CFB realignment's alternative timeline: If Arkansas hadn't gone SEC, what would've changed?

On a hot summer day in 1978, Arkansas men’s basketball coach Eddie Sutton made a four-hour stop in Tulsa, Okla., where he held a coaching clinic and conducted a few side interviews.

Some of the questions asked of Sutton related to Arkansas’ department-wide quibbles with the Southwest Conference over officiating, football payouts and radio rights. Athletic director Frank Broyles had canvassed Sutton and football coach Lou Holtz about their conference preferences, and both were in favor of at least inquiring about moving to the Big Eight.

“I don’t think the Big Eight would invite us to join that league unless … well, I can’t see the Big Eight becoming the Big Nine,” Sutton told The Oklahoman that day. “But if Kansas State should find, in two or three years, that football-wise they’re not going to be able to cut it, then there would be an opening and an invitation.

“If the decision ever was made by the Big Eight to invite us, I think there would be some real soul-searching by our administration and by Frank.”

Nothing happened, and the topic fizzled. Then in 1987, the discussion of Arkansas’ conference affiliation was reignited. Since 1965, Arkansas had been the only Southwest team to qualify for a major bowl outside of the league-affiliated Cotton Bowl, and it did so five times: three Sugar Bowls, two Orange Bowls. Arkansas and Rice were the only two Southwest Conference schools not under NCAA sanctions. The football program’s trips to private schools in Texas netted Arkansas much less money than what the Razorbacks shared from their home gate. Arkansas even lost money on a flight to Rice in Houston.

The Razorbacks inquired about the Big Eight again, but Big Eight commissioner Carl James said his league didn’t want new members after rebuffing North Texas State and Northern Illinois.

“If such a thing should happen, it would come as a blockbuster overnight,” Broyles told the Arkansas Gazette in 1987. Again, the buzz led to nothing.

Then on Aug. 1, 1990, Broyles and Arkansas accepted an invitation to join the Southeastern Conference. South Carolina followed nearly two months later. In 1996, the Big Eight merged with four Southwest Conference schools to become the Big 12. Beginning this month, half of the Big 12’s original members will have left for other conferences (one, Colorado, is back in the fold this year), with four having moved to the SEC.

Counting Arkansas and Penn State (which joined the Big Ten in June 1990), there have been 67 realignment moves among major-conference football programs over the last 34 years. This summer caps the most chaotic sequence of affiliation shifts in college football history. USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon join the Big Ten. Oklahoma and Texas shift to the SEC. Utah, Arizona and Arizona State move to the Big 12 along with Colorado.

But what if the Big Eight had invited Arkansas in 1987 and became the Big Nine in 1990? How would that move have impacted the SEC’s first round of expansion? What about the corresponding membership changes for the ACC, Big East, Big Ten and Pac-10?

With the delicate nature of realignment dominoes in mind, let’s explore an alternative timeline, starting with Arkansas leaving the Southwest Conference for the Big Eight.



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Alternative move No. 1: Big Eight invites Arkansas

In the 24-year stretch beginning with its unbeaten 1964 campaign and ending with 1987, Arkansas had 15 seasons of at least nine wins. The Big Eight’s six teams not named Nebraska or Oklahoma reached double-digit victories a total of only three times over that span.

One of those six, Kansas State, was the worst program in major college football. The Wildcats went 33-131-4 from 1964 to 1987 and had 15 seasons with one win or fewer in Big Eight action. By ’87 the program’s average home attendance had exceeded 30,000 only once that decade. Kansas State started moving its home games against Oklahoma to Norman to generate more revenue for both programs. Despite nudges from fellow Big Eight schools that it should consider a step downward, Kansas State declined to leave the league voluntarily.

In an alternative timeline, Big Eight officials remain uneasy about an uneven nine-team conference, but Arkansas’ football and men’s basketball pedigree mean revenue. Plus, the move spurs the schools to once and for all hold a referendum on Kansas State.

After nearly two years of discussion, Big Eight officials schedule a vote on Kansas State’s status. Despite impassioned pleas for the Wildcats to step aside on their own, K-State’s brass declines to leave. Ultimately, the membership declines to evict Kansas State, and the Big Eight becomes the Big Nine beginning in 1990.

The geography — Arkansas was located closer to four Big Eight schools than its closest SWC foe — makes the move reasonable. The new all-Texas SWC becomes vulnerable. Thanks to the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that removed NCAA control over conferences’ pursuit of television money, other leagues approach Texas and Texas A&M. Those negotiations begin in earnest in 1990.



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Alternative move No. 2: Penn State, Texas, Texas A&M make the leap

SEC commissioner Roy Kramer is considered a visionary. He found a loophole in the NCAA rulebook that led to the SEC’s addition of Arkansas and South Carolina and started the sport’s top conference championship game. Kramer’s legacy is just as secure in an alternative timeline, though the teams involved in his conference’s first big move have changed.

Of the SWC’s eight remaining schools, Texas and Texas A&M are the most valuable properties. After an 11-1 finish in 1983, the Longhorns languished for the rest of the decade, playing to a 36-32-1 overall mark with three losing seasons. Jackie Sherrill revived Texas A&M with three consecutive Cotton Bowl appearances in the mid-1980s.

The SEC is more enticing to Texas A&M than to Texas, but the duo believe they’re better together than separately. At the same time, Kramer sends feelers to independent schools Miami, Florida State, South Carolina and Virginia Tech. The collection of eastern independent schools begins talking about banding together, as the Big Ten and ACC court them individually. Along with the Texas schools, Colorado intrigues the Pac-12.

