Conference realignment timeline

A lot more recently than 12 to 18 months ago, conference realignment was something that would be explored for, oh, about 12 to 18 months. But with Colorado hopping over to the Pac-10, and Nebraska's move to the Big Ten seemingly imminent, things are happening much more quickly than we were led to believe. Purple Reign offers up a conference realignment timeline to try to make sense of it all.

In December, I penned this article about Big Ten expansion. It was written in the wake of the Big Ten's announcement that, over the next 12 to 18 months, it would explore the possibility of adding a twelfth member. The article focuses on the University of Missouri, which, at the time, was thought to be one of the most likely candidates to garner an invite to join the Big Ten. (The article inspired an unprecedented maelstrom at Purple Reign – 13 message board posts and a quartet of emails.)

While it was written just six months ago, and while the Big Ten said that conference expansion would be at least a 12-month process, my initial article is now downright archaic, covered with layers of dust and the corpse of what used to be known as the Big 12.

With Colorado having bolted for the Pac 10 on Thursday, and with Nebraska apparently* ready to announce its intentions to join the Big Ten on Friday, the timeline of conference expansion is moving at warp speed, rendering the initial 12-18 month timeline – and any article that, like mine, gave the timeline credence – irrelevant.

*Nebraska has since announced that, yes, it is going to be part of the Big Ten.

And to think: Missouri hasn't even been invited to join the Big Ten yet. Indeed, the Tigers may never get the invite.

So, what happened in the last six months to make that initial story so moot? To make a year-plus time frame shrink into a six-month time frame? To make the once-leading candidate for Big Ten expansion, Missouri, an apparent afterthought that could soon be conference-less? Well, a lot. Enough to warrant this link-laiden timeline to try to make sense of what has been (and will continue to be) a dizzying, landscape-altering event in college sports.

December 15: The Big Ten releases a statement asserting that, over the course of 12 to 18 months, it will explore the option of expanding the conference. The last time the Big Ten expanded was in 1990 with the addition of Penn State.

There is public support for expanding – or at least public support for looking at expanding – from people within the Big Ten. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis says, "With the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics, now is a good time for the Big Ten to review its current structure and evaluate the potential for expansion." Adds Ohio State president E. Gordon Gee: "We have to be thoroughly modern and realize the world has moved on, and having a playoff for the Big Ten championship makes sense. I'm not planting a stake in the ground on that issue, but it's something we now need to tackle."

It may take up to a year and a half, but expansion is placed under the microscope (or at least in the hands of number-crunching consultants).

December 16: A day after news breaks that the Big Ten will explore expansion, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott is asked about possible Pac-10 expansion. "Expansion," he says, "is something we will take a look at." No timetable. No hints. No information, really.

Of Pac-10 expansion, ESPN.com's Ted Miller writes, "Bringing in Utah and Colorado might be a winner (Salt Lake City and Denver markets), and at least one Pac-10 athletic director said that's the most likely scenario. Of course, prying Colorado away from the Big 12 might not be easy."

December 17: Notre Dame quickly (and preemptively) addresses the prospect of joining the Big Ten, which it turned down back in 1999. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick says, "Our strong preference is to remain the way we are. Independence is a big part of the tradition of the program and our identity. We'd sure like to try to maintain it."

January 24: After a quiet month, Missouri is still seen as a likely candidate what it comes to Big Ten expansion. On Jan. 24, a Kansas City Star story asks, "Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence will rattle tonight when Missouri takes on Kansas in basketball. But are the days numbered for this 100-year-old rivalry, at least as a Big 12 Conference game?"

MU was thought to be a top Big Ten candidate.

