We are in unusual times. Twenty teams are changing conferences this season and another 23 moves are set for next season. There’s a lot going on and the world seems out of balance with Florida International in Conference USA, San Jose State in the Sun Belt, and the WAC on life support.
A look back on the history of the game reveals that the sands of college basketball’s conference structure are constantly shifting. OK, not constantly. For instance, in 2002, the only change to a conference’s membership was when the Big South accepted the previously independent Gardner-Webb into its realm.
Normally, however, there’s some realignment going on each off-season. In fact, in the 64-team era (coincidentally, also the “football-driven realignment era”) there’s been an average of ten changes in conference membership per season, ranging from the single change in 2002 and 2010 to 31 in 1991. Here’s the year-by-year count since 1985 in graph form. (Enormous credit here to Nic Reiner for tediously compiling the expansion data for this piece.)
[Before we go any further I must explain my ground rules on what constitutes a conference membership change. It should be obvious that a team that goes from one conference to another is counted as a conference change. For purposes of this study, when a team’s move involves independence (either to or from) it’s recorded as half of a conference change.
The only other thorny issue is what to count in the case of a new conference forming. Actually, this issue is limited to Conference USA’s birth in 1995. For purposes of this study, C-USA’s formation is viewed as expansion of the Great Midwest, since it absorbed six of that conference’s teams and left the conference for dead. Effectively, it was expansion of the Great Midwest while taking on a new name. Thus, the only changes counted in that move were the six teams that joined from outside the Great Midwest. Now back to regularly-scheduled programming.]
The current period represents the fourth major shift in conference membership since 1985, and obviously it won’t be the last. Let’s recap the changes of the past and why they occurred.
1991: The ’91 offseason saw 26 true conference switches, with an additional eight cases of teams shedding independence, and one case of a team leaving a conference for independence. The shake-up can be traced back to the summer of ’90 when there was as much expansion drama as there was in the summer of 2010.
The driver of the drama was the SEC, who looked to expand from 10 to 12 teams while the last of the football independents – Florida State, Miami, and South Carolina – looked for conference homes. The SEC first grabbed Arkansas from the Southwest Conference, and a month later, South Carolina. Florida State went to the ACC while Miami went to the Big East.
While the Seminoles and Gamecocks were football independents, they played their hoops (and other sports) in the Metro Conference, which failed that summer to create an all-sports super-conference that would have combined its current members and remaining football independents from the northeast. Two other Metro programs, Cincinnati and Memphis, departed for the brand new Great Midwest Conference.
The gutted Metro responded by raiding the Sun Belt. The Sun Belt, having also lost UAB to the Great Midwest and Old Dominion to the CAA, scrambled by swallowing up the six-team American South Conference. There were other moves unrelated to this chain reaction but a total of 20 conference changes could be traced back to the subtle expansion of the ACC and SEC.
1994-96: Another period of turmoil played out a few years later with 50 changes occurring during this three-year span, punctuated by the formation of Conference USA in 1995 and the expansion of the Big 12 (and destruction of the SWC) in 1996. Additionally, after playing with fewer than ten teams for three seasons, the Atlantic-10 elected to expand to 12 in ’96, and the WAC moved from 10 teams to 16 that same season. Bigger was officially better.
2005: College athletics went nearly a decade with a fairly stable conference landscape. Sure, there was the WAC/Mountain West split in 1999 and some minor reverberations on the East Coast after the CAA raided America East for four teams in 2001. But things really didn’t get rocking again until 2005 when the ACC poached three teams from the Big East to get to the magic number of 12, allowing them to stage a football championship game. (Actually, Miami and Virginia Tech made the move between those two leagues in ’04, the only conference membership changes in all of D-I that off-season.)
The Big East couldn’t react until ’05 when it grabbed five teams from C-USA. C-USA replaced those teams by hitting up the WAC, Atlantic Sun, and MAC. Those conferences in turn took teams from the Big West, Sun Belt, and Southern Conference. The only conference changes not involving this chain of events was the CAA pilfering America East and the Atlantic Sun, and the Atlantic 10 taking Charlotte and Saint Louis from C-USA.
2012-13: That brings us to the present day, where once again a large number of conference membership changes can be traced back to small moves by power conferences. The Pac-10 and Big Ten initiated things in what ended up being relatively small moves despite the public’s expectation of massive expansion.
The result was an unsettled Big 12, who lost two teams to the SEC but picked up teams from the Mountain West and the Big East. This sent some ripples down both sides of the country. The ACC saw an opportunity to take advantage of an unstable Big East, who hit up C-USA again. C-USA pick-pocketed the Sun Belt, and the Sun Belt stole from the CAA and the WAC, who had already grabbed teams from the Southland. The Mountain West also replenished itself from the WAC. That’s a lot of movement, but nearly all of it has its roots in the combined three acquisitions of the Pac-12 and Big Ten.
What’s interesting about the summer of 1990 is that, like 2010, there were so many rumors that didn’t pan out. In 1990, things like the ACC adding Syracuse, a 14-team SEC involving Texas A&M, a 12-team Big Ten, and the Pac-10 inviting Colorado were apparently legitimate rumors at some point that year, and of course, finally came true two decades later. In retrospect, it was amazing there weren’t more changes in the ‘91 off-season, just as it appeared certain there would be more changes than actually occurred in 2012.
While realignment appears to be occurring at a lightning pace, it could move a lot faster than it is. The increasing viability of conference TV networks probably means there’s more room for expansion in the nation’s elite conferences. The rumors of this off-season involve the Big 12 expanding from either the ACC or the Big East, or the ACC further poaching the Big East to get to 16 teams, or the SEC raiding the Big 12 to get to 16.
One thing that struck me in that 1990 SI piece linked above was this quote from Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles: “The ‘90s are predicted to be moving in the direction of three superconferences, each with a major network.” The predictions 22 years later aren’t much different, so one could conclude that things are moving rather slowly. Perhaps times aren’t that unusual after all.