The game of college musical chairs continues.
Colorado is leaving the Pac-12 conference for the Big 12, becoming the third member of that conference to depart. Earlier, Southern California and UCLA shocked the college sports world by bolting the Pac-12 for the Big Ten. Before that, Texas and Oklahoma also shocked the sports world by leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference.
Before we go further, I should offer this caution: Don’t get hung up on conference names and numbers and spellings or you’ll go mad. The Big Ten doesn’t have 10 members. It has 14, soon to be 16 once those California schools join. The Big 12 doesn’t have 12 either. It has 14, with Colorado making 15, with perhaps more on the way. The Pac-12 really does have 12, but it won’t have 12 once the departures are official. For now, the Pacific part of the name is the most misleading: Boulder, Colorado, home of the University of Colorado, is 750 miles from the ocean. Once Colorado leaves, the school farthest from the Pacific will be the University of Utah, 713 miles inland. On the other hand, that’s about the same distance that Louisville — a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference — is from the actual coast. Not even the Southeastern Conference is truly Southeastern: Four, soon to be six, of its schools are west of the Mississippi.
What they do all have in common, though, is, well, money and the desire for more of it.
College sports affiliations at the top-ranked Division I level are in a state of flux. Both schools and conferences want bigger TV contracts. Sometimes that means schools switching conferences to ones with better deals; sometimes it means conferences wanting to add marquee schools that will be better TV draws.
We’re also seeing a widening gulf between conferences, which has further driven these realignments.
The Big Ten has a TV deal that will pay each school $80 million to $100 million. The Pac-12’s deal pays out about $30 million per school — no wonder Southern Cal and UCLA wanted to get in on that Big Ten payday. Meanwhile, the Big Ten, which is mostly Midwest schools, has a natural interest in the unnatural geography of adding two West Coast schools: Southern Cal and UCLA bring in the lucrative Los Angeles market, not to mention a national profile. Perhaps that TV deal might go even higher in the future.
Likewise, the SEC’s TV deal pays each school about $70 million, incentive enough for Texas and Oklahoma to say “see y’all” to the Big 12, which pays about $31.6 million per school. The SEC, in turn, strengthens its brand by bringing in two “name” programs and their TV markets.
And then there’s the Atlantic Coast Conference, of which Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia are members. ACC schools are locked into a deal that pays each school about $30.6 million, which has caused angst among some members who feel they’re getting left behind as the Big Ten and SEC line up armored cars to take all their cash to the bank.
The late Virginia politician Henry Howell was fond of saying, “There’s more going around in the dark than Santa Claus,” and that Howellism certainly seems to apply here. I feel quite safe in saying we don’t know exactly what’s happening behind the scenes on conference affiliation — and potential reaffiliation — except that probably more is going on than we know about.
Attorney General Jason Miyares recently used an interview with Cardinal News to deliver a clear message to — well, that part wasn’t so clear. This part, though, was: “It is my fervent hope that Virginia Tech and UVa never make the decision to weaken the other institution,” he said.
Translation: Neither one should abandon the ACC and leave the other in the lurch with less TV revenue. (Here’s how that might work: Suppose the ACC imploded or shrank dramatically, with Florida State joining the SEC and Virginia joining the Big Ten and other schools going who knows where. If Virginia Tech couldn’t find a home in another “name” conference, it might get stuck in a financially weakened ACC or wander about in search of a home the way West Virginia was before it joined the distant Big 12.)
Miyares isn’t just some idle fan. As the attorney general, he’s ultimately the lawyer for state universities. He said his role is “to aggressively protect the interests of Virginia Tech and Virginia no matter what happens.” I pointed out in a recent column what a previous state attorney general did to protect Virginia Tech’s interests as they related to conference affiliation: In 2003, Jerry Kilgore sued the ACC for trying to poach schools from the Big East. Kilgore believes that lawsuit helped slow down the ACC long enough so that it could be persuaded to, well, poach Virginia Tech from the Big East.