That article goes on to posit: "MU chancellor Brady Deaton said an invitation [to join the Big Ten] would be evaluated. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon all but said he would rather the state's flagship school hang out with Northwestern and Wisconsin than Texas Tech and Oklahoma State…"

Speaking about Missouri's potential move to the Big Ten, ESPN senior vice president for college sports programming utters an accidentally prophetic statement: "The impact could be huge. Not just from a Big Ten perspective but that team is going to have to come from somewhere else. You lay out the dominoes and a lot of them could fall." (See? Even a month after Big Ten expansion talk kicks off, Missouri is still regarded as a school that could set dominoes in motion. So my initial premise wasn't totally asinine – at least not at the time.)

February 9: As the Big Ten plows forward with its expansion exploration, Scott declares that his conference, too, has decided to conduct a thorough, exhaustive search.

"It is really over the next six to 12 months that we'll start having serious analysis and serious evaluations," Scott says.

He adds, "To me, the logic if the Pac-10 is going to think about expanding, now is our window."

Speculation starts right up regarding Colorado joining the Pac-10.

February 19: Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez tells the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel that the Big Ten has hired a firm to explore a list of 15 potential candidates.

"I think it could be one (school), or I think it could be multiple," Alvarez says with ambiguity that would make even a politician proud.

Alvarez doesn't name any of the 15 schools on the list, but he does say that Texas isn't among them. He adds, "I think there may be a re-alignment, and I think people are out there trying to position themselves, saying: ‘When the music stops, we better have a chair.'"

It is about this time that reports place the University of Colorado at furniture outlets along the West Coast.

March 9: Marking a shift (or at least a different tone) from its previous rhetoric, Notre Dame concedes that it may be forced to give up its independence if there is a seismic shift in the college football landscape. Like, say, if something crazy happens like the Big 12 dissolves completely and the Pac-10, Big Ten and Big Whoever absorbs all of the strays.

March 23: Scott tells CBS Sports that he is exploring the possibility of playing a conference championship game in football – without expanding. For reasons that don't seem entirely clear, the NCAA has a rule against playing a conference title game unless said conference has at least 12 members. The Pac 10, of course, doesn't. Or at least didn't on March 23.

This story isn't all that interesting unto itself, but in hindsight, now that the Pac-10 has welcomed Colorado and reportedly invited in a handful more schools – more on that in a minute – isn't there at least an off-chance that Scott was posturing? The chance that he was maybe trying to provide cover while the conference hurriedly scouted possible candidates and combinations for expanding and sent out the invitations? In that CBS Sports story, Dennis Dodd reports that Scott and the Pac-10 are "still in the preliminary stages of addressing expansion…"

If Scott was posturing, it wouldn't make him a bad guy or anything. It's just that the turnaround from exploring a 10-team conference title game, to extending numerous invitations to universities to join the Pac-10, to welcoming Colorado on board, was pretty quick.

(The first reader comment on that story reads, "The big takeaway from this, I think, is the ‘we might not expand the Pac-10' message. That probably means that the Pac-10 approached Colorado, and CU crunched the numbers, and CU said they don't have the money to buy their way out of the Big 12." Hindshight…)

April 10: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany announces that the Big Ten's initial timetable of 12 to 18 months is still in tact. "There are no announcements here and there are no notifications here," he says.

April 20: The Dallas Morning News, among other outlets, reports that Nebraska athletic director Tom Osborne wrote this in an email to university chancellor Harvey Perlman: "I spent some time with Jim Tressel from Ohio State yesterday, and think it would be a good idea if we met sometime soon regarding the expansion landscape."

Nebraska appears to be Big Ten-bound.

May 5 and May 6: Big 12 athletic directors meet with Pac-10 athletic directors in Phoenix to discuss, as the Kansas City Star's Blair Kerkhoff puts it, "collaborating in a future sports landscape".

May 8: It's oft dubious to put too much stock into an anonymous message board post – especially message board posts that are published at four in the morning and (admittedly) revolve around alcohol.

