| FTBL August 27th, 1990: Los Angeles Times~ "Greed Before Glory : Traditions Crumble as Conferences Consider Expansion as Route to Financial Success"

Only eight months into the 1990s and already college football has itself a theme for the decade: The Love It or Leave It Years.

You don’t love the College Football Assn.'s television contract with the networks? Leave it. Notre Dame did and struck its own multimillion-dollar deal with NBC.

Tired of geographical rivalries and independent status? Do what Penn State did and join the Big Ten. Nuts to traditional rivalries.

Need an excuse to end a 76-year association with the once-proud Southwest Conference? No problem. Simply announce that the SWC is no longer “competitive,” as Arkansas did earlier this month, and join the Southeastern Conference, superpower-to-be.

College football has had its temblors before, moments of decision that caused a rock slide or two in the Establishment. The Prop. 48 flap comes to mind. So does Southern Methodist disappearing into a fissure in 1987.

But for pure seismic activity, nothing beats the rumblings caused first by Notre Dame’s secession from the CFA’s television package, then Penn State’s move to the Big Ten and now Arkansas’ decision to switch leagues.

College football suddenly has lurched from the age of coexistence toward the era of self-preservation. As you might expect, money is the issue. Not that anyone should be completely surprised. Walter Byers, the former director of the NCAA, once predicted that the business of college athletics would evolve into something very different, almost unrecognizable in time. But so fast? And so soon?

You bet your letter sweater.

College football is at the brink of something, although no one is entirely sure what. A sort of financial tectonics is taking place, causing allegiances to be abandoned, loyalties to be cast aside, new alliances to be formed.

“I expect a major upheaval,” said Frank Broyles, Arkansas athletic director.

Beginning with . . .


At the heart of the matter is television, or more correctly, television’s exposure and dollars. The NCAA used to sell its college football product to the networks, receive its paycheck and go its merry way. It was all a very convenient, very easy and very doomed arrangement.

In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled that individual teams, conferences or associations, such as the powerful CFA, could negotiate independently with television. That ended the NCAA’s monopoly and instantly enhanced the marketability of the CFA, which included 64 Division I-A institutions, as well as the Pacific 10 and Big Ten, which remained independent contractors of sorts.

But in February, Notre Dame, the most bankable football program in the country, decided it could do better on its own than as a member of the CFA. It was a logical assumption, given that the Irish not only win games, but attract television viewers--lots of them. The networks notice those sorts of things, as do advertisers.

So a five-year deal was cut. Notre Dame would give NBC exclusive rights to all Irish home games, beginning in 1991, and the network would write a check for an estimated $30 million, payable to Golden Dome, Inc.

The CFA, which had negotiated contracts with ABC and ESPN for a combined $320 million, was forced to return to the bargaining table.

Without Notre Dame, the CFA had to settle for $35 million less from ABC’s five-year package. And to satisfy ESPN, the CFA agreed to charge the cable network only $15 million more for an extra season of programming. Thus, a four-year, $110-million deal became a five-year, $125-million contract.

“This was just a natural progression of where things have come since 1984,” said Len DeLuca, CBS vice president of program planning. “I think you’ll see more of a progression toward conference deals, individual deals. I think all of this has become inevitable.”

You can accuse Notre Dame of greed until you’re blue and gold in the face, but DeLuca’s point is this: If the Irish hadn’t signed with a network, another school--perhaps Miami--or a conference--probably the SEC--eventually would have abandoned the CFA for a contract of its own.

“Clearly the die has been cast in a fashion that change is definitely going to take place,” said Jim Haney, commissioner of the Big West Conference. "(It has) created a flood of anxiety and fear and apprehension. As a result of that kind of emotional shot, everybody in college football is groping and reaching for answers as to how to maintain the pace for the ‘90s.”

Conference realignment seems to be the solution of choice. University presidents and athletic directors, faced with the task of funding expensive programs, need ways to ensure financial stability. By refurbishing a conference with marquee names, those same presidents make their football product more attractive to the networks.

“Let’s face it, it’s all related to dollars and cents and the exposure,” said Charlie McClendon, executive director of the American Football Coaches Assn.

That might explain why Penn State, which enjoyed national recognition as an independent, hooked up with the rock-solid Big Ten and its rock-solid television ratings.

“Sponsors care about markets,” said George Perles, Michigan State athletic director and football coach. “The Big Ten is lucky because we’re situated in seven states with our viewers. Penn State opens up the East Coast for us. But some of these great (football) programs are located in areas that don’t house a lot of television sets. For that reason, I can see conferences getting bigger.”

