COLUMBIA — Cliques? Check.
Hurt feelings? Present.
Broken Trust? Growing by the minute.
People trying to improve their image? There’s plenty of them.
Others trying desperately to hang on to their current status? There’s a lot of that too.
Somehow college athletics has turned into a high school cafeteria. Schools are far more concerned about where they’re sitting than what they're in the middle of eating. And once they’re at a table, nothing stops them from jumping at the offer to leave the so-called nerds for the cool table, ditching their true friends in a quest for something that seems better.
Hardly anyone brings up the original purpose of college sports, and in the changing landscape, the NCAA is virtually powerless to do anything about that. It can make all the schools sit in the cafeteria, but it can't control the table where they choose to sit.
Welcome to the full-on food fight of conference realignment.
The worst part of it all is that, as of right now, there’s no plan to stop it. Some administrators say they think we could be flinging sloppy Joes around the cafeteria well into the future.
It's difficult to blame some of those involved. When it comes to the conference shuffle, there are some schools that are merely trying to compete at the highest level.
In the current Bowl Championship Series system, any school outside of the Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast and Southeastern Conference is at a severe disadvantage when it comes to football. Six times, schools from other conferences have achieved undefeated regular seasons but not had the opportunity to play for the national championship.
Some of those schools, though, have worked to remedy the situation for themselves.
At the start of the 2011 season, the University of Utah, began its first season as a member of the Pac-12 conference after finishing with perfect seasons in 2004 and 2008 as a member of the Mountain West Conference.
“In all our other sports, we could tell the teams that if they won their league championship, they’d play in the NCAA tournament at the highest level, and had a chance,” Utah Athletics Director Chris Hill said. “The big thing is, now if we win our league … we can tell our (football) players that with a straight face.”
Others are improving their status, too. TCU, which went undefeated in 2010, will join the Big 12. Reports have circulated that Boise State, which had perfect seasons in 2009 and 2006, has an opportunity to join the Big East. The University of Houston, Southern Methodist University, Air Force and the University of Central Florida have all been reportedly invited to join the Big East in football as well.
Then there is another group, already inside the major conferences, that is merely changing affiliations. In the past year and a half, Texas A&M, Nebraska, Colorado, Pittsburgh and Syracuse have all announced switches between major conferences.
These moves, coupled with rumors of other similar shifts, is making all involved nervous and creating the belief that realignment will ultimately create four, 16-team “super conferences.”
In the midst of predictions last month that Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech were going to join the Pac-12, Oklahoma football coach Bob Stoops said that “it seems that’s the direction the world is going.” Even though those schools are staying put in the Big 12, there are sports business and legal experts that feel this is exactly the direction the world is going.
“I think there’s a good chance that we’ll see four super conferences where the schools are all more or less marquee or elite athletic schools, and that other schools will be left out,” said Mike McCann, director of the Sports Law Institute at the University of Vermont. “It just seems like we’re heading in that direction, though I don’t know if it will be as quickly as some suspect.”
Some athletics directors are not so sure, though.
“I think each conference is trying to get more TV dollars than the others. Each one wants to be on the top,” Southern Mississippi Athletics Director Richard Giannini said. “To get four equal conferences with 16 teams and everybody on the same page, I just think, in this day and age, that would be a difficult thing to do.”
Miami (Ohio) Athletics Director Brad Bates said the idea of realignment in general has captivated many.
“There’s this social fascination with this whole concept,” Bates said. “And it sort of publicly creates this hierarchy of what schools have more merit, or perceived merit, than others.”
But the allure of the moving up the social ladder seems to be diminishing why college athletics exist at all.
Certainly it didn’t begin as big business. In 1852, Harvard and Yale faced off in a boat race on Lake Winnipausakee, which was the first recorded intercollegiate athletic competition. They obviously had no idea then that 150 years later their idea of competition would have morphed into a cutthroat multi-billion dollar industry.
Even now, the NCAA’s core values mention nothing about putting checks in the coffers of athletics departments.
The mission, according to the NCAA, is a "commitment" to the idea of college athletics as a complement to the entire person — "The pursuit of excellence in both academics and athletics" to maintain "the supporting the role that intercollegiate athletics plays inside the higher education mission."
Nowhere is financial well-being mentioned.
