The big college conference scramble
Sun, 27 Jun 2010 18:54:10 EST
Oil is still gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the economy is wheezing along at 10 percent unemployment and the longest war in American history continues with no end in sight.
But people in and around Waco, Texas, have had something just as pressing on their minds during the past month: What will become of the Baylor University football program if the Big 12 Conference dissolves?
“Everywhere from the grocery store to restaurants to people grabbing me on the street,” is how Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas) described the fervor with which citizens of the central Texas city approached him on the prospect of the school losing its sports conference. “This was a huge issue to Baylor.”
They weren’t alone.
It hasn’t gotten much national notice, at least beyond the sports section and ESPN, but for politicians in a wide swath of the country, the issue of college sports conference realignment has landed on their doorstep — and they are well aware that for many voters, it’s as important as anything else on the policy agenda.
What’s grabbing the lawmakers’ attention: the fallout from the reconstitution of several powerhouse college sports conferences. More specifically, which conferences a group of prominent state universities would associate with, and what would become of the remaining schools if others bolted from their current conferences.
At first glance, it might sound frivolous — with all the challenges here and abroad, should public officials really be devoting so much attention to whether, for example, the University of Texas plays against one set of schools or another? But when considerable public money and, as important, a local way of life are at stake, pols will follow.
As any football fan knows, the ultimate changes were modest — or at least less than the tectonic-plate-shifting possibilities that were originally feared. But the debate, and the intervention of politicians from Congress on down, not only illustrated how keenly attuned pols are to their constituencies but how sports such as football and basketball are intrinsically woven into the culture of many states, a fact that no elected official can afford to ignore.
The flap began earlier this year with the University of Colorado and University of Nebraska leaving the Big 12, a group of a dozen schools throughout the Midwest and Texas. Subsequently, talks began this spring that would have sent some of the remaining schools in the conference to the west’s Pac-10, creating a sort of superconference.
But some of the smaller, and less traditionally competitive, colleges in the Big 12 would have been left out of the move, abandoned to an uncertain fate.
Among these schools: Waco’s Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist institution but hardly a football power of the order of its traditional rivals like the universities of Texas and Oklahoma.
The prospect of losing its conference affiliation translated into less revenue for the school and that meant a ripple effect through the local economy.
“This wasn’t just about college football,” said Edwards, who called for state legislative hearings into the matter. “This was about the potential loss of 1,600 jobs in the Waco area.”
It also became about politics.
In an effort to get a slice of the action, Edwards’s GOP opponent, Bill Flores, said it was inappropriate for a congressman to get involved in the matter.
But with the Big 12 remaining largely intact, and Baylor breathing a sigh of relief, Edwards is now relishing Flores’s attack — and crowing a bit about his role.
“The jobs issue is front and center in my district and around the country, so when community leaders ask me to protect Baylor’s future, it would have been irresponsible of me to say no,” he said. “My opponent disagrees.”
Another incentive for officeholders to get involved: A high profile in college athletics can also bolster a school’s reputation, which only enhances a region’s stature.
Veteran Texas state Rep. Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat, has used the departure of Colorado and Nebraska from the Big 12 to mount a lobbying campaign to move the University of Houston into the conference.
By getting the University of Houston, which sits just a few blocks from his house, into a conference that would present the opportunity of nationally televised games and better prospects for winning bids into post-season football bowls and the college basketball tournament, Coleman said the school would have a better chance at moving toward a more elite status overall.
“For UH to move into a top-tier research institution, it has to be the total package,” he said.
But ramifications of the realignment talk are more fundamental than what it would mean for the local economy or a school’s reputation.
“Football is a spiritual experience for many people,” Edwards said, with only a trace of hyperbole.
In Texas and across much of the South and Midwest, college football is the most popular pastime. Fall Saturdays are akin to secular high holidays, with game day rites and school loyalties passed down through the generations.
“Annual trips to visit friends and family are scheduled around the college football season and creating conferences that resemble the Obamacare flow chart upsets the fans and the natural order,” cracked Kevin Shuvalov, an Austin-based GOP consultant.
Allegiances are taken so seriously that a politician can reap tangible benefits from weighing in on a school’s behalf.
Just ask Virginia governor-turned-senator Mark Warner.
After word got out in 2003 that a trio of the most traditionally powerful football schools from the Big East Conference was going to join the Atlantic Coast Conference and that Virginia Tech wasn’t included, the then-governor went to work on behalf of the Old Dominion’s largest university.
Being left behind in a diminished Big East would have been a blow to Virginia Tech’s ascendant football program. It would also anger thousands of the school’s loyal graduates and fans who also happen to be Virginia voters.
So when Warner, a Democrat, took the field at Tech’s Lane Stadium before the game with the University of Miami in 2003, a few months after he helped engineer getting the school an invitation into the ACC, he was greeted with the sort of deafening cheers rarely offered to any politician at a sporting event.
“I think it was the only time I perhaps had a 98 percent approval rating,” Warner quipped in “Hokie Nation,” a documentary about the school’s football program. “People come up to me and say, ‘Warner, you know I’d never vote for a Democrat, but you got the Hokies into the ACC, so I’ll be for you forever.’”
Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a Virginia-based Democratic strategist who focuses on helping his party reach rural voters, said Republicans often try, and succeed, to reach voters on cultural grounds, while Democrats target them through class appeals.
“Well, this was a perfect example of Mark Warner being able to go after the culture,” Saunders said.
Among Hokie fans, especially in rural Virginia, “Mark Warner is a candidate for canonization,” said Saunders, a Tech loyalist and Southwest Virginia native. “He could outlaw guns, and he’d still have a 40 percent approval rating out here.”
Iowa Democratic Gov. Chet Culver, a former Virginia Tech football player, cited Warner’s efforts earlier this month when it looked as though the Big 12 might collapse and leave Iowa State University without a conference.
Facing a tough reelection this fall, Culver let it be known to the Des Moines Register that he would “let the athletic directors and presidents know that I stand ready to go anywhere and do anything to make darn sure that Iowa State and Iowa come out on top.”
He ultimately didn’t have to intervene on behalf of ISU, but it didn’t matter — touchdown Culver.
“These are things that are important to the feeling of the city,” said Coleman, the state representative from Houston, recounting his younger days, when Clyde “The Glide” Drexler led the University of Houston to basketball prominence and attracted attention to the school.
Coleman makes no apologies for getting involved now. “It makes Texas better, and isn’t the ultimate objective of public policy to make Texas better?” he asked.