Leagues shift formations

Conferences: Just like players in motion, teams switching affiliations tilt the playing field.

The Nation

September 03, 2004|By Alan Schmadtke | Alan Schmadtke,ORLANDO SENTINEL

The metaphor used most often is that of several cars in motion. Each driver wants a stronger engine, sportier tires, a new paint job. The rub is, they all want to make improvements while running full-tilt down the road.

A couple of them pulled it off. The rest, with parts moving all around, are why college football's 2004 season has come to be known almost universally as the Year of the Lame Duck.

Some of the conferences you see this season are drastically different from what you saw last season. Snap the photo quickly, for the ones you see today are nothing like the ones you'll see a year from today.

Spurred by an uncivil split in the Big East, fueled by interest from the Atlantic Coast Conference, 70 of the 117 teams in Division I-A - nearly 60 percent - are affected by the changes during the next two seasons. That's every school but Notre Dame, Navy and members of the Big Ten, Pacific-10, Big 12 and Southeastern conferences.

College athletics haven't seen this kind of conference hopping since 1996.

Effective immediately: Miami and Virginia Tech moving from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference; Connecticut finally becoming a Big East football member; South Florida being stamped as an equal in Conference USA; and Troy joining the Sun Belt.

Miami's inaugural ACC game is next Friday, as host to longtime rival Florida State. Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden has shared or won 11 ACC titles in 12 seasons, but he doesn't really mind a team the caliber of Miami hopping aboard.

"Florida State and Miami both have always been behind the University of Florida [in the state]," Bowden said. "Well, now you've got Miami and Florida State - that's two ACC [teams in Florida]. They've got one SEC team [in Florida]. So now the state of Florida is going to learn about the ACC, because it's going to be from coast to coast. So, that's one reason I was glad to get Miami in there. Now we can double-team that other school."

Next season brings a skybox full of changes. Alas, all the changes are known, setting up many potential bad-blood games as this season plays out.

"If everyone had a choice, I think we'd all have made the transitions this year. But there were just too many things that were involved," Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said earlier this year. "What affects one school often affects many others, so it's hard to get a handle on every issue. There are too many moving parts."

History repeats itself

The shifts of 1996 and 2004-2005 are eerily similar, from the emotional furor of the change to the sweeping alterations to the landscape. Ten years ago, half the schools in the Southwest Conference were stung to the core when they found out the other half had been invited to join the Big Eight, effective in '96.

Not surprisingly in football-minded Texas, reactions were visceral. Of course Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Baylor said yes to the Big 12, leaving Houston, Southern Methodist, Texas Christian and Rice in an oversized home with no possibility of new roommates. So they moved on, too.

SMU, TCU and Rice were accepted into the Western Athletic Conference. When the WAC added Nevada-Las Vegas and San Jose State from the Big West and independent Tulsa, it had itself a 16-member family that proved way too unwieldy. (Eight of the 16 bolted to create a new league, the Mountain West, beginning in 1999.) Houston, desiring more rivals in the Central and Eastern time zones, moved to Conference USA for that league's first year of football. The Cougars joined Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Southern Mississippi and Tulane to form a six-team conference that grew to this year's high of 11.

In the years since, college football embraced a smattering of other moves, most notably that massive defection from the WAC. Northern Illinois, Buffalo and Marshall joined the Mid-American Conference, later to be joined by Central Florida.

Schools shuffled in and out of the Big West, and it finally folded. East Carolina wiggled into C-USA, and Army gave up independence for the chance at a C-USA crown.

Those were all nice, non-dramatic changes to the national scene. They were a stark contrast to last year's movement, one whose fallout will imprint this season and next. As when the SWC breakup was staged, the ACC's reaching out to four of eight Big East schools - in the end, Syracuse was not invited, but Boston College was - cut the Big East to the quick.

"What it's all about is a situation that we have probably never quite had in the history of our league," ACC commissioner John Swofford said. "We are going into a period now where we feel like we have every opportunity to be just as respected and just as nationally competitive in the sport of football as we have been in the sport of basketball for many, many years. To have that potential equality will mean a great deal to this league. The league is enhanced and strengthened and better positioned for the future as we head into our second [half] century, and that's a good feeling."

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