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College football’s ‘conference carousel’ continues as schools realign seeking profits

The BCS conference linebackers’ coach was off the road for a week and happy to spend some time helping out at his son’s high school, where the head coach had told him he could instruct any position group he wanted.

He was even more eager to discuss the college conference carousel, which is ramping up for another wild, nausea-inducing spin.

“Looks like it’s another summer of conference craziness,” he said.

You bet it is.

Last Friday brought the first rumblings that another shakeup was possible. Florida State, which has been a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference for almost 21 years, contracted a serious case of TV contract envy, and members of the school community began to look longingly at the Big 12 Conference, even though the ACC announced just last week a new deal with ESPN/ABC that would keep the league rolling in it through 2027.

Seems FSU’s proud football program ran a deficit of $2.4 million in 2011, largely because games against Duke and Wake Forest don’t fire up the tomahawk-chopping faithful the way visits from Miami do. Geography buffs will note that the Seminoles’ home of Tallahassee isn’t surrounded by populous areas and therefore requires some want-to by those wishing to reach there. Reports that the ACC’s new deal, which reportedly guarantees each member school $17.1 million a year, doesn’t vest fully until 2020, meaning the ‘Noles must tough out the rest of the decade in an unsavory financial condition.

A quick glance at the Big 12, which returned from the brink of dissolution with a fat deal that guarantees members $20 mil per, started Florida State boosters – and even Board chairman Andy Haggard – wondering whether a move might not be in order. That bit of speculation cranked up the rumor factory, and within a few hours, FSU and Clemson were headed to the Big 12, if the SEC didn’t get them first. That, of course, started a chain reaction that put Louisville, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Rutgers and even Notre Dame in play. Even though Florida State president Eric Barron issued a statement reiterating FSU’s commitment to the ACC and detailed the many impracticalities of the move ($20-25 million in exit fees, increased travel costs for other sports, etc.) he also listed a few positives of moving on (the ACC is primarily a basketball conference, the four North Carolina schools are favored over everyone else, recent additions Pitt and Syracuse are no longer gridiron powers, the new ACC contract doesn’t allow schools to retain third-tier game broadcast rights), allowing for more gossip and conjecture.

Once again, thanks to giant TV money and the continued desire of networks to fill their schedules with the only programming that is largely DVR-proof, the college landscape is threatened by realignment. By the time 2012 ends, we may have another giant restructuring of the major conferences, with shock waves reaching down to the rest of Division I. Pity poor Conference USA, which is meeting this week and trying to figure out a viable future. C-USA has turned to previously anonymous schools like Texas-San Antonio, North Texas and Charlotte to fill out its roster and is considering a merger with the Mountain West Conference to form a mid-major leviathan that creates something of an Island of Misfit Schools. And what about Boise State, which was gung-ho to join the Big East, time zones be damned, only to find out that when it finally arrives, the conference could be worse off than the MWC the Broncos left.

It’s a mess, and it’s time for the media to slow down its rumormongering and report responsibly and accurately. My conversation with the linebackers coach careened from topic to topic and contained plenty of juicy gossip. With FSU in play, might the SEC convince Florida to let the Seminoles join, while also strong-arming South Carolina into allowing Clemson in, thereby making the conference the first to 16 members? Could Notre Dame move to the Big 12, the better to hold onto its affiliation with NBC? And would an FSU/Clemson exodus force the ACC to invite Louisville and Cincinnati to join?

It’s fun to think about the possibilities but irresponsible to treat them as if they were guaranteed to happen. It’s hard to imagine that conference realignment is done, not with so many schools trying to solidify their situations. But playing up every single angle creates more uncertainty and even pushes schools out of their current homes. As Andy Staples wrote Monday on SI.com, “A conference’s perceived strength can hold it together until some influential person steps forward and publicly questions that strength.” Haggard’s comments Friday questioned the ACC’s strength, and that has created opportunity for FSU and other conferences to act.

As the media works to figure out whether a change is coming, its members should keep in mind that while recasting college sports’ hierarchy is undeniably fun, there are some victims, most notably the schools ultimately left behind and – more importantly – the athletes whose futures are affected by the pursuit of the almighty buck. It’s logical and completely possible that FSU will remain an ACC bulwark for another 20 years, coexisting happily with its brethren. Or, the Seminoles could move on, and chaos might reign. Whatever the case, the media owes it to the school and college sports as a whole to report on what is newsworthy and not on what is mere supposition.

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