News of what happened in college football last week was eclipsed by what almost happened but didn't. Standing at a lectern at the University of Colorado's Folsom Field last Friday under skies best described as UCLA-blue, first-year Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott welcomed the Buffs to his conference by reading from Walt Whitman's Song of the Redwood Tree.
It was inspired. It was topical. It wasn't something you could see Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany doing. Alongside Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman and athletic director Tom Osborne later that afternoon, Delany stuck to his usual, stolid prose as he celebrated with them the Cornhuskers' admission into the Big Ten.
The loss of two teams—the Cornhuskers in particular—was supposed to toll the death knell for the Big 12. But with his conference all but consigned to the dustbin of sporting history, commissioner Dan Beebe never gave up, feverishly working the phones, crunching the numbers, promising fat TV payouts in the not-so-distant future for those who stick it out with him. On Saturday afternoon, the word from one conference athletic director was that the situation was "fluid." By Sunday, the Big 12 was out of intensive care. Early Monday evening, all-important Texas released an innocuous, 18-word statement announcing that it wasn't going anywhere.
That terse communique was in inverse proportion to the mass chaos the Longhorns had sown. For 72 hours they appeared ready to deliver the coup de grâce to the Big 12. They could have struck that blow by leading four more of their conferencemates (Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas Tech) to the Pac-10. In addition to gutting the Big 12, that mass exodus would have guaranteed the Age of the Superconference, a behemoth agglomeration of schools designed to wring maximum dollars from television networks. In the process it would trash ancient rivalries. It would increase the distance student-athletes must travel, just as it would widen the gap between college football's haves and have-nots.
There once was a simpler, more dignified time in college football, a time before Doctor Lou. This was back when membership in a conference meant something. It meant you were grouped with like-minded universities, some of them your rivals. You shared a common history and cultural DNA. You shared ... well, the same time zone, for one.
That halcyon era looked to be on its last legs last week as Scott, having already bagged the Buffs, barnstormed across the Southwest to entice the Aggies, Cowboys, Longhorns, Red Raiders and Sooners to the Pac-10. It was not a deal breaker for Scott that none of those universities is closer than 1,170 miles to the Pac-10 office in Walnut Creek, Calif. That a conference with its own, distinct culture would then be transformed into a Frankensteinian mash-up was an issue to be dealt with later. First things first. In seven months Scott begins negotiations on the Pac-10's next round of television contracts, the biggest source of revenue that goes back to the schools. Last year the conference paid out $11.5 million to its top school, which is still $7.7 million shy of what bottom-feeder Indiana pulled down in the Big Ten. By expanding the Pac-10 footprint into Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, Scott would have potentially put his payouts on par with the Big Ten's.
But not without Texas. And the Longhorns were the reason why the superconference era has yet to make its debut. With more and more Texas fans lamenting the possible loss of their traditional rivalries, and with the Aggies and the Sooners being courted by the SEC (whose commissioner, Mike Slive, entertains superconference ambitions of his own), the regents and the presidents started to get cold feet. As one Big 12 athletic director told SI on Sunday night, "These are major decisions that will affect our schools for decades. This thing blew up so fast, and now people are asking, What's the rush?"
What have we learned from these events?
• Superconferences, though not here yet, are coming. The Big Ten contented itself, for now, with just the addition of Nebraska. But Delany has left the door open for future acquisitions. Slive and the SEC are ready and willing to keep pace, as demonstrated by the commissioner's reported short-notice journey to College Station, Texas, over the weekend in order to woo the Aggies.
• Texas is college football's new kingmaker. Coveted by the SEC, Big Ten and Pac-10 alike, the Longhorns can call their own shot. In 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available, Texas led the nation in total athletic revenue, amassing a jaw dropping $138.4 million—almost $20 million more than second-place Ohio State.