Two decades later, Virginia Tech’s move to the ACC remains a topic that prompts animated conversation from some who were involved at the time. If you’re a Democrat, you heap all the credit on then-governor and now U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, who impressed upon the University of Virginia the desirability of promoting Tech as a fellow member. If you’re a Republican, you’re inclined to give some credit to Kilgore and his lawsuit. If you’re a University of Virginia fan, well, some still may not be reconciled to the notion of Tech in the ACC but those who are say Hokies should thank John Casteen, the UVa president at the time, for advocating for the Blacksburg school. (Indeed, Hokies did thank Casteen with a special ceremony when he retired, a rare honor for a rival school.)
There was, though, another option besides Casteen telling fellow ACC members that he’d only support expansion if Tech got an invite. Political strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, who advised Warner, recently called that other option to my attention, and I confirmed it with the two legislators who were involved.
Here’s how Saunders described it in “Foxes in the Henhouse: How the Republicans Stole the South and the Heartland, and What the Democrats Must Do to Run ’em Out,” the book that he and fellow strategist Steve Jarding authored: “Just to give the governor backup cover, we went about the task of developing Tech and Warner a secondary plan of attack. The politics were easy. There are four times more Tech graduates in Virginia than UVA graduates and Tech’s fan support is much more rabid.”
The legislators from the New River Valley at the time included Del. Jim Shuler, a Democrat, and Del. Dave Nutter, a Republican. Saunders says they were persuaded to introduce a bill. Here’s what his book says: “The bill was simple: The University of Virginia and Virginia Tech, the state’s two flagship programs, would have to be members of the same athletic conference unless both agreed to a different scenario.”
The legislature couldn’t force the ACC to invite Tech but it could force Virginia to leave the ACC if Tech wasn’t a member. At least that was the theory.
As is often the case with things past, memories sometimes differ. “Mudcat and Shuler and I all talked about how we could prevent VT from getting left out,” Nutter told me recently via email. “We did agree in concept that we would look at a legislative answer, but it never went any further than that. Fortunately, Governor Warner took care of the issue. I have to say even today and I am not sure how legislatively you could solve a football conference alignment through state statute.”
Shuler said he had the Division of Legislative Services draft a bill, although the measure was never made public or formally introduced. “When the governor jumped in, he had more power than we did,” Shuler told me in a phone call, so there was never a need to proceed with a bill.
Saunders wrote in his book that when he took political soundings among legislators, he “found that getting support for the legislation was as easy as dynamiting fish. To ensure the bill’s credibility, Warner agreed to sign the legislation if passed.” Saunders writes that a public rollout of the bill was in the works. That never happened because Tech President Charles Steger “called to tell us to call off the June 25, 2003, press conference announcing the legislation because Casteen had called and told him Tech was getting an invitation to the ACC.”
Shuler agrees that if the bill had become necessary, it would have likely passed. “Absolutely,” he told me. “It wasn’t a Democrat-Republican issue. It was an issue that would have gained wide support in a bipartisan manner. Of course, it would have started in the House. We did not have a Senate sponsor at the time. We didn’t even have it fully written. But who in the General Assembly is going to object to such an issue?” From afar, I wonder if there might have been some resistance from those who felt the state shouldn’t be interfering in which conferences state colleges choose to join — but that’s me looking at things through 2023 eyes, not the politics of 2003, which were quite different. “It was real,” Shuler said. “It had momentum.”
Although the Nutter-Shuler bill, had it been introduced, would have been bipartisan, Saunders saw clear partisan advantages for Democrats. He wrote in his book: “We believe Warner’s commitment to Virginia Tech, rural Southwest Virginia, and ultimately, college football really helped him gain even more respect in the rural parts of the state. Democrats should follow his lead. Anybody who lives in the South or the Heartland knows that college football is more like a religion than a sport. By showing some respect and passion for a sport that is close to the rural voter’s heart, Democrats can increase their profile in Bubba country and get some votes.”
Shuler reflects on how it was easier to build bipartisan coalitions in those days. “Dave and I weren’t looking for credit, we were just looking to get the ball rolling,” he told me. “I wish we had more of that now but we don’t. …That was back in the days when, you’ll recall, there was more civil discourse. People are more willing to work together. You didn’t get blackballed if you walked down the street with the wrong person. That doesn’t really exist any more — it’s sad.”
I wonder something else: Given the uncertainty surrounding the ACC, will some legislator today introduce a modern version of that Nutter-Shuler bill? And should they?