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Conference Realignment: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

The college sports landscape has shifted tremendously over the last few years.  Geography, rivalries, and longstanding traditions have been forsaken for fields of green gold.  Boise State has moved on up because they’re sick of being left out of the BCS pie, jumping to the BIG EAST (from Idaho?).  Butler has moved to the Atlantic 10 to jump up in conference prestige.  Schools like Oral Roberts and Southern Utah of the Summit League have been forced to relocate to geographically oriented colleges.

But is it a good move for everybody?  There’s been a profound trickle-down effect into the mid-major level since the original wave of BCS movement.  Now, the college football landscape is a tattered mess, and smaller schools are being forced to choose if they would like to remain the upstart underdog who may never get a chance, or take a calculated risk to become a behemoth of college sports.  We’ll look at a couple of unique examples to show a couple of different sides to this, showing you the global impact of conference shuffling on institutions, student-athletes, and you the fans.  Then we’ll let you draw your own conclusions in the comments section.

1.  Boise St. Broncos.

The Boise State Broncos told every mid major in the world that you can. Except even they haven’t been allowed in the title game.

The Broncos shocked the world when they toppled mighty Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl in 2007.  Chris Peterson’s squad has frequently posted spectacular seasons, offering to play anybody anywhere in their nonconference schedule.  Whether or not you believe their strength of schedule merits a title game is irrelevant.  Boise has been shut out of the National Championship game thus far.  Now, with their move to the BIG EAST, the Broncos find themselves in a conference that has an automatic bid.  This type of move could provide a huge financial toll on the program.  Teams like UCF, South Florida, and Louisville will all be competing against Boise from opposite ends of the country.  The school did the smart thing and joined as a football only member.  Football is the only sport where they gain a true advantage from being a BIG EAST member.  Even though San Diego State is also joining, they too are football only.

The travel constraints put them into an interesting predicament.  With the PAC-10 (now PAC-12) shutting Boise St. out, the Broncos were forced to look elsewhere for the ever-important automatic qualifier.  With the BIG EAST in turmoil, itself pillaged by neighboring conferences, the addition of the prestigious football program was a welcome sight.  The Broncos will remain in the Mountain West Conference for all other sports, maintaining some semblance of geographic integrity, while putting their football program in the best position to play for a title.  This hybrid attack could be enough to put BSU into a title game for football, while not buying into a conference that just isn’t right for the rest of their athletic programs.

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2.  Missouri Tigers

Mizzou Arena hosting its final game against arch-rival Kansas.

The Missouri Tigers are headed for the SEC, departing the Big 12 and leaving behind many longstanding rivalries, including the annual bloodlettings with Kansas.  If you remember a couple years back, the Big 12 was worried about Texas bolting for one of any number of conferences.  Texas was the key to the whole conference.  They controlled significant revenue, a massive fan base (which also means massive revenue), and controlled key elements of the political process.  With a battle over equal revenue distribution threatening to tear the conference apart, schools began making other plans.  A last minute meeting kept the conference intact, though Colorado and Nebraska had already decided to leave.

Missouri was one of the teams that lobbied vehemently to keep Texas and all the others together.  Now, they leave for greener pastures.

Though the SEC is undoubtedly the power conference in college football, Big 12 basketball is no slouch.  With Kansas, Missouri, and Butler all scrapping for top 5 spots this season, the Big 12 was the most competitive conference in college basketball in 2011-12.  The SEC is a good conference though, and Missouri hopes to come in and stand apart from border rival Kansas.

Still, this seems like a bit of a lateral move.  The school is either so convinced that the Big 12 won’t survive or that the SEC is worth more to them than anything their traditional rivals could give.  There is no guarantee that they will win in the SEC, soon or down the road.  But with the strength of the conference as a whole, Missouri feels there much upward potential, too much to pass up for perceived stagnation in the Big 12.  I don’t really see much benefit in this for Missouri, unless they are truly convinced that the Big 12 will falter.

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3.  Oral Roberts Golden Eagles

I dislike this move personally because it robs us at Oakland of the chance to watch these two: Eli the Eagle and Kevi Luper of the women’s basketball team, who is the best mid-major player in the country.  This makes me sad.

On a serious note, it makes sense for Oral Roberts.  In the Summit League, the Golden Eagles had a natural travel partner with Centenary.  When the Louisiana-based Gentlemen left for Division III, ORU didn’t have anybody to play in their region besides UMKC (Missouri-Kansas City).  With a travel itinerary as far west as Cedar City, Utah, as far north as Fargo, North Dakota, east as Rochester, Michigan, and nobody nearby, travel was a massive pain for ORU in the Summit.

So the Golden Eagles depart for the Southland Conference.  Namewise, the conference doesn’t sport much.  Oral Roberts may be the biggest basketball or baseball name right away.  Sam Houston State won a paltry three conference baseball tournaments in a row, from 2007-09.  Oral Roberts has won the Mid-Continent/Summit League tournament every year since 1998.  That stretch is tied for second all-time in NCAA history.

Oral Roberts immediately becomes the northern-most team in the Southland.  The money that they don’t spend on travel in one year more than makes up for the $250,000 exit fee that they must pay the Summit League to depart one season after the announcement, rather than two.  It’s a logical fit for the Golden Eagles, and the level of competition means that there is a real good chance that Summit fans see them in the Big Dance in the next few years.

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4.  Southern Utah Thunderbirds

Southern Utah’s Jackson Stevenett

With Southern Utah, we see how difficult a decision can truly be.  For SUU, the move from the Summit to the Big Sky was very similar to Oral Roberts’ decision to bolt for the Southland.  The conference was a much better geographical fit, though SUU does not have the history of success that the Golden Eagles have.  They’ve been a lower tier Division I hoops team for most of their existence, and the travel was becoming a burden.

Still, the move had a shockwave effect in the university’s athletics program.  The Big Sky Conference does not support baseball.  They do support men’s tennis and list the sport as one of the key components of membership.  Southern Utah does not have men’s tennis.  So the difficult decision was made to discontinue  the baseball program.

From suutbirds.com:

‘”This is one of the most difficult decisions we have had to make in my time at Southern Utah University,” [SUU Director of Intercollegiate Athletics Ken] Beazer said. “We have a long and proud baseball history at SUU and in the community, but with the move to the Big Sky we have been presented with some hard choices.

“The sub-committee did not come to this decision easily,” Beazer added. “There were many factors and options considered; yet, we believe today’s decision puts the University in a better position to advance its intercollegiate athletics programs.”‘

The baseball program was sacrificed for the greater good of the university.  It was a clear dollars and cents decision, and unfortunately one that had to be made.

Still, it demonstrates a very stark reality for many smaller colleges that don’t have the seemingly unlimited budgets of the bigger schools.

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So here are some of the many stories that have emerged from the conference mayhem over the last few years.  What do you think about the transitions?  Leave your thoughts in the comments section.

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About mattpocket

I am the Sports Director at 88.3 FM WXOU Radio, out of Oakland University. I am the play-by-play voice of the Oakland Golden Grizzlies. I've been to two NCAA Tournaments, been heard on ESPN, and won 9 Michigan Association of Broadcasters Awards. Follow me on Twitter. @cornerpocket422 You can tune in to The Corner Pocket every Friday from 3-5 pm with my cohost Bryan and Everson and myself, featuring the best guests, such as Dave Birkett, Jim Nill, and Bruce Buffer.

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