Monday, November 26, 2012

Should UConn Say No To The ACC and Stay In The Big East?

By the time I finish writing this – and certainly by the time you read it – every word will likely be made irrelevant.

And that accurately sums up the state of college athletics in 2012.

If decisions were being made about conference membership based solely on 2012 – UConn (or Louisville, or Cincinnati, or USF) should jump for joy and click its heels if an ACC invite arrives. The stability of the ACC, even after losing Maryland, still trumps the revolving door that is the Big East.

empty seats acc
But college athletics is not based on a single year. It’s not even based on wins or losses. When the Big Ten made its big money grab for Washington, D.C. and New York City – with Rutgers and Maryland as the pawns in the scenario – the curtain was pulled from the Wizard. We all know that college sports are no longer about tradition, rivalries and championships. It’s an exaggerated game of Risk being played by old, rich men making millions of dollars for other old, rich men.

When Jim Delany explained the reasoning behind his version of the Louisiana Purchase, he cited demographics. The Midwest – the Big Ten’s former home – is the only section of the Union that has seen its population stagnate in the past decade. While much has been made of our nation’s migration south, which not so coincidentally coincides with the rise of the SEC, we as a nation are also migrating toward cities.

I know this because my girlfriend and I are part of that – we moved to Washington, D.C. from Connecticut last July. We are part of the growing number of 20- and 30-somethings that are forgoing the staid suburban life for city living.

The future of our country – and by proxy, college sports – can be found in the cities. Every prior realignment move, with the exception of established football programs at Nebraska and West Virginia, has been about acquiring major cities and markets so conferences can place them in their pockets for television negotiations. It’s about more. It’s about diversity. It’s about coverage.

I pose to you a simple question – look at this list of the top TV markets in 2012 and tell me what cities the ACC can claim ownership of, especially with Maryland (in theory) taking Washington, D.C. with them? Boston is #7 but Boston College suffers from a lack of fan support. Miami is #16 but Miami, the school, suffers from a lack of fan support.

The top market that the ACC absolutely and completely controls is Raleigh-Durham. It is #24. It has a grand total of 100,000 more homes than Hartford-New Haven, the market that UConn controls.

That is why the ACC is in trouble. While the Big Ten went after the #1 and #8 markets, while the SEC went after St. Louis (#21) and Houston (#10) and while the Pac-12 added Denver (#17) and Salt Lake City (#31), the ACC added Pittsburgh (#23) and Syracuse (#84)*.

*Syracuse is not New York City’s college football team. And neither is Rutgers. And neither is UConn. The city’s college football team is Notre Dame. You only have to read the New York Post once during the fall to realize this.

The Big East actually seemed to realize this fact, by adding schools in top 50 markets like Orlando, Memphis, Houston, Dallas and San Diego. The only school that didn’t meet that criteria is Boise State, who is like a mini-me version of West Virginia, with a brand that resonates nationally.

There is no denying that the Big East is not good at football – and kudos to me for that double negative that would make Troy Aikman proud. But choosing a conference is not about on-field results. Jim Delany, Larry Scott and Mike Slive have made that abundantly clear. It’s about money. More importantly, it’s about potential.

Rutgers in no way, shape or form controls the NYC market, likewise for Maryland and Washington, D.C.* But Jim Delany believes the potential is there. The Big Ten is already making more than any other conference. With Rutgers and Maryland, he has added the potential to add more. The Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 are set for the future because they are making a ton of money and there is potential for more.

*The most talked about college football team here is Virginia Tech and that's why the SEC targeted the Hokies before settling on Missouri last summer.

When you look at the ACC, you see the stunning lack of potential. That is why Florida State has openly flirted with the Big 12 and why Clemson boosters want their school to begin batting eyes at Texas. It’s why Georgia Tech would join the Big Ten tomorrow if it could. It’s why the Virginia and North Carolina rumors – either to the Big Ten or SEC – will not stop until it happens.

In the age of Twitter, smoke does not need to be accompanied by fire. Pitt and Syracuse left the Big East based on perceived instability – the instability that worried them did not exist in the real world, but their perception forced them to look elsewhere. Even if the other 13 ACC teams have had no contact with other conferences – they will. Realignment isn’t over yet.

So why should UConn (or Louisville or Cincinnati) say no to the ACC? It would be too easy to say because the ACC may get raided, as it slowly morphs into a Big East 2.0. That would be missing the forest for the trees.

