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April 17, 2012BIRMINGHAM | "Change is always threatening, but progress is only possible through change."
As outgoing Sun Belt Conference commissioner, Wright Waters was in something of a philosophical mood Monday when a panel of four conference commissioners held a roundtable discussion at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. And Waters' words rang truest when the subject of conference realignment and expansion came up.
Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive joined Waters, Atlantic Sun Conference commissioner Ted Gumbart and Conference USA's Britton Banowsky to discuss a wide range of topics, none more pertinent than the recent shifts occurring with teams jumping to new leagues.
In the SEC, the recent additions of Texas A&M and Missouri were two of the most prominent such migrations. Now with a 14-team league with seven teams in each division, SEC expansion has already impacted matters such as revenue sharing and schedule making.
The league quickly adjusted its 2012 football schedule to accommodate the new members, but the 2013 schedule and beyond remains a work in progress.
Alabama will play both A&M and Missouri in 2012.
Slive, now in his 10th year as SEC commissioner, indicated the benefit of adding the two schools will be a long time in determination.
"I try to think about expansion in a very long horizon," Slive said. "There is a tendency to think about how they'll do this fall or winter, but this part of a 10-, 20-, 30-year horizon. Will we be stronger 20 years from now because we're in this group of 14? I think the answer - you never know - but I think the answer will be yes."
Schools moving from one conference to another have begotten more schools doing the same, as conferences who lose members look to replace them and must do so by impacting another conference. Banowsky described that effect as "a waterfall," and the reasons for it vary widely.
One of the top attractions for schools changing conferences is joining an automatic qualifier league, meaning a conference whose football champion is guaranteed a Bowl Championship Series bid. Market forces play a role, as do hurt feelings.
A&M's move to the SEC, in part, was motivated by it's distaste for rival Texas launching its own television network.
Slive said the SEC's motives for expansion weren't in those categories.
"Our folks liked Texas A&M for some of the (same) reasons. They're like institutions for us in terms of their academic status, they've got a broad-based athletic program, a commitment to a lot of sports," Slive said. "... Their students and alumni, they're committed like ours are. We were content to go with 13, we'd built schedules for 13, then Missouri called, and we took a hard look and thought they met some of the same criteria, so we took Missouri and now we're at 14.
"It was unrelated to any external factors, unrelated to the BCS or anything else. It was an opportunity to take two schools that really have, when you look at where they are and who they are, it made a lot of sense for us."
Banowsky, meanwhile, is dealing with expansion issues far more complex than simply adding or losing a team or two. Conference USA is negotiating a merger in various forms with the Mountain West Conference in a move that could pool as many as 24 teams across a geographical divide that would be unprecedented. Banowsky said divisional play would be a crucial part of the joining of the two leagues, if it happens.
"If the scheduling model is a divisional model when you're really playing regional competition within a time zone, then you really just have divisions, and it makes great sense," Banowsky said. "You're creating rivalries, you're building rivalries, there is ease of travel, you have student-athletes getting back on campus and back in class, and integrated back into the fabric of the student body.
"You can talk about a national conference, but in order for it to work, I think it's got to have really solid regional divisional play that enables most of the regular season play to occur within that framework."
For all the moves that were made this past offseason, it's clear the potential for more conference shifts in the coming years remains. There will be bigger schools regarded as true prizes in the expansion game, and smaller ones filling other gaps.
But make no mistake: The landscape remains one of change, and conferences from coast to coast are at the proverbial poker table looking to drag the best pot.
Or, as the retiring Waters succinctly put it: "Great schools make great conferences. Great conferences don't make great schools."
Reach Chase Goodbread at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0196.