In 1895, seven university presidents created the Big Ten – the world’s first academically-based athletic conference.
It was a good idea, and caught on across the country.
The conferences they created weren’t just a random group of schools thrown together. They sought kindred spirits, and they were amazingly good at finding them. So good, in fact, that nothing defined our nation’s regions better than these conferences.
The term “Midwest” can mean just about anything between the coasts, but when someone said “Big Ten Country,” you knew they meant the Great Lakes states. The Big Eight connected the Great Plains states, the Southeast Conference covered the Deep South and the Atlantic Coast Conference was exactly what it said it was.
It all made perfect sense.
Every school felt like it belonged, and everyone bragged not just about their teams, but about their conferences. They paint their league logos on their fields and their courts.
This sense of belonging is foreign to pro sports fans, who never brag about the division their team is in. Of course, it’s hard to, when they change all the time, and often make no sense.
For years, the Atlanta Falcons played in the NFC’s West Division. Enough said.
But college conferences were models of stability until just a few years ago, when they tossed the jigsaw puzzle in the air. This mindless game of musical chairs threatened many of the biggest reasons why millions of fans prefer college sports to the pros: geography, identity, and stability.
When the dust settled, all eleven major conferences had gained or lost at least one member. The Big 12 had 10 teams, the Big Ten had 14, and the Atlantic Coast Conference had two divisions, “Atlantic” and “Coastal,” perhaps unaware that those were the same things.
I was struck by how many people who don’t care too much about sports seemed to care a lot about this.
For non-sports fans, college conferences are kind of like your parents as you get older. You might not check in with them every day, but it’s good to know they’re there, something you can count on in an uncertain world.
Rivalries that went back to the birth of modern sport vanished overnight: Oklahoma-Nebraska, Texas-Texas A&M, and Kansas-Missouri, which started before football, during the Civil War. The fans hated losing those games, but in college sports, the fans don’t get a vote.
Well, now we’re hearing about the inevitable next step: the formation of five “Mega Conferences” of 16 teams each, which everyone has been anticipating for years. This will mean each of the “Power Five” conferences will add two, four or six teams, as needed, to get to 16. That will no doubt set up another round of playoffs for the national title, meaning the champions will play 16 games – same as the NFL’s regular season.
As former Michigan athletic director Bill Martin said, “We’re chipping away at what makes college football unique.”
How many more chips can it survive before it’s just a minor league?
But what I find interesting – and the people who run college football should find alarming – is that this time, the casual fan doesn’t seem to care, one way or the other. As they say, the opposite of love isn’t hate, but indifference, and college sports are generating a ton of it.
The latest changes might come with a silver lining: after this round of musical chairs, the game might finally be over.
Whatever makes this stop, I’m for.