In a February radio interview, former Florida football coach Urban Meyer seemed to indicate he understands this.
“The ultimate mission of college athletics is to develop people for after athletics," he said. "The job is not to make money for the university.”
For almost every sport other than football and men’s basketball, that is clearly the case. In those sports, it is nearly impossible to profit, and thus the mission can only be to develop student-athletes for their post-college life.
Why then, should it be any different for football and men’s basketball?
Meyer isn’t alone in saying that it shouldn’t be.
Sixteen-team super conferences would make travel for players and parents difficult, and Texas coach Mack Brown said on Sept. 19 that he was concerned the decision makers were losing sight of that fact.
"We better go back and make sure that we’re taking care of the players and that the players and the high school coaches are always considered in the question. If not, we’re not going to have a game," Brown said. "They’re the ones that are playing, and for parents to have to travel all the way across the country is going to put a bigger burden on them."
“Our primary purpose should be to develop students, and we use an athletic curriculum to complement the values that our students are acquiring in their scholarship, that should guide every decision that we make,” Bates said. “How frequently have you seen quotes that have been focused on or grounded in student development? It just doesn’t happen, and yet we reside in an educational entity.”
It would be nearsighted to ignore the fact that schools need to sustain their athletics departments with revenue, and Bates readily admitted that. But make no mistake, this isn’t the corporate world.
College athletics now makes its home in a gray area, where increased revenue for the best sports schools has led to dollar signs in the eyes of their athletics directors. But it still receives some immunities, especially in the public perception, from being treated like every other big business.
What has happened now, though, is that some high-powered decision makers are treating it as exactly that: Big business.
“It’s all been based on money and greed,” Giannini said. “Individual institutions are worrying about themselves and no one else, and that’s been somewhat disappointing.”
The reason that most institutions have been making these decisions is the fear of being left behind. There are 120 schools currently playing football at the highest level. Four super conferences would leave out 56 of them.
When the Big 12 appeared on the verge of collapse, it was widely thought that Baylor would be left without a home in a major conference.
“Conference realignment has naturally created some unsettling feelings among administrators and board members because the implications are very significant and they’re also very difficult to manage,” Baylor Athletics Director Ian McCaw said. “We were certainly very concerned through the last couple of months about what could take place.”
Things have stabilized momentarily for the Big 12, and Baylor’s place on the major stage appears secure, but McCaw’s concerns were real and warranted. He didn’t want his university to lose what a school like Utah had gained.
“For us, it was a tremendous step for the university, not just for athletics,” Hill said. “It’s been incredible how the university has responded.”
Schools like Baylor have been put in position to defend their “brand,” a word that has come up multiple times in interviews with Missouri Athletics Director Mike Alden. It’s a term that sounds a lot more like a business word than a higher education word.
“The brand-building value that major college athletics offers impacts all areas of campus including development, admissions, school spirit, alumni relations and just the overall reputation of the institution,” McCaw said. “It does have wide reaching positive implications for the university.”
Being left behind might offer schools only one recourse: litigation. It’s an option that Baylor had brought to the table in earlier discussions and one that is unlikely to go away if super conferences become a reality.
Sports law expert Nathaniel Grow, an assistant professor at the University of Georgia, thinks that type of litigation is possible, if not likely.
"Just because there’s so much money at stake and reputational benefits and everything that goes along with it (being in a major conference)," Grow said. "The court could say 'You can't just agree to team up and just agree not to do business with other people and break off into your own thing if that prevents any new competition from entering the market.'"
Before any of that happens, though, perhaps schools and conferences will come to their senses and start talking about the greater good. The NCAA can’t take that role. Schools are in contracts with conferences, and those contractual relationships aren’t governed in any way by the NCAA.
As of now, no such conversation has taken place. There is no national dialogue about realignment between schools, conferences or the NCAA. Bates said such conversation would lead to positive results.
“I think if there’s any chance we can have a national dialogue, it would be in the best interest of our students,” he said. “Ultimately, we work in higher education. Our primary purpose should be to develop students, and we use an athletic curriculum to complement the values that our students are acquiring in their scholarship. That should guide every decision that we make.”
There’s no evidence to suggest college athletics will come to this view. No one knows how things will turn out.
But right now, for a lot of schools, a face full of sloppy Joes looks like a very real possibility.