Expansion might not be all it’s cracked up to be

Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Haven’t we seen this before?

Yeah, this isn’t new, that someone would think it would be a good idea to go to 16 teams. We’ve seen this, when a Division I college conference expanded because it could, partly out of greed, partly out of ambition, partly out of hubris. And partly out of fear. It was a move to beat everyone else to the punch. It was a move made to feel some sense of control in a world about to go mad. It was a move made because to not make one would mean having no control at all.

Sound familiar?

Of course, this was the Western Athletic Conference we are talking about, prescient enough in the mid-’90s to expand like my waistline after a two-day pizza binge. And as college sports’ first superconference, the WAC left us with a few things to think about as we wait for bluffs to be called and dominoes to fall.

The 16-team WAC learned that it sounded good to boast about getting into Texas and Bay Area media markets. But, if you don’t “own” them, so what? (Ahem. We keep hearing about adding new TV markets in today’s expansion talk. But can Colorado deliver Denver, and does Rutgers really mean anything in NYC?)

Still, it was exciting, and it was new. And it did feel good to seize control of one’s destiny when it felt like the college sports world was about to fall apart.

And it did get the WAC a TV deal. Which is what all of this is really about, anyway (straight cash, homey).

But these schools, and their fans, learned something else, before too long. They learned it was great to make that initial bold move. But once that faded, they missed things the way they were. The learned that history meant something. Proximity. Rivalries. This is what college football is all about.

And without it?

Without that, you can be as “super” as you want. It looks good. It sounds good. But it just doesn’t feel the same.

“Outsiders,” WAC commissioner Karl Benson once said, “were looking much more favorably at the WAC at that time than the insiders were.”

All this current expansion talk sounds exciting. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Co. are showing us who has vision, who will chart the course of college sports, who will make moves rather than cringing and waiting. It gets the blood pumping in the offseason.

But, really. Once the splash of the deal of the century fades away — are you going to have messed with Michigan-Ohio State?

The thing that puts the Big Ten in this position of power — the history, the rivalries, the prestige, the feeling that every school is in this together — is the very thing that gets lost should it decide to overreach.

After all, why is the Big 12 so vulnerable? It was once the hot, new superconference. But here we are, about a decade-and-a-half later. The novelty has worn off. What reason have these schools to stay together?

It’s true, these are not the ’90s. The Big Ten and the Pac-10 are not the WAC. A lot of lessons have been learned, and the Big Ten and the Pac-10 (and Texas, and Nebraska) have played this brilliantly. And, should things not feel the same when the newness fades, everyone involved can dry his or her tears with $100 bills.

But look at the Southeastern Conference, the gold standard. It is not a great conference because it has a lot of money. Rather, it has a lot of money because it is a great conference, because it feels right, because it means something, because it’s always meant something, because it makes perfect sense. It’s great not because it was a good idea on paper or has a nice TV deal, but because it exists in blood and bone. Because it permeates the very air.

And whatever happened to that 16-team super WAC? Well, just a few years later Colorado State, Air Force, BYU, Wyoming and Utah met in a secret meeting at the Denver airport. In a stunning backroom deal, they decided to crush their new conference, leave the partners that had leapt with them behind, and break away. They wanted . . . well, they wanted something like they’d had before.

That’s the thing to think about as speculation rages and news breaks. It’s not making the deal of the century that’s the biggest thing here. It’s having to live with it down the line.