Roy Kramer sits in his home in tiny Vonore, Tenn., where he can look out at the changing landscape of college athletics from the safe distance of retirement. The last SEC commissioner to participate in conference expansion laughs when asked if he's glad he will not be involved in the next round.
"It's a lot different today," said Kramer, who ran the SEC from 1990-2002 and oversaw the league's additions of South Carolina and Arkansas in 1990.
Kramer also is credited with creating the Bowl Championship Series, which led to the now-common term "BCS conference." That was a huge change in the landscape - and Kramer sees another one brewing.
Super conferences of 16 teams each. The dissolution of one or two established BCS conferences. Teams switching from the ACC to the SEC. Kramer could see any or all of that happening.
"It's kind of like the hot-stove league in the baseball offseason," he said this week. "You're just going to have to wait and see. It's obviously a domino thing, and it all depends on where they end up."
When the dominoes do fall, the result could be a massive realignment, or just a few of the six BCS leagues adding teams. The SEC could gain as many as four teams, or it could stand pat. It all could happen in the next six months, or it could take longer than a year.
The reasons for any movement vary, with public perception often being off base. Competitive balance is a factor, but it's mostly about money.
The only thing that seems certain is that the first domino will be played by the Big Ten.
Since it added Penn State in 1991, the Big Ten has consisted of 11 teams, one short of the required number to hold a lucrative football championship game. But with conference teams - most often Ohio State - playing in the BCS Championship Game recently without having to win a league title game to get there - unlike the SEC and Big 12 - member schools were content staying at 11.
But in 2007 the league created its own television network - and the opportunity to make more money. With cable subscriber fees rising, it became increasingly beneficial for the Big Ten Network to be seen in as many homes as possible.
The league could add to its viewership substantially by adding Notre Dame, but the Fighting Irish remain steadfast in retaining their independent status for football. So another option for the Big Ten would be to gobble up a few schools located in big markets that are widely followed, such as Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Missouri and Syracuse.
"Obviously, the Big Ten wouldn't be entertaining something like this unless they feel like they needed to," South Carolina athletics director Eric Hyman said. "It just depends on what comes out in the wash. It could have some significant ramifications on a lot of schools, a lot of teams and a lot of conferences. The ramifications could be seismic."
The Big Ten's announcement that it was considering expansion already has had one effect: The Pac-10, two short of the 12 teams needed to hold a football title game, announced it was was considering expansion. Colorado, Utah and BYU have been mentioned as candidates.
"I think the Big Ten and probably the Pac-10 are probably driving the train," said Georgia Tech football coach Paul Johnson, whose school has been mentioned as a candidate to leave the ACC for a new conference. "So whatever happens, I think probably a lot of people are trying to be proactive."
That includes the SEC and ACC.
THE NEXT DOMINOES
Say the Big Ten and Pac-10 do expand, possibly to 16 schools apiece. Does that mean other leagues have to react in kind?
That depends on how many and which schools are added. There is no immediate financial need for the SEC to add teams, due to its huge TV contract with CBS and ESPN. But if particular Big 12 teams become available - such as Texas and Texas A&M - it would be foolish not to make a play for those big-time schools.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive said last month that his league was happy with the status quo but would keep its options open as it watched what other leagues did. His predecessor believes there also will be a competitive factor involved, depending on what the Big Ten does, because it would be dangerous for one league to become too big and powerful.
"You've gotta have a serious discussion of expansion if (the Big Ten) goes to 16," Kramer said. "If they go to 14, maybe not. If they only add one, then probably not."
The ACC could act to prevent being raided by another league - such as the SEC for its southern-most teams. Or the ACC might scoop up Big East schools, as it did a few years ago when it added Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College.
Clemson athletics director Terry Don Phillips said his initial reaction was that the ACC doesn't need to expand just because other leagues do. But he said if expansion brought more revenue, then that would change the thought process.
"It would seem to create more of an urgency on your part," Phillips said.
THE MONEY FACTOR
The SEC got lucky. Before the economy tanked in 2008, it signed separate 15-year deals with ESPN ($150 million a year) and CBS ($55 million a year). SEC schools stand to receive $15 million or more per year.
