The conference realignment occurring presently is causing mass hysteria around college football. The insanity will only escalate in the coming months. However, the shifting that began in 2010 (earlier, if you count ACC via Big East via C-USA moves in 2005) is nothing new. Precedent tells us that this process should go on another two or three years. And assuredly, anything that happens in this period is only a pause until new changes begin.
Restructuring has gone down multiple times in the sport’s history, with a few key eras of widescale movement. From 1978 to 1982, there seismic shocks felt around the landscape.
Legendary Frank Kush built Arizona State into a dark horse power during the 1970s. The Sun Devils had top 10 finishes while dominating the WAC. In many ways, those ASU teams were forerunners for the Boise State and TCU squads of the modern era. And like BSU and TCU, Arizona State leaped at its opportunity to move to a more prominent league.
The Pacific 8 Conference extended ASU an invitation for the 1978 season. ASU was an attractive target for several reasons. In addition to the program’s on-field success, the state was experiencing a population boom that extended well into the 2000s. Of course, the Pac wasn’t interested in becoming a nine-team league. Arizona reaped the benefit as ASU’s eight decade and in-state rival.
It was the conference’s first expansion since adding the Oregon schools in 1964. Ironically, ASU fired the man largely responsible for landing it in its new home, Kush, midway through his second Pac-10 season.
A year later on the opposite coast, another conference that had gone years without additions gave one lucky program a golden ticket. Georgia Tech came on board officially in 1979. The Yellow Jackets had been a member of the Southeastern Conference until the mid-1960s which elicits one of the great what-if discussions of this topic.
The SEC expanded and changed college football history during the next big round of realignment in the early 1990s. Had Tech not left the conference in 1964, one of the new additions in the ’90s would not have been needed. That presumably would have been South Carolina. How might Tech’s football history altered had it been an SEC school?
The motives behind Tech’s move are chronicled brilliantly here. Today, it’s easy to make the assumption GT would be better off in the football-mad SEC. Tech dipped not long after the departure, but likely would have anyway with legend Bobby Dodd exiting. The program would win a national championship in 1990 as an ACC member.
Hindsight is 20/20, but a decision another conference made around the same time Tech was joining the ACC would prove questionable with more immediacy.
In 1979, a completely new league was formed called the Big East. The conference would not begin football play until 12 years later, in 1991. But during the movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s, the burgeoning league was approached with expansion options. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania came calling, with both Pitt and Penn State seeking membership in 1982.
Each had won football championships recently. However, as a non-football playing conference, that was less meaningful than other qualities brought to the table. And apparently, what else PSU had to offer wasn’t enough. Big East university presidents voted five in favor, three opposed to adding PSU. The Nittany Lions needed six.
The Big East added Miami in 1991, the same year the Hurricanes won their fourth national championship since 1983. Imagine a first year of Big East football with powerhouse Miami and PSU teams battling it out for conference supremacy. Instead, PSU would remain independent another few years, land in the Big Ten, and the rest is history.
How different would the power struggle of 2010-201? be if the Big East had Penn State, Virginia Tech and Miami still in the fold?
Division I-A football was structured much differently in 1990. Independents roamed the landscape, and flourished like the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the Cretaceous Period. But equally akin to the T-Rex, widespread independence became extinct.
South Carolina joined the SEC. Florida State went to the ACC. The Big East scored with Miami, as well as West Virginia and Virginia Tech. Conferences prove the adage strength in numbers, but it’s interesting to speculate how TV contracts might have been mapped out had the
Notre Dame was, and still is, the one dinosaur that has remained strong through all the shifting. The spot that PSU would earn in the Big Ten was originally meant for ND — though ultimately, a two-team deal with both the Irish and Nittany Lions would have been ideal.
The rumor mongering prevalent today is exacerbated by the message boards, talk radios and blogs *ahem*. Yet even as a youngster in the early 1990s, I remember rumors circulating of the Pac expanding to 12. Proposed targets then? One was Colorado amid chatter that the Big 8 would restructure.
The Big 8 did indeed change, the last phase of the 1990s realignment crisis. It became the home of displaced Southwest Conference members, a once proud league that was whittled away through the loss of Arkansas in 1991 and the unprecedented NCAA sanctions leveled on SMU during the 1980s.
As the Big 8 became the Big 12 and shifted to a more Lone Star state of mind, CU’s Pacific rumors came to pass. Another rumored Pac target at that time? Houston. Yep. Houston.
The SWC’s instability was evident a few years prior to its closure. Houston had rolled off a 28-6 record record from ’88 through ’90 and produced a Heisman Trophy winner. UH was hit with NCAA sanctions though, making it toxic (like SMU) at a most inopportune time.