Expansion is OK, but act smartly

semerson@macon.comAugust 13, 2011 

Almost as an afterthought, I asked SEC commissioner Mike Slive back in May when he thought conference expansion would re-ignite.

“I can’t speak for what the future will hold,” Slive answered. “Times change, things change. But certainly at the time the expansion discussions were going on (in 2010), we indicated that given our success, we were comfortable with where we were. But we also said we would be strategic and thoughtful at any time to make sure that we protected the premier status of our league.”

Apparently “strategic and thoughtful” are winning out over “comfortable.”

It seems the SEC is on the verge of becoming the first conference with more than 12 football-playing members. The addition of Texas A&M would certainly lead to at least one more and possibly three more members. And the result could be the domino effect that was much-discussed last year but never materialized.

Oh, it’ll make for good conversation. But before the craziness really ensures, it might be time for the adults in the room to stand up and ask: Where exactly are we going with all this?

Expansion is a fun story because it’s a parlor game. You move one piece here, then another here, and then this one there … and so on. It’s fun to talk about. It’s fun to read about. But no one’s really sure how they want it to end.

That seems to sum up the powers-that-be, as well. If there’s a larger purpose to realignment, no one has adequately stated so yet.

They’re not really sure if 16-team super-conferences are the right solution. They’re not sure staying at 12 or fewer is either. The schools just want to make sure they’re in the strongest conference possible, and the conferences want to make sure they have the best schools.

But as a (somewhat) impartial observer, here are three things I know:

1. The current Big 12 cannot and should not stand.

The madness was summed up this past week when Kansas athletics director Sheahon Zenger told the Kansas City Star that his school had “been assured that the nine schools (other than Texas A&M) are firmly committed to the Big 12.”

So let’s review: The Big 12 now has 10 actual members, but only nine that are committed. Maybe, unless Missouri wants to leave too. And Oklahoma.

Enough. Break this unwieldy conference up already.

2. There should be value in being in a major conference.

It may come off as elitist, but at some point, you have to draw the line. Schools like TCU have earned their way into major-conference status. Good for them, they deserve it.

But for all its resources and location in a big market, Central Florida does not belong in a BCS conference yet. Make a real mark in football or basketball first; and no, beating Georgia in the Liberty Bowl doesn’t qualify.

Should the ACC lose a Florida State or Clemson, it should first attempt to poach Big East schools such as Syracuse, Rutgers or Pittsburgh. Failing that, it should just stay at nine or 10 schools, rather than dilute the product. I’m not sure the other Big East schools are thanking their stars every day they added South Florida.

3. Bigger isn’t necessarily better

In the old days of ACC basketball, every team played each other twice, home and home. And even though not many people cared about football, it was also simple because you knew you played everybody twice.

Then the conference went to 12 teams, ruining the continuity to the basketball season and confusing everybody with its divisions, put together for competitive and not geographic reasons.

The SEC’s current arrangement works because in the only sport everyone cares about, football, the divisions make sense. Despite having 12 teams not playing everyone every year, there’s still a sense of intimacy and belonging. That’s also why it was smart for the Pac-12 to divide its divisions geographically and why the ACC messed up its expansion.

That’s not to say the SEC can’t add Texas A&M and whoever else and do well. But here’s a prediction: If the super-conferences happen -- in the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, wherever -- it’ll be neat for a few years, but after a while culture and geography will once again create factions within the conference -- and probably result in breakups.

When you keep building, it doesn’t stay that way; Yugoslavia used to be one country, but now it’s six.

And yes, when Yugoslavia is being invoked, that’s probably a sign that everyone needs to sit back and wonder.

Contact Seth Emerson at semerson@macon.com

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