The ACC's situation is less certain. Its contracts with ABC, ESPN and Raycom pay about $55.8 million annually. The deal expires in 2011.
The ACC could try forming its own network, like the Big Ten, unless it can get a good deal from established networks. But there seems little hope of getting a deal near as lucrative as the one the SEC brokered, in large part because of the economic climate.
Phillips said he was "anxious" for the ACC meetings in a week to hear what commissioner John Swofford has been working on. IMG, a sports marketing firm, has been consulting with the league on its options, according to Phillips.
"With what is happening with the marketplace, the commissioner and his people are doing a lot of things behind closed doors without us knowing," Phillips said. "I know John; they're not just sitting around saying, 'Well, we hope things work out.' "
The ACC, like the SEC, splits revenue equally among its members. So if it expands, it likely will try to bring in schools popular in big markets - such as Syracuse, Rutgers, Pittsburgh and Connecticut - to increase the pot. It's doubtful East Carolina, Central Florida or South Florida would help as much in that regard.
"Everybody gets a piece of the pie, but the pie pieces (could be) a bit smaller," Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen said. "So if you go (expand), you gotta say, 'What you are bringing to the table?' "
That's also why the Big 12 is vulnerable. The league does not split revenue evenly, much to the consternation of a lot of schools not named Texas. And Missouri was upset when it was passed over in the league's pecking order for bowls last year.
The Big East's vulnerability has more to do with its makeup. It has 16 teams for basketball, but only eight play football at the FBS level. One scenario has the league's FBS teams going to different leagues while the basketball schools - such as Georgetown, Villanova and Marquette - form a separate league. (Hyman said he recently spoke to a counterpart in the Big East who "was nervous.")
Those are the scenarios - discontent in the Big 12 and Big East, and big action by the Big Ten and SEC - that lead to everything blowing up.
"Until two or three months ago, it wasn't really on my radar screen," Hyman said of a scenario in which four 16-team super conferences are formed. "Maybe on a 1 to 100 scale, it may have been 1 or 2. But obviously there's more speculation about it."
IT'S ACADEMIC, TOO
Fans like to toss around scenarios that are based on how strong a school is in football and basketball. But school and conference officials say that can be overrated.
Leagues tend to look more at markets. And schools tend to look more at academics, which is why a school such as West Virginia - strong in football and a Final Four participant in men's basketball this year - isn't getting a lot of interest from the Big Ten or ACC.
"They like to be associated with the institutions," said Gene Corrigan, who was the ACC commissioner when the league added Florida State in the early 1990s.
"I think if you would have asked the people at Florida State about joining, there were some who probably thought, well, (the ACC is) not good enough in football. But if you ask some people in the faculty, they'd say, 'We get to be in the same league as Duke and Virginia and (North) Carolina and Georgia Tech!' "
And that's about more than prestige. Competitively, schools want to be on a level playing field with their conference rivals when it comes to admissions of student-athletes.
"At Wake Forest, we want to be a great football team, we want to win as many games every year as we possibly can, but we can't sacrifice academics," Wake Forest football coach Jim Grobe said. "And it's good to compete against other schools that have the same goals and aspirations."
All these factors, and more, are being discussed out of the public domain. Hyman has been through this before at Texas Christian when the school was a member of four leagues in a 10-year span.
"I can't begin to tell you what took place behind the scenes. A huge amount," Hyman said. "It's almost like Sherlock Holmes, there's a lot of covert. I felt like I was in the CIA."
Kramer suspects college presidents and commissioners are having serious talks, feeling out interest among schools and leagues.
In the realignment of the early '90s, most of the changes involved independent schools or teams from the dying Southwest Conference. Today it involves schools in power leagues. That opens up a lot of possibilities for all conferences, including the one Kramer presided over.
"We never really looked seriously at going beyond 12," Kramer said. "But I think the conference today would have to look at those kinds of things if the Big Ten makes a very dramatic move."
Everyone in college athletics will be watching.
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