But then again, not all message board posts are viewed something like 20,000 times. Not all message board posts are later taken down because they are so revealing/damaging/classified. Not all message board posts are referenced multiple times on the Frank the Tank blog, which over the past few months has (deservedly) become Ground Zero for conference realignment chatter. But…

This May 8 message board post on Purple Reign's (much) better-read counterpart, Rivals.com's "Wildcat Report," was written by someone claiming to have had drinks with a person who works within the Big Ten. This Big Ten informant then proceeded to spill the beans about the Big Ten's plans of targeting Notre Dame, Texas and Nebraska.

Various amounts of credence are given to the poster. Frank the Tank, for one, writes: "I'm simultaneously laughing off the thought that someone with this type of knowledge would spill it to a message board poster while seeing enough detail in the rumor to think, ‘Why the [expletive] not?' This is what passes for ‘solid' expansion news when no one with actual authority is willing to go on the record."

The inebriated Big Ten employee could be at least 33 percent vindicated Friday at Nebraska's press conference. If nothing else, the 20,000 people who read it had something to think about while the people officially in the know said nothing.

May 8: The New Jersey Star-Ledger runs a huge story exploring (but not necessarily predicting) a Rutgers-to-Big Ten move. In the article, Rutgers football coach Greg Schiano is quoted saying, "I hear the talk just like you do. But I don't know anything more. A lot of powerful people are making statements that would lead you to believe maybe. I don't know."

May 10: A big day. Kansas City radio host Kevin Keitzman reports that the Big Ten has officially invited four universities to join the conference: Nebraska, Missouri, Rutgers and Notre Dame. It was reported, and reported rather unequivocally, both online and on 810 WHB in Kansas City.

In response to Keitzman's report (and maybe the viral message board post?), Delany promptly denies that the Big Ten has extended offers to Nebraska, Notre Dame and Missouri.

May 18: While Delany has already denied that any formal invitations have been extended, he does reveal at least a little bit of what the conference is looking for in potential candidates. He outlines the importance of population shifts when it comes to which schools the Big Ten may invite to join the league.

"As far as the shifting population, that is reason, by itself, enough, to look at the concept of expansion," Delany said. "We've been blessed in many ways by the economy and the density of the population in the 20th century. Our schools have benefited by healthy economies, by strong markets, by growth, by integration….In the last 20, 30 years, there's been a clear shift in movement into the sun belt. The rates of growth in the sun belt are four times the rates they are in the East or the Midwest.

"You do want to look forward to 2020 and 2030 and see what that impact would be on our schools."

He doesn't say anything about population trends in and around Lincoln, Nebraska.

May 31: Cal-Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau speaks at an alumni banquet in Wellesley, Mass. When the topic of conference realignment comes up, he says that he would be "surprised if something did not happen that revolutionized college athletics." Which brings us to…

June 3: Reports surface that the Pac-10 is targeting no less than six teams from the Big 12: Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado. From the L.A. Times:

Pacific 10 Commissioner Larry Scott knocked down an interesting internet report Thursday that claimed the conference was poised to extend offers to six Big 12 schools: Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado

"I've just seen the piece," Scott said in an e-mail [sic] "No decisions made, [sic] No offers extended. We meet this weekend and I'm not anticipating any definitive decisions coming out. Still exploring lots of interesting options for the Pac-10."

While the Pac-10 is fending off rumors of expansion, the Big 12 is concocting remedies for extinction. At the same time Scott sends off that email, Big 12 athletic directors are meeting in Kansas City behind closed doors. Reports that the meetings were held at a funeral home are at this time unconfirmed.

(In addition to meetings like this one, Kansas City also played host to the 2008 Big 12 football championship, and was contracted to host the Big 12 basketball tournament through 2014. It's going to be difficult, however, to host the conference championships if, you know, there is no conference.)


The Horns are a game-changer.

For his part, Scott stays coy.

"We have not developed any definitive plans," Scott says. "We have not extended invitations for expansion, and we do not anticipate any such decisions in the near term."

