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October 26, 2011

Big 12 or Bust

What the conference shuffle might mean for U of L

Westward ho!

Probably, that is. No pacts have been inked yet, but the University of Louisville is likely to move its sports teams from the fast-sinking Big East to the battered-but-not-broken Big 12 — perhaps as soon as next fall — creating an all-new cast of rivals. Say goodbye Pitt, hello Oklahoma.

The switch would solve the school’s pressing problem of conference affiliation, providing a schedule of football-strong opponents and retaining access to big bowls and big TV money. That’s if the Cards don’t get crushed. The Big East was a lot softer loop.

The move to the Big 12 will probably be OK for Louisville basketball, which fits at the top in any league and prospered in the past playing in the Midwest against old rivals Drake, Bradley, Wichita and Cincinnati. And it may be acceptable — though not ideal — for the juggernaut of other sports in which the school has excelled in recent years. Might be a big boost for baseball.

But don’t run out and blow all your money on Big 12 T-shirts. The relative calm that has settled over collegiate sports after a period of conference realignment mania may be temporary. Teams like Louisville, Missouri, Texas A & M, Nebraska, Syracuse — and previous skippers Boston College, Penn State and Miami — may have alighted on new lily pads, but it is almost certain the turmoil will begin again in two years when the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) cartel expires. What happens then may make the current orgy of wife-swapping look like a few chance affairs.

Oh, did we say wife swapping? Of course, we meant conference swapping. Wife swapping is about lust. Conference swapping is about the lust for money.

It seems like it was Kentucky publisher Oscar Combs who patented the phrase, “It’s alllll about the money,” to explain why normally idealistic and moralistic colleges and universities would cook up back-stabbing schemes to cut up the millions — now billions — of dollars of television broadcast-rights cash. And so 21st century. Like Goldman Sachs helping a Wall Street leech cook up a “security” that was so insescure they could all bet against the suckers they sold it to. Today, within the halls of ivy, the race is on to form “super-conferences” of collegiate powerhouses that can command the biggest shares of the profits. And it is big-time college football driving the big-bucks bus.

Though basketball isn’t forgotten. The poaching of teams from the Big East by the Atlantic Coast Conference probably began with football in mind when the ACC plucked Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College from the Big East a few seasons ago (which led to Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida and West Virginia being called into the Big East as replacements.) But the latest round, in which the ACC pilfered Syracuse and Pittsburgh from the Big East, is probably about basketball. The story that’s going around is that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and a few of his Tobacco Road coaching colleagues have been steamed as the Big East has supplanted the ACC as the premier basketball league. (Last year, the Big East produced 11 NCAA tourney invitees, to just six from the ACC.)

It is known that Connecticut and Rutgers begged to join the ACC as well, but were not taken. Connecticut was blackballed by New England regional rival Boston College. Louisville probably would have been turned down in the ACC, and definitely blackballed by Kentucky in the SEC. Come to think of it, Indiana probably would not like Louisville for the Big Ten, as Illinois has long blocked Missouri.

If all this sounds like it might violate anti-trust laws, we’ve been thinking the same thing. Why no one has sued the BCS for restraint of trade is baffling — unless it’s that nobody wishes to be blacklisted now if they can figure out how to get in the party later.

But we imagine court cases are coming. When the BCS pact expires in 2013, the real reason for building super conferences may become apparent. The conferences might coalesce into a monopoly of haves, keeping as many have-nots as possible away from slices of the Big Pie. One thing the BCS has been firm about is preserving the bowl system. But if the total number of top teams shrank into an even tighter trust, a college football playoff might become a reality.

Basketball, too. If schools can run off to join new football leagues, there is no reason Louisville basketball might not just band together with some of its better rivals — say, Marquette, Georgetown, Texas, Syracuse, UCLA, Kansas, Butler, Connecticut — to command the biggest contract ever seen for regular-season games. All the conferences those teams are in now need the Louisvilles of basketball more than the Louisvilles need them.

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