UConn, if it can limit the defection number to just 1 in Rutgers, should seriously consider staying in the Big East because of what the college landscape will look like in 2022, not 2012. The price for college sports is going to go up (and up and up) and there will be no shortage of suitors in 10 years – will Fox Sports 1 or NBC Sports Network or the CBS Sports Network emerge as a real threat to ESPN? Will the cable industry be completely changed to the point we buy channels a la carte as opposed to everyone in the country paying $5 per month for ESPN?

Every other conference is expanding with no regard to geography. All those “Big East West” jokes might actually end up being the very thing that makes the Big East – if it remains intact – a far more valuable television property than the ACC in 10 years.

Think about the potential of the schools added – San Diego State, UCF and Houston are football programs in top 30 markets that could take a gigantic leap forward with an influx of cash into its programs. Boise State has been a national brand playing most of its games west of the Rockies – what happens when they start playing games within a short drive from New York City?

When (if) the current Big East signs its next television deal, it will clearly separate itself from the other mid-major conferences but will not match the ACC. That, however, should not be a reason to leave one conference for the other. The Big Ten will double Rutgers’ annual TV revenue – you make that move. The ACC would increase UConn’s annual TV revenue slightly.

Is $3 million per year (roughly) anything to sneeze at? Of course not. I have no doubt that when the ACC comes calling, UConn will say yes before John Swofford finishes the questions.

I also have no doubt that the ACC will lose more teams in the next five years. UConn could be leaving the Big East to join a conference that will look a lot like old Big East, while other conferences emulate what the new Big East is trying to do.

It’s time for college presidents to stop looking at the present and start looking at the future. In 2022, college conferences will look a whole lot more like the Big East will in 2013 than the ACC in 2013.

The Big East, even without Rutgers, is in a lot better position than most people realize. Unfortunately, it’s probably too late. And it’s going to be really frustrating when the Big 12 has teams coast to coast in five years and UConn is still stuck in a conference that gets raided.
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Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Saturday That Changed College Football Forever Again

Whenever college football appears headed to a lazy Saturday, you should probably cancel all of your pre-existing plans.

baylor qb
Going into this past Saturday, the consensus was to take the day off from watching football. Notre Dame and Kansas State were playing 5-loss teams with little hope of staying close. The SEC was playing 7 teams from the former Division I-AA. The marquee game of the day appeared to be a hopeless mismatch – Stanford entered into its game against Oregon as a 24-point underdog. Why even bother, right?

By 2pm, 8-2 South Carolina was tied with Wofford in the second half. It was the first indication that Saturday, November 17, 2012, was going to mark its place in the history of college football. The sport literally changed on Saturday, both on the field and off.

Around the same time UCLA was delivering a shocking beating to crosstown rival USC and Ole Miss was stunning LSU in Death Valley, the news blitzed through Twitter that the Big Ten was very close to inviting Maryland and Rutgers. The greed could be seen dripping from every word in every article. The Big Ten did not need to expand. Maryland was about to throw away a half-century of tradition for a few extra million dollars. Well, eventually, since Maryland is facing a $50 million exit fee and has cried poverty for the past few years.

Rutgers is, well, Rutgers. It is seen by people who don’t understand how the Northeast works as the key to New York City. Those people seem to forget that New York City’s favorite college football team plays in South Bend.

It is fitting that Notre Dame ended up as the main talking point by the time Saturday night turned into Sunday morning. During the week, much of the words typed leading into a weak slate of games focused on Notre Dame. How the team was hurt by independence. How it was being overlooked despite a strong strength of schedule. How it wasn’t worthy. How Brian Kelly said he would go on Oprah* to plead his case if necessary.

*It was such a Notre Dame thing of Kelly to say he would visit a show that no longer exists.

As USC finished up losing the Pac-12 South and Los Angeles to UCLA, as LSU stunned Ole Miss 
and gave Les Miles the chance to make us gaze in wonder again, as the evening games kicked off, there was a palpable sense that the day was not going the way it planned. I mean – who woke up Saturday thinking Rutgers would end up in the Big Ten?

Saturday night’s games likely changed the future of several programs – not this year’s team, but the future of programs. Witness:

Kansas State again blew a chance to win a national title, will they ever get another?

Baylor proved the football program is now more than RG3.

Oregon again blew a chance to win a national title and it appears very likely Chip Kelly is on the way to the NFL in 2013.

West Virginia lost its fifth game in a row for the first time in 15 years.

Stanford has won 9 games for 3 straight years for the first time in a century, proving that Jim Harbaugh and Andrew Luck laid the foundation for a program that isn’t going anywhere.

