even the coaches. And they’re certainly not going to ask the players, because they never do. 

I believe in amateur athletics, and I believe in the ideal of the student-athlete.  But the arguments for these things get harder to uphold when crass, cynical decisions like conference free-for alls threaten the foundation of the entire enterprise. 

It’s hard to realize the fans of college sports love it much more than the people who run it.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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