June 4: Reporting from the Big 12 meetings in Kansas City, Scout.com and Boulder Daily Camera writer Kyle Ringo reports that Beebe uses the words optimistic, comfortable and encouraged to describe the state of the Big 12 and its future. Ringo writes that Beebe "acknowledged the next six months are ‘critical' to the future of the conference." (Psst...Try the next six days.)

Ringo also reports: "Missouri is rumored to be a top target for the Big Ten….Missouri chancellor Brady Deaton told reporters Friday, ‘We're not shutting our ears to anything.'"

June 5: The Austin American-Statesman reports that Big 12 commissioner Beebe has issued an ultimatum to Nebraska and Missouri. From the Statesman:

Nebraska and Missouri have been given an ultimatum by the Big 12 and told they have until this Friday to decide if they want to remain in the conference or entertain the possibility of joining the Big Ten, two highly placed officials of two Big 12 schools said Saturday.

NU and MU got the ultimatum; CU got the Pac-10.

The deadline was given to the pair of schools by the Big 12 presidents during the league meetings held in Kansas City this past week….

"I've talked to the Pac-10," said the Big 12 school administrator, who expected the speculation involving the Big 12 to be resolved within two weeks. "There is an invitation. When it comes, it'll come fast."

One Pac-10 athletic director told the Statesman on Saturday, "There's still a lot that has to happen. It's nowhere near done."

June 7: The New York Times, among others, reports something of a change in attitude from Scott. Citing an anonymous source from the Big 12, the Times reports, "Larry Scott wants to fire the first bullet. The pressure is being put on Nebraska and Missouri. Over the next two weeks, we're going to know where we stand."

This is the first time also that Delany concedes that the 12 to 18 months time frame could be affected.

June 10: News breaks that Colorado will join the Pac-10. That CU is the first domino to fall in the pending conference realignment chain reaction is somewhat surprising given that (a) The Big Ten was the first conference to announce its plans to look into realignment, and (b) Colorado only recently entered the fray as a potential player in the expansion game on June 3, when it was reported that the Pac-10 was gunning for the Texas schools + Oklahoma schools + Colorado package. And even then, Scott rebuffed those claims.

But never mind that Colorado wasn't initially a prime suspect; there are other fun details: The most recent layer of dust on my old Missouri/Big Ten article comes in the form of Missouri curator Warren Erdman telling the Associated Press that Missouri has, to this day, still not been asked to join the Big Ten. Once thought to be the focal point of Big Ten expansion, and later issued an ultimatum by the Big 12, Missouri is currently riding this thing out like everyone else. (Well, not everyone else, because not everyone has gone from hot commodity to potentially unaffiliated.)

June 11 and Beyond: Who knows.

There are surely some stories and tidbits missing from this timeline. But the key threads are there. The Big Ten announces in December that it will look into expansion, but only after an exploratory period of 12 to 18 month. The Pac-10 announces in January that it, too, is proactively looking at expansion. A host of different schools are floated as potential targets for both conference, with an endless amount of realignment scenarios being floated right alongside, but no one will go on the record to discuss things besides anonymous message board posters who are a few deep.

Then...Big 12 officials meet with Pac-10 officials; the Big 12 meets in Kansas City and has "encouraging" discussions about the state of the league; Scott denies that the Pac-10 has any "definitive plans;" a week later Colorado leaves the Big 12 for the Pac-10. Meanwhile, Nebraska looks poised to join the Big Ten (even though the Big Ten has been mum all along about having invited the Huskers), and a Missouri official concedes that the Big Ten has not offered it a spot in the league (even though the Tigers were once thought to be a leading candidate – or the candidate – to join the Big Ten).

Of course, if we've learned anything, it's that this story is far from over. After all, it was all of two months ago when Delany announced, "There's nothing earth-shattering here." It didn't take 12 to 18 months for that to change.

Feel free to comment on this article at the Ryan Field Message Board. You can contact the author at northwestern.scout@gmail.com.

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