Little-seen Arkansas, a frequent visitor to the national polls, jumped ship and happily accepted membership in the SEC, partly because the conference often has a stranglehold on the South’s TV ratings on Saturday. Nor is it a coincidence that the SEC is wooing powerhouses Florida State and Miami, or that South Carolina and Virginia Tech are begging to join.

Almost every conference, every team is re-examining its position. The Pac-10 said it wasn’t interested in expansion, quickly changed its mind as the financial implications became more apparent, then reconsidered and said it wasn’t ready to expand. Texas and Texas A&M; considered switching, but for the time being chose to stay put. Colorado and Brigham Young, two other possibilities, have yet to decide.

The Atlantic Coast Conference, which had considered changes in membership unacceptable, recently reversed its field and voted to consider realignment. FSU and Miami are considered desirable additions. In fact, Miami has proposed a coalition that would include teams from the Big East, SWC and ACC.

But there are only so many independents available with the drawing power of Florida State or Miami. More likely is the raiding of existing conferences. The Big Eight could lose Colorado and Oklahoma.

“Everyone’s scrambling,” Haney said. “Do you look to bring in an independent, or do you look to go into another conference and pull out someone? It’s somewhat cannibalistic, but that’s what we’re doing. It’s unfortunate and it’s not pretty. In making some conferences stronger, we’re destroying the life that was there before.

“It’s like runners in a race, like a marathon. If somebody breaks (from the pack), you’ve got to decide if you’re going to keep the pace.”

Notre Dame might have inspired this movement, but the SEC is sustaining it. It recruited the Razorbacks and would like nothing better than to expand from 11 teams to 14 or even 16. To the SEC, it is a matter of simple economics.

“In our business, we’re trying to appeal to a larger media market,” Kentucky Coach Bill Curry said. “When Penn State joined (the Big Ten), that just started it going and it’s not going to stop. In the next several years, you’ll see huge changes in alignment.”

Said Florida’s Coach Steve Spurrier: “It’s the wave of the future.”

But at what cost?

Haney said he can envision a college football structure of Division I-A haves and have-nots. The haves, such as the SEC, the Big Ten and Notre Dame, get the television money and exposure while the have-nots are forced to find alternative financing.

“Because of the SEC’s value, it has clearly taken a step away from the CFA,” he said. “If you don’t stay with them, then each conference is challenged to maintain its place in college football. Those who do not keep pace will find themselves struggling to stay visible.”

Karl Benson, commissioner of the Mid-American Athletic Conference, oversees a nine-school league that includes such teams as Eastern Michigan, Toledo, Ball State and Bowling Green. He, too, predicted survival of the fittest.

“I think some of the traditionally powerful conferences will no longer be in existence at all or will significantly be reduced in stature and strength,” he said.

Benson said he doesn’t fear for his conference. It has survived quite nicely without substantial television support and, he says, will continue to do so. What scares him is the power the so-called super conferences could wield. A restructuring of the NCAA membership, which currently includes 106 Division I-A schools, could squeeze out the Bowling Greens of the country and leave the entire pie to those conferences with the biggest names.

“I think the power base could possibly change,” Benson said.

Also vulnerable are those schools that belong to major conferences, but who almost always finish in the lower half of the standings: Kansas and Kansas State in the Big Eight, Rice in the SWC, for example. Already the future of the SWC is threatened because of defections.

“What keeps coming to mind is that there are institutions . . . that are losing money,” Haney said. “They cannot afford to play football, but they can’t afford to get out, either. If an institution is no longer part of a significant income generation because of a conference, then television revenue, bowl revenue may no longer be there.

“That’s going to impact those institutions that were at the bottom of the league. If they can’t replace those dollars, then something has to give. The state legislature has to give them dollars, alumni donations have to be made, but something.”

Said Washington Coach Don James, who is opposed to realignment: “My guess right now is that it would be bad. I have a feeling it’s going to make it tougher on the teams that are struggling now to catch up.”

Perles puts it more bluntly: “If we have 10, 15 (programs) left out in the cold, they’re going to starve.”

Some observers, however, insist that super conferences will never see the light of the 1990s. Mickey Holmes, executive director of the Sugar Bowl, is one of them.

Holmes acknowledges that realignment appears inevitable. He also said that it wouldn’t be so shocking if, say, Ohio State or Michigan one day left the Big Ten for a better deal. But a conference of exclusively top 25-type teams? Never.

“I don’t think there will ever be an association of the elite because somebody’s got to lose,” Holmes said. “Those people aren’t that used to losing. I mean, there always has to be enough cob for the corn.”

But Holmes is operating under the theory that perfect records are the only way to guarantee a national championship. He is forgetting one of the possible trickle-down effects of realignment. That’s right . . .