Vanderbilt beat Tennessee at home for the first time since 1982. Tennessee fired its coach and the Jon Gruden rumors are only going to intensify.

Oregon State destroyed Cal – in all likelihood, Jeff Tedford, the man who rebuilt Cal, will be fired.

For roughly a dozen schools, November 17 changed the face of their football program. That number will rise if/when Rutgers and Maryland bolt for the Big Ten and the realignment game begins again (UConn to the ACC? Florida State to the SEC? Louisville to the Big 12?).

Yet, at the end of the day, it was all about Notre Dame. It has been widely rumored that Notre Dame’s decision to sort of join the ACC – all sports but football – played a role in the Big Ten’s latest power play. The Big Ten and the SEC run college football, though the Pac-12 will always have a strong hand thanks to its West Coast footprint. The SEC got stronger in 2012 by adding Texas A&M and Missouri.

The Big Ten desperately wanted Notre Dame, as it has for the past 20 years. Notre Dame desperately wanted to hold onto its independence, as it has for the past forever years. Notre Dame would give the Big Ten the foothold from DC through NYC it wants so badly. It has convinced itself that Maryland and Rutgers will do the same. They won’t, but it won’t matter. They’ve set it up so if Notre Dame ever joins a conference in football, it won’t be the ACC – that’s the end game here.

Yet as November 17 drew to a close, Notre Dame returned to what its followers believe is its rightful place as the ruler of college football. While other schools scramble to find a home, Notre Dame has its own. While other conferences fight to increase its television value, Notre Dame waits for NBC (or another network) to give it another blank check.

Today, Notre Dame is #1. The sound you hear in the background is the Notre Dame fight song being played on a constant loop in Bristol, Connecticut. On Saturday night, Notre Dame will play USC in primetime for a spot in the BCS title game, a semifinal game for the Irish. Provided they win, they will play in the BCS title game on ESPN in January that, in all likelihood, will be the highest rated in the BCS era*.

*It’s worth noting the previous record, held by Texas/USC in the 2005 Rose Bowl, aired on ABC. This year’s game will be on ESPN. If it’s Notre Dame/Alabama, that won’t matter.

After nearly 15 hours of football – which ended with BYU losing to San Jose State in what has to be a sign of the apocalypse – the landscape had never looked so different. #1 and #2 went down within hours of each other. The SEC, left for dead 7 days ago, now has 3 teams with a good chance to play in the title game and a legit chance, if Notre Dame loses, of having another all-SEC title game. The Big Ten was ready to expand to 14 teams, the ACC looks to be a patsy ready to be raided by multiple, stronger conferences and who knows about the Big East.

The landscape of college football, though, has never looked so similar. Chaos is what makes the sport so great. Teams lose every week to teams they should beat. Programs seem to change conferences on a monthly basis. The BCS is alternately a cause for concern and the reason for joy. It’s why I sat glued to my TV at midnight Saturday, trying to comprehend what I saw. It’s why I’m writing this on a Sunday night, trying to comprehend what I saw.

Despite the chaos, college football never changes.

Notre Dame is #1. Alabama is #2. Is this 1964 or 2012?

Does it even matter?

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Friday, November 16, 2012

NFL Thursday Night Football Should Become NFL Tuesday Night Football

This Thursday night, the Miami Dolphins and the Buffalo Bills played in a game that could best be described as…well, I’m not sure. I didn’t watch it. I don’t believe too many did.

Railing against the year-long Thursday Night Football package on the NFL Network is a bit pass̩ to say the least Рthe Sports Guy seems to have the market cornered anyway. And what more is there really to add?

tuesday night football
The games are awful. They largely feature teams no one wants to see, including fans of those teams. There are more injury problems. Guys are forced to play 2 games within 5 days as the NFL is supposedly cracking down on player safety. It ruins fantasy matchups. It ruins gambling – the rule of thumb is basically that you need to figure out which team won’t show up, aka Carolina against the Giants.

But lost in all the derogatory, truthful things being said about the package, I have yet to come across a solution. The prevailing thought is – the games are terrible but enough people are watching and the NFL is making more money than they know what to do with. The last part is undoubtedly true. We are long past the days of a big Thursday Night game, like Packers vs. Cowboys in 2007 (the Aaron Rodgers coming out party), being unavailable to a large swath of the nation. Most people now get the NFL Network.

So are we supposed to be satisfied with this? There has to be a solution, right?

Thankfully, there is. And the NFL stumbled upon it by accident in late 2010.

