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Saturday, May 17, 2008

From Dan Wolken on Conference Realignment

On conference realignment
Posted by Dan Wolken

When wishful thinking is combined with exceptionally vague reporting, the imagination can run wild.

And so it was on Thursday, when the city of Memphis and blogs nationwide were buzzing about Fox 13’s Wednesday night newscast claiming that Memphis was in talks with the Big East about joining the mega-conference.

Immediately, the Commercial Appeal called athletic director R.C. Johnson and Big East officials for the standard denials. Meanwhile, the mere idea of a move was enough to light up message boards and talk radio shows, trying to fill the vast empty spaces left by Fox’s report. How would such a move happen? When would it occur? Those are just two of the many questions that were conveniently left unanswered.

Based on numerous conversations over the course of many weeks, I will offer the following:

Do I think there is merit to the idea that powerful forces representing the interests of Memphis have made overtures to the Big East? Absolutely. In fact, that notion isn’t very new. This is a passage from a story I wrote last March — a somewhat controversial story in Conference USA circles on the day the 2007 league basketball tournament began.

While the Tigers have indeed blossomed into a national power the past two years, the biggest concern among those close to the program is whether that could continue in C-USA should Calipari leave. Calipari nearly took the North Carolina State job last spring and will likely continue to be hotly pursued by major programs that have openings in the future.

For that reason, several prominent boosters advocate Memphis not just position itself for the next conference realignment but to actively pursue membership in another league.

“We are a thoroughbred racehorse right now, and we need to be playing basketball with other thoroughbreds,” said Rick Spell, who sits on the six-member executive committee of the Tiger Athletic Advisory Board.

“Due to John’s magnificent marketing and coaching capabilities, the conference is not a concern. And we like our conference members. These are great universities, but I am concerned if John were to not be our coach, would we be able to maintain the high level that Memphis (fans) would want and feel they deserve?

“For the long-term viability of our basketball program, there needs to be massive Conference USA improvement, which may not be possible. Therefore, we need a conference that can give us a conference of peers.”

But which conference would that be? And how would Memphis get there?

The Big East already passed on Memphis once, and by signing a new TV deal worth more than $200 million with ESPN, its membership appears stable for the foreseeable future. Though it’s easy to envision the league’s eight private, non-football schools — most of whom are currently struggling to compete — eventually splitting off into their own league and opening slots in the Big East, it’s probably a distant scenario.

Though there is no current groundswell of conference movement that could have an impact on Memphis, the dominoes could start falling at any time.

“I believe the landscape will change again, and there will be another opportunity for the University of Memphis to take a shot at a BCS league,” said Alan Graf, executive vice president/CFO at FedEx and a significant Tigers supporter.

“You’ve got Tennessee and Ole Miss, so you wouldn’t think they’d want Memphis in the Southeastern Conference. You hear some about whether Arkansas is leaving or not. You hear a lot of rumors from time to time. Obviously, we’d never be in the Big Ten, but they only have 11 teams and would probably like a 12th, so there are things you could see out there starting a sort of chain reaction.”

In August, my colleague Geoff Calkins reinforced that idea:

But if (R.C.) Johnson is smart, he’ll call (Dave) Bronczek or FedEx CFO Alan Graf before the week is out. The conversation should go something like this.

Johnson: “Now that the baseball stadium is taken care of, I need one more favor.”

FedEx: “Just ask.”

Johnson; “I need one of you to serve on a special blue-ribbon task force I’m putting together to get Memphis into a BCS conference.”

FedEx: “What took you so long?”

That last line isn’t farfetched, either, after what Graf said about such a task force Thursday.

“I have told both Shirley (Raines) and R.C. — who need to lead this effort — that FedEx thinks we should do something more formal,” he said. “We would be ready and willing to be involved.”

So, in other words, I (and well-connected sources I speak with regularly) have no doubt that some of this has taken place.

But the devil’s in the details.

At this point — at least until there’s some evidence that the entire college sports landscape is about to change — it’s hard to see these supposed conversations as anything more than jockeying for position.

Given the Big East’s current configuration — 8 for football, 16 for basketball — there simply isn’t room for a Memphis all-sports membership unless somebody like Rutgers, Syracuse or Notre Dame leaves for the Big 10 or the Big East is getting ready to split up into a 9-team or 12-team all-sports conference. And if that’s about to happen, Fox 13 is way, way, way, way, way out in front on the nation’s biggest college sports story of the last couple years and doesn’t even know it. And even at that, it’s practically impossible for the conferences to start the revolving door until 2010.

Here’s what Memphis fans should be focused on right now. Given what happened in the last round of conference realignment — the perception among people that matter is that Memphis didn’t necessarily put it’s best foot forward in its argument to get into the Big East — I have no doubt that the school is going to be extremely well-prepared the next time.

The general speculation is that there will be a comprehensive push, once the sands begin to shift, which would probably include the Liberty Bowl and a major FedEx sponsorship package. Until then, there’s not much to do but wait for the dominoes to start falling.

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