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When east is west and west is east

April 07, 2013|By TIM ROWLAND | timr@herald-mail.com

The first weekend of this October, two planes will pass each other. One, filled with football players from the Northeast will be traveling some 1,300 miles to play a team in Texas. The other, filled with Texas football players, will be traveling even farther to play a football team (Rutgers) from New Jersey.

They must do so because Southern Methodist University will be a new member of the Big East Conference, while former Big East member West Virginia University is entering its second year in the Southwest’s Big 12 Conference. (Rutgers, meanwhile, is bolting the Big East for the Midwest-based Big 10).

Two years ago, U.S. Sen. (and University of Louisville alum) Mitch McConnell was accused of tampering with college athletic conferences by using his influence to win a Big 12 spot for his own school.

After failing to beat out WVU, Louisville wound up in the ACC, replacing Maryland, which moved to the Big 10, which has how many schools? Yes, 14.

And where politics treads, can religion be far behind? Seven Catholic schools are either abandoning the Big East (or taking over the Big East, it’s difficult to say) in order to form a league of their own, one that will presumably have to take in an infidel or two in order to maintain symmetry.

What’s left of the Big East as we now know it, at least in terms of football, will very likely have as many schools from west of the Appalachian Mountains as east of them.

It could have been even more severe. Boise State and San Diego State joined the Big East (yes, East) but then dropped out before ever playing an actual game as part of the conference.

As we celebrate this Final Four weekend, we understand that all this nonsense hasn’t ruined college athletics. But if you find your school suddenly uprooted from its base, from its old rivalries and shipped off to regions unknown (and too expensive to travel to) to play, the game loses a little bit of its soul.

I guess there are still old geezers in the Southeast who would rather win the ACC basketball tournament than the NCAA tournament. The conference tournament used to be what mattered; the national tournament was just frosting.

And there are geezers like me who still believe that Syracuse, Georgetown, Pitt and Connecticut need to play hoops in the Garden every year before spring can truly arrive.

I’ve watched WVU’s football rivals disappear to different conferences over the years: Penn State, Miami, Virginia Tech, Pitt. And now they’re telling me I need to get jacked for the matchup with that high-flying Baylor squad — and I’m just not feeling it.

The games are still there, but it’s a book without a plot.

Fortunately for them, the kids who are just becoming aware of college athletics will never know the joys of a Syracuse-Georgetown game, so they will not know what they’re missing. Just as I never knew the joys of boxing and horse racing, which dominated the sporting scene through much of the past century.

These kids will have other rivalries to celebrate. Maybe. Or maybe they will fail to warm to a college football system where two or three football programs with GDPs that rival most third-world nations dominate year after year.

They won’t know how college basketball was played in the days of Magic Johnson, Christian Laettner, Bill Walton, Walter Davis and Patrick Ewing. So they won’t miss the quality of cohesive team play, before schools become one-and-done factories for the pros.

And maybe they won’t notice the way conference money matters more than athletics and athletes.

I understand that this is mainly an aging man’s lament.

But two cautionary tales: It has not been that long ago that boxing was as popular as any sport, with Ali, Frazier, Norton and Foreman in their primes. But boxing got greedy, and put its best matches on pay-per-view. Suddenly, it’s bread and butter fans — urban blacks and blue-collar whites, couldn’t afford to watch and lost interest. As a result, no new talent came along, and today the sport is all but dead.

Second, men’s tennis didn’t know how good it had it in the days of Nastase, Connors and McEnroe — huge talents and huge, occasionally uncontrollable, personalities. But tennis brass decided the game was bigger than the players and legislated the bad boys out of existence. As a result, can anyone even remember who won the men’s U.S. Open last summer?

In sports, the people who control the purse strings control the game. For the sake of college athletics, let’s hope they know what they’re doing, even when it looks as if they don’t.


Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. His email address is timr@herald-mail.com.

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