The Vikings and the Eagles were supposed to play a Sunday night game that was postponed because of a blizzard. I remember this vividly as I was in Las Vegas to visit my grandfather for the holidays and spent that Sunday night watching the greatest Little Caesar’s Pizza Bowl in history, which also doubled as the greatest sports gambling moment of my life. Seriously – I had FIU and that was the best $100 I ever won.

The game was moved to Tuesday, and lo and behold, the ratings were terrific. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Thursday, long known as the night more Americans are on their couches watching TV than any other, is a loaded night of television. Based on last night’s ratings for the Big Bang Theory, there were about 3 times as many people watching CBS as the NFL. When’s the last time any network could say? And they’ll tell you the multi-camera, studio audience sitcom is dead.

What do you watch on Tuesday nights? Because other than hot glorious #MACtion, Tuesday is a pretty light night on the tube – though I do hold a soft spot for Nick & Schmidt on New Girl.

It almost makes too much sense. Playing on Tuesdays would give NFL players an extra day of rest between games – it’s five days between Tuesday and Sunday compared to four days between Sunday and Thursday. The quality of play would go up as players would have more rest leading up to the game and would be going into a regular Sunday game afterwards. The NFL could – if they really cared about player safety – work in more frequent byes for teams the week after playing on Tuesday.

There is also the not so insignificant role that fantasy football plays in this for a fan. Setting a lineup for the Thursday games can be impossible. Do I roll the dice and wait for a player to be cleared to play on Sunday? Or do I take my medicine and play a guy for a team that may not show – again, see Carolina vs. the Giants*?

*I lost my matchup that week by 9:30pm on Thursday. Not like I’m bitter or anything though.

For the Tuesday night game, there would be similar issues as with the Monday night game for fantasy players but at least you’d get the full slate of Sunday reports before having to make any rash decisions. And think about the excitement! Everyone who plays fantasy has had those Sunday night or Monday night games when you’re involved in a tight game that may come down to a player or two. What’s wrong with another night of awesomeness?

The only true downside is for fans – those weeknight kickoffs are terrible for attendance and largely why those fun #MACtion games are played in front of half-empty stadiums. However, is it really that different from the Thursday night games, with the possible exception that it’s easier to cut out of work on a Friday?

To review – playing games on Tuesday nights instead of Thursday nights would increase game quality, lessen the possibility of injuries, garner better TV ratings, give players more time off and dramatically improve the fantasy football situation for millions upon millions of fans.

What am I missing? Or does this make too much sense for Roger Goodell and company?

Of course, if we’re looking at Thursday Night Football and Tuesday Night Football – how much would NBC or ESPN pay for another NFL package – well, I sincerely apologize. It’d still be better than what’s happening now. 

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

How Pitt Almost Destroyed The Big East

When the ACC announced that it was adding Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the fold in fall 2011, I was enraged and amused. 

I was enraged because Syracuse was on the verge of possibly destroying the Big East. Syracuse, along with UConn and Louisville, made up the core of the Big East’s national visibility. Though the football team had fallen on hard times, it still had the history of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Donovan McNabb to lean on – not to mention of the top 10-15 basketball programs in the country. I did not know if the Big East could survive the loss of the Orange, even if their claim of “owning” New York City was dubious at best. Syracuse was a brand.

pitt football snow
At the same time, I was amused the ACC would want Pitt. Everything Syracuse brought to the Big East was the opposite of what Pitt brought. They are a good basketball program that constantly fails to deliver in March – they look up at envy toward Marquette or Cincinnati. The Pitt football program, like Syracuse, has the ghosts of the past in Dan Marino, Tony Dorsett and a long-ago national championship. But Pitt football has never resonated like Syracuse. In short, Pitt brought nothing to the ACC and it was curious at best the ACC selected them*.

*Of course, we would learn later that UConn & Syracuse were the likely original targets before Boston College put its foot down. Florida State was also rumored to be against UConn, but based on FSU’s flirting with the Big 12; I don’t think they were happy with any of it.

My amusement at Pitt leaving the Big East resurfaced on Tuesday night when I turned on ESPNU to see if an accomplished Lehigh team – those Duke-beating Cinderella’s – was able to put a scare into Pitt. They were not. Instead, I saw Pitt up comfortably and its fans chanting “over-rated” at a Patriot League team. If that doesn’t sum up Pitt, I don’t know what does. Or is this where I insert a picture of an empty Heinz Field?

