Biggest winners, losers five years after realignment hell broke loose
Five years ago this week, college athletics lost its mind. Or at least it seemed that way in the moment.
On June 10, 2010, Colorado left the Big 12 for the Pac-12 and Boise State joined the Mountain West. The next day, Nebraska officially accepted a Big Ten invitation. And all the while, the entire industry waited for one school, Texas, to decide whether it would follow through on a stunning development that would radically transform one conference, the Pac-10, while rendering another, the Big 12, extinct.
Finally, on the morning of June 14, word came that Texas had decided at the 11th hour to stay put, halting the expected exodus of four other Big 12 schools. College sports’ conference missile crisis ground to a halt, but the game of musical chairs it touched off would continue for several years. The industry has finally stabilized itself again only now.
Today, 43 FBS schools — 33.6 percent of the current membership — compete in a different conference than they did five years ago. Along the way, one league (the WAC) died, while another (the former Big East) lost its name (it’s now the American Athletic Conference) and its privileged postseason status. All 10 remaining conferences include at least one team they did not claim in 2010.
Interestingly, Texas, the school once at the epicenter of realignment mania, is arguably no better or worse off today than it was five years ago. On the one hand, staying in the Big 12 allowed the school to launch the Longhorn Network, which, despite its distribution struggles, affords UT an average $15 million in annual revenue. Combined with its roughly $25 million share of Big 12 revenue, the ‘Horns easily cash more TV and postseason money than any other school.
On the other hand, Texas’ athletic department, a picture of stability for the first decade of this century, has cast away its longtime athletic director (DeLoss Dodds), football coach (Mack Brown) and men’s basketball coach (Rick Barnes) all since 2013. Not only have the ‘Horns struggled on the field, they’ve seen three formerly downtrodden in-state programs — TCU, Baylor and Texas A&M — steal their thunder.
And two of those, TCU (Big 12) and Texas A&M (SEC), have benefitted immeasurably by jumping to other conferences — moves that saw their first seeds planted during that tumultuous week in June 2010.
One could also argue that Nebraska, the original big mover that summer, is no better off in the Big Ten than it was the Big 12. Yes, the Huskers’ new home is richer and more stable, but after years of playing second fiddle to Texas and Oklahoma it’s now mostly an afterthought to Ohio State and Michigan (and Michigan State and Wisconsin, for that matter.)
But no two schools did more to touch off the mass chaos that followed than Texas and Nebraska.
On July 1, 134-year independent Navy will officially join the American and Charlotte, a two-year-old FCS startup, begins play in Conference USA. They are the last remaining FBS comers and goers currently on the books, marking an end to a half-decade of shuffling.
With some distance, we can now pronounce which schools and conferences benefitted or suffered the most from Realignment Mania. (Note: This is a football-specific ranking. Plenty of basketball programs transformed themselves as well.)
The biggest winners
1) Rutgers. If realignment were a lottery, Rutgers won the Powerball Grand Prize. A long-suffering, financially strapped, crisis-plagued athletic department not only escaped the former Big East’s destruction but punched a ticket to the esteemed Big Ten, whose cable network and upcoming Tier 1 negotiations will shower the New Jersey school with new revenue. Its national profile is already growing, and the Scarlet Knights even defied the doomsayers and won eight games in their first season.
Maryland is enjoying much the same benefits, but its fans weren’t nearly as jubilant about leaving behind their longtime ACC rivals.
2) TCU. Upon the Southwest Conference’s demise in 1996, TCU spent 15 years as conference nomads, putting in stints in the WAC, Conference USA, Mountain West and very nearly joining the Big East. The big boy in their state thumbed their nose at the small private school. But now the Horned Frogs enjoy Power 5 status in the very same conference as Texas and have already claimed their first Big 12 championship. It’s good to be Gary Patterson
3) Utah. Like TCU, Utah’s BCS success while still in the Mountain West helped garner a move up to the big leagues. When then-Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott failed to woo Texas and Co., he plucked Utah and Colorado for a more modest but ultimately lucrative 12-team product. Also like TCU, Utah initially struggled in its move up before breaking through with a top-25 finish last season. The program has also dramatically upgraded its facilities.