Before he became commissioner of the MAC, Benson spent five years with the NCAA as its director of championships. When Benson talks playoff, people, especially Holmes, should listen.

“I think that the restructuring of the conferences will lead toward a greater possibility for a national championship system,” he said. “I waffle on that a little bit.”

But only a little bit. The thinking is this: A national playoff would settle the issue on the field rather than have it determined by fickle voters: reporters and coaches. The advantages would include a clear-cut winner, heightened viewer interest and increased television dollars similar to the NCAA basketball tournament’s.

“I think (a playoff is) going to absolutely happen,” said Howard Schnellenberger, who coached Miami to one of those mythical championships in 1983 and now heads Louisville’s football program. “I don’t think there’s any way it won’t happen. It’s just a matter of time. The playoff series in college basketball is too great a case study. Too many positive things come out of it for people to oppose it.”

Schnellenberger said the transition from bowl games to playoffs could work if there’s a spirit of cooperation.

“I think the bowls can come out of it very well,” he said. “That game, that playoff championship could become so big it could rival or surpass the Super Bowl. You could play it one year in Palo Alto, in Dallas the next year, in Miami the year after that.”

The possibilities are varied. Like the NCAA’s basketball tournament, automatic bids could be reserved for smaller Division I-A programs, as well as the more obvious names. And Benson suggested that the existing bowl games could somehow be incorporated into the playoff structure. It would be a fair arrangement, given the bowl games’ support of college football in the past.

Critics of a football tournament argue that the timetable would be unworkable. It also would endanger the very hand that fed college football for years: the bowls.

The Sugar Bowl’s Holmes said: “I think when the year 2001 comes about, we’re going to see the same institutions winning, the same institutions playing in basically the same postseason games. I think there will be postseason competition in basically the same form.”

He said that a playoff is unlikely “because there’s that core of people who are especially opposed to it. Ten years isn’t going to make a difference. The only thing I can see that would change that is if the bottom fell out of the dollars.”

But what if the bowl system undergoes its own change, separate from a tournament? McClendon said he sees a day when bowl directors might have to rethink their positions.

“Arkansas has left the SWC,” he said. “If anyone else leaves, can the Cotton Bowl afford to commit to that conference? Same with the Big Eight. If Nebraska or Oklahoma leaves, can the Orange Bowl commit again? There’s a lot of ‘iffers’ out there right now.”

McClendon refers to the future of bowls. But what about . . .


This is where the prediction business gets tricky. It is one thing to guess the major effects of conference realignment, and another to forecast less obvious results. Our experts try, nonetheless:

1. Pay-per-view television.

Some football programs already feature limited pay-per-view telecasts. Holmes said that cable television networks, such as ESPN and HBO, might take a greater interest in college football programming.

“In my own mind, where true pay-per-view television might fit in is in postseason football on the college level,” he said.

2. Unexpected winners of conference changes.

Surprisingly, leagues such as the MAC or Big West could ultimately benefit if they act quickly and decisively. Haney said the key for a smaller conference is not to be totally defensive.

“We’re going to see more changes,” he said. “In the process of that realignment, there’s an opportunity for our conference to take on new members. Ourselves and the MAC are kind of the stepchildren of I-A football. In this new approach, we have a chance to change our focus. Rather than looking at it as a gloomy cloud hanging over us, I look at it as an opportunity.”

3. Recruiting.

This would have changed in the 1990s regardless of conference restructuring. James, who served on the NCAA Recruiting Committee for six years, said you can expect a de-emphasis of personal contact and perhaps a reduction in violations. A February signing date helps, he said, as does a reduction in the number of allowable visits by prospects.

“I think the next change in the recruiting process will be the elimination of phone calls (to recruits),” he said. “Cost containment is a real issue, especially with videos, brochures and phone calls.”

Schnellenberger said tougher academic requirements for recruits also will help eliminate potential problems.

“The fact that the (university) presidents have finally put in place an academic-qualification procedure will upgrade the game,” he said. “There will be more kids who can handle college work and the intricate systems that coaches are using. I think you’ll see less and less of the negative things we’re reading about every day.”

4. The NFL.

Holmes said there is a reason college football will have to rely more on cable television than on the networks: the NFL.

“I can see it down the line because of the intrusions of the NFL,” he said. “The biggest threat we have is the NFL, not to just the bowl games but to college football itself. It’s a far greater threat than anything else we’ve talked about.”

Perhaps Kentucky’s Curry has the best approach to all the uncertainty of the 1990s.

“It probably will be 20 years before we know if it’s good or bad,” he said. “But it’s inevitable and we better be ready to live with it.”

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