Penn State becomes the first independent school to jump, accepting the Big Ten’s invitation in 1990 (as was the case in reality). After numerous discussions with the SEC and Pac-10, Texas and Texas A&M opt for the Big Nine. The Pac-10 recalibrates but ultimately chooses to not pursue Colorado.

Miami and Florida State are atop Kramer’s wish list, but South Carolina and Virginia Tech remain in play, too.

Alternative move No. 3: ACC, Big East make a splash

By the late 1980s, the Big East and ACC were two of the nation’s top three men’s basketball conferences. Each had a recognizable regional identity and didn’t want to dilute its product. But they both knew they had to improve in football or get picked apart by other entities.

In our alternative timeline, the ACC, Big East, Florida State and Miami pull off a stunning series of moves in early 1991. The ACC invites Florida State while Miami joins the Big East. The four Big East football members (Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Boston College) plus West Virginia merge with the nine ACC schools (counting Florida State) to create a football-only conference. The leagues would keep separate identities for every other sport but become a solo scheduling entity for football called the Atlantic East.

Plans for an ACC-Big East 16-team football super-structure are scuttled when Kramer adds South Carolina and Virginia Tech to make the SEC a 12-member conference. Both schools are located in new markets contiguous with SEC states. Kramer then announces his football league would split into East and West divisions and stage a conference championship game. Virginia Tech is placed in the West Division with Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and LSU to ensure major rivalries stay intact but is awarded Kentucky as a crossover opponent. The East Division includes Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and South Carolina.

Stunned by the SEC’s move, the Atlantic East quickly adapts into a two-division structure. Instead of basing its alignment on geography, the Atlantic East opts for a zipper approach: Major rivals are placed in opposite divisions as permanent crossover rivalries, then other important series are stitched together. The American Division consists of Miami, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, North Carolina, Duke and Virginia. The National Division comprises Florida State, West Virginia, Boston College, Clemson, NC State, Wake Forest and Maryland.

Alternative move No. 4: Big (Number) changes again

As the Big 11 watches the SEC and Atlantic East launch lucrative championship games for the 1992 season, it decides it needs a new member. The six remaining Southwest Conference teams trip over themselves angling for an invitation. The league dabbles a bit with LSU but doesn’t get anywhere and considers BYU and Utah. Ultimately, it comes down to a pair of Texas schools: Baylor and Texas Tech.

Texas Gov. Ann Richards leans on Texas and Texas A&M officials to pick her alma mater, Baylor, while the league’s other members prefer a public school. In a close vote with Texas and Texas A&M abstaining, the nine other schools ratify Texas Tech as the Big 12’s 12th member, beginning play in 1994.

The league’s divisional discussion comes down to a pair of ideas. The first explores a North-South split. The second is a geographical hybrid in which the six central schools — Nebraska, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Arkansas — form a Heartland Division and the other six become the Trails Division. Debate rages over several weeks with Nebraska and Texas on opposite sides. Finally, Arkansas brokers a compromise. The league headquarters would remain in Kansas City, Mo.; the divisional alignment follows the North-South split. The Nebraska-Oklahoma series earns permanent protection for a six-year block with future renewals but moves off Thanksgiving weekend. The measure passes unanimously.

The five remaining Southwest Conference schools choose to reform rather than disband the league. They consider looking to the Western Athletic Conference but instead opt for an eastern wing with independents. Baylor, TCU, SMU, Houston and Rice invite Tulsa, Tulane, Southern Miss, Louisville, Memphis, Cincinnati and East Carolina to form a new 12-member league.

Alternative move No. 5: Notre Dame to …?

Throughout the changes on this alternative timeline, one school sits and watches every scenario play out. In reality, Notre Dame accepted a Big East invitation in 1994 to join in all sports but football. In this timeline, the Irish do the same thing.

In 1998, both the Atlantic East and the Big Ten approach Notre Dame about becoming a full member. The Irish’s Big East connection forces university brass to weigh those options. The Atlantic East overtures are dismissed quickly. The Big Ten, however, is different. Its athletic and academic profile coupled with its geography leads Notre Dame officials to investigate the school’s best interests.

The real-life negotiations between the Big Ten and Notre Dame during this time period would have forced the Irish to wait six years after joining the league to become a financially vested member. In an alternative world, the Big Ten allows Notre Dame to receive the same amount from media rights deals as other members on its first day. Notre Dame’s home games remain televised on NBC until its contract expires, while ABC/ESPN secures the remaining Big Ten inventory. The Big Ten also helps Notre Dame build an academic profile capable of achieving AAU status.

The debate intensifies in South Bend. Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees met Feb. 5, 1999 in London to either approve membership or extend independence permanently. Trustees could not reach consensus and tabled the discussion for six weeks before setting a vote for early June 1999. Unlike in real life, when the Board of Trustees voted 39-0 to remain independent, in this timeline the board votes 30-9 to apply for the Big Ten. Notre Dame had first applied for the Big Ten one hundred years earlier but did not show up at the Dec. 1, 1899 membership meeting in Chicago, which saw Indiana and Iowa become the first expansion schools in collegiate athletics history.

Notre Dame agrees to start Big Ten play in 2002. Debate swirls over whether geography or competitive equality should dictate the league’s divisional structure. Ultimately, the Big Ten chooses a hybrid, with Penn State linking up with Notre Dame and the farther western schools. Penn State, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota and Northwestern form the Stripes Division. The Stars Division includes Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Purdue and Illinois. This round of realignment conjecture concludes with an actual matchup between Big Ten unbeatens Ohio State and Iowa battling at Soldier Field in the league’s first conference championship game.

(Photo: Richard Rodriguez / Getty Images)

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