The truth is that Pitt’s incompetence throughout the past decade ultimately did far more damage to the Big East than the school actually leaving the conference. In fact, it’s not a stretch to say that the Big East would have been better off if Pitt was the 3rd team the ACC took during the first raid in 2003/04 instead of Boston College.

The Pitt problem started in 2004 when the Big East, in limbo after Miami and Virginia Tech left but before reinforcements for football arrived, produced a dreadful season. Pitt won the conference in 2004 and easily secured its place as the worst BCS team in the BCS era (UConn 2010, Wake Forest 2006 and Florida State 2002 are other contenders). Pitt showed up at the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s night and proceeded to get drilled by Utah in a game that was over from the moment it kicked off. Utah was coached by Urban Meyer and its QB would be the #1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. It didn’t matter – Pitt and the Big East had been put in its place by the non-BCS school. The descent of the Big East appeared to be underway without any end in sight.

For the next 3 years, the Big East did everything in its power on the football field to wipe the taste of Pitt out of everyone's mouth. West Virginia whipped Georgia in the Sugar Bowl the next year. Louisville, West Virginia and Rutgers produced a 2006 season for the ages. In 2007, West Virginia and the Big East stood on the precipice of a national title appearance. Considering the opponent would have been Ohio State – it’s no stretch to think the Big East would have had a national champion in its membership come 2008.

Instead, Pitt spoiled the party again. This time, they did so by pulling one of the biggest upsets in recent college football memory. The only parallel I can think of is when Les Miles and a losing Oklahoma State team beat Oklahoma in Norman on Thanksgiving weekend in 2001 to knock OU from the national title chase. The Pitt victory was different only in that West Virginia would clinch with a win – the 2001 OU team still needed some help. The result, of course, was a whole lot of dominoes that included Rich Rodriguez bailing on West Virginia, Les Miles not bailing on LSU and the Big East losing out on a conference-changing national title contender.

In 2009, it finally appeared that Pitt was about to break through under Dave Wannstedt. The first week of December brought with it the absolute apex of Big East football. Undefeated Cincinnati led by Brian Kelly and a top 15 Pitt team in a de facto Big East championship game. Heinz Field was sold out. The game did a monster rating – proving that when the stars align, the Northeast corridor can care about college football. Throw in some snow and we were witnessing the future of Big East football.

There was only one small problem – the wrong team won. Cincinnati was always going to be a stepping stone job for Brian Kelly, though the program remains strong under Butch Jones. Cincinnati lacks the history of Pitt. The Big East needed Pitt to win. The Big East needed another football power – remember, this is a period during which West Virginia is weakened and Louisville has fallen completely off the map.

Imagine if Dave Wannstedt and Pitt pull off that victory. Does the NFL talent pipeline recruited to Pitt continue? Does the Big East revel in more relevance with a big-market team to hang its hat on? Does Notre Dame still go after Brian Kelly? Does Pitt not lose by a million to Tebow and a ticked-off Florida team in the Sugar Bowl?* Do the ratings carry over to 2010 and produce a better ESPN TV offer? Does the ESPN smear campaign of the Big East never happen?

*Okay, so I’m pretty sure that Florida team would have drilled anyone that night.

Instead, Pitt falls apart in 2010 and I believe they have gone through 6 coaches since, including Todd Graham’s one year, Mike Haywood’s one month and multiple dreadful bowl trips to Birmingham.

There are a lot of reasons the Big East has fallen from one of the power six conferences to the derided “Group of Five” term that I’m sure John Swofford and the ACC love trotting out there. But one huge reason is that Pitt never produced on the field. As a flag bearer of Big East football, Pitt failed almost every time it had the opportunity to succeed. The fact its biggest victory doubles as the Big East’s worst loss is comical.

This week, the Big East announced new football divisions along with the news that the top “Group of Five” champion would be granted an automatic berth in the new BCS. It essentially ended the conference realignment game – I think – as the near future of college football is likely secured. The Big East football teams will still be playing for a major bowl berth and a spot in the 4-team playoff, roughly the same status as if there were 6 power conferences instead of 5.

It will take time for the Big East to regain respect in football, though there’s a certain Blue Turf team in Boise that should help expedite that process. The money for Big East football from TV won’t match the ACC’s but, depending on the final number, the difference may not be that great.

In the end, Big East basketball will still be one of the top conferences – a conference that can trot out Louisville, Georgetown, UConn, Memphis & Temple every year will be fine. The football side of things is looking up and there is no doubt that an undefeated Big East champion in 2014 will be rewarded with a playoff berth.

The Big East will miss Syracuse. The Big East will not miss Pitt.

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