4) Texas A&M and Missouri. Neither seemed like natural fits upon joining the SEC, but fans of the existing teams embraced them. For A&M, a perfect storm in 2012 of Kevin Sumlin’s arrival, Johnny Manziel’s ascendance and beating Alabama greatly emboldened the Aggies’ fan base. The school approved an expansive renovation of Kyle Field the next year. And while Mizzou won two Big 12 division titles under Gary Pinkel, its consecutive SEC East crowns garnered newfound respect nationally.
5) Louisville. All of AD Tom Jurich’s substantial efforts in upgrading the program over 15-plus years stood in jeopardy when the Big East began imploding and the Big 12 passed over the Cardinals for West Virginia. But Maryland’s unexpected exit from the ACC provided another opportunity to move up to a Power 5 league, and this one made more sense for Louisville. Its first season included a win at partial member Notre Dame.
The biggest losers
1) Cincinnati and Connecticut. Two schools that enjoyed unprecedented football success in the decade pre-realignment — the Bearcats reached consecutive BCS bowls in 2008 and ’09, while the Huskies, a I-AA program not long ago, went in 2010 — have been relegated to second-tier status in the American. Both have lobbied unsuccessfully for better landing spots, most logically the ACC. While they can still contend for a New Year’s Six bowl by winning their conference, they’re likely to be frozen out of the College Football Playoff and now face recruiting disadvantages.
Cincinnati’s best hope now is that the Big 12 eventually decides to add two, but that does not appear imminent. UConn … may be stuck.
2) BYU. A well-intentioned decision at the time to take football independent has largely backfired. While BYU gained exposure by making its own deal with ESPN, it got stuck in FBS no-man’s-land when the CFP replaced the BCS. Whereas Mountain West champ Boise State made the Fiesta Bowl last year with two losses, BYU, not considered part of the Group of 5, needs to finish in the top 10 to have any chance at a major bowl. It’s also missing out on lucrative CFP revenue. The MWC distributed $23.5 million to members this year; BYU split less than $1 million with Army and Navy.
The situation is dire enough that coach Bronco Mendenhall recently said joining a Power 5 league "has to happen within three [years]." He better hope the Big 12 keeps missing the playoff.
3) West Virginia. By late 2011, then-AD Oliver Luck knew he had to get WVU out of the Big East, but landing an invite from the SEC or ACC proved unrealistic. Instead, the school began a clunky marriage with the Big 12, where it’s nowhere near any of the other members. The Mountaineers, which went to three BCS bowls their last six years in the Big East, have gone 16-18 in four seasons of Big 12 play, with coach Dana Holgorsen running a similar Air Raid offense as half the league but without the same recruiting benefit of having the state of Texas in its backyard.
4) Idaho and New Mexico State. When the dominoes finally stopped falling, the last two WAC members left standing found themselves temporarily without a home. Both played the 2013 season as independents before the Sun Belt finally threw them both a life raft. It’s hardly an ideal solution. The Vandals will make four trips of at least 2,000 miles this football season, while the Aggies will play just five games in their own stadium.
5) Boise State. To be fair, the Broncos are in a better spot than they were in the now-defunct WAC. But while fellow BCS crashers Utah and TCU moved up to the Power 5, Boise, despite all those wins over Oklahoma/Oregon, etc., is still stuck on the outside — and the gap between Power 5 and Group of 5 is only growing. Furthermore, rising into the top four of the polls, as the Kellen Moore-led Broncos did in 2010, will be close to impossible in the selection committee strength-of-schedule era.
Stewart Mandel is a senior college sports columnist for FOXSports.com. He covered college football and basketball for 15 years at Sports Illustrated. You can follow him on Twitter @slmandel. Send emails and Mailbag questions to Stewart.Mandel@fox.com.