Brian Davis franticly shuffled to contact his sources at the University of Texas. The UT athletics beat writer for the Austin-American Statesman had just heard a rumor that would change the face of college athletics.
“From my point of view initially, it was disbelief in the idea that this can’t be true; there’s no way this is true,” Davis said.
Davis had just heard the rumor that The University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma were leaving the Big 12 and, in doing so, spark another conference realignment.
The 2021 conference realignment was a long time coming for NCAA. Texas and Oklahoma finally decided they had outgrown the Big 12, and they moved to the SEC. This transition sparked a chain of events that has boiled down to the WAC and left ACU athletics looking at its future.
Conference realignments have become a standard of NCAA Division I. The loyalty of conference rivalry games has gone away for television rights and conferences spanning the country and breaking geographic norms.
In the early days of collegiate athletics, conferences were geographic, with rivalries like Oklahoma and Nebraska in the Big Eight and Texas A&M versus Texas in the Southwest Conference. Now conferences are decided by the money and TV that comes with the position.
So why do realignments happen?
Television contracts and the money that accompanies them are the driving force of many realignments. While large conferences benefit from these moves, smaller conferences see minimal gains from them while still being affected by realignments.
In 1984, The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA’s TV plans violated the Sherman Antitrust Act by limiting the conferences and schools’ ability to negotiate their TV deals. This opened up the opportunity for schools to go to individual networks and create contracts to produce their athletics.
In what could be the most crucial TV deal in collegiate sports history, the SEC signed a deal with CBS to broadcast SEC athletics in 1995. Due partly to the SEC’s invite of the Southwest’s Arkansas Razorbacks to join their conference just four years earlier.
As the most prominent football program and athletic entity in the state of Arkansas, the addition of the Razorbacks added to a broad TV market that the SEC had created.
This move sparked the first significant conference realignment in 1996, and without any interference from NCAA, many more realignments came after.
So, what happened this time?
In late July, the Houston Chronicles Brent Zwerneman sounded the alarm that Texas and Oklahoma were looking to join the SEC. These rumors were found to be accurate by multiple sources, including Brian Davis.
“I started making calls and talking to my top people, and they basically admitted, ‘yeah, this has been in the works, but we didn’t expect it to get spoiled like this.’ Because they had a calculated plan that had been laid,” Davis said.
The Big 12 left the American with just seven football programs in this move. In response, they added six programs from Conference USA, with the Sun Belt following suit, adding three universities from CUSA and FCS football powerhouse James Madison University.
Aggressive moves are the face of conference realignments. Some conferences thrive while others get gutted, creating a dog-eat-dog atmosphere and barren conferences like CUSA.
While this happens, it doesn’t mean that universities like doing this. Just ask Dallas Morning News college sportswriter Chuck Carlton.
Carlton has been writing about conference realignments for as long as they’ve been happening and has seen the pack-like mentality universities use when making these moves.
“Nobody particularly likes it, but nobody also wants to be left behind in a conference that seems to be shrinking,” Carlton said. “So, when that lifeboat arrives, yeah, all of the sudden, you’ve got schools jumping on board.”
With only five member schools remaining, CUSA extended that lifeboat to the WAC’s FCS football powerhouse Sam Houston and WAC loyalist New Mexico State Aggies.
While a football powerhouse like SHSU might be an easy choice, New Mexico State University had been a loyal member of the WAC since 2005. While their football program bounced around FBS conferences and ended up independent, they remained even after the WACs’ loss of FBS football sponsorship during the 2013 realignment.
In that 2013 realignment, the WAC lost seven universities to other conferences, including four other universities that left in 2011-2012, leaving the WAC with two FBS football programs forced to go independent. These were the Idaho Vandals and NMSU.
Idaho moved its football program to the Sun Belt in 2014, eventually moving football down to FCS and joining its other athletics in the Big Sky Conference.
NMSU football accompanied Idaho in the Sun Belt in 2014, and both were removed for geographical reasons in 2017, with NMSU becoming an Independent. While the WAC did regain a football sponsorship, it was only for FCS leaving the Aggies independent.
Stephen Wagner, the NMSU beat writer for the Las Cruces Sun-News, says life for Division I FBS independents is a struggle with universities not getting the financial benefits of being in a conference or having name recognition.
“Being an independent in football unless you’re Notre Dame or West Point really isn’t sustainable long term; the revenue simply isn’t just there,” Wagner said.
When programs aren’t affiliated with a conference, they miss out on large payoffs from the College Football Playoff. So, for a university that has been so loyal to one conference for so long, the move to C-USA comes with clear benefits for NMSU.
“New Mexico State financially just is a pretty poor athletic program that is currently operating on a multimillion-dollar budget deficit that’s supposed to be paid off in the latter half of this decade,” Wagner said. “So just having the ability to get back in a conference, especially one that’s just going to receive a portion of the distribution of the CFP.”
The College Football Playoff or CFP is the championship committee created to assign a national champion in Division I FBS football. The CFP pays out millions of dollars to conferences whose teams participate in post-season football, the CFP itself or a bowl game.
While conferences gain revenue from the CFP, FBS independents like NMSU are left with minimal financial gain, setting a clear precedent for NMSU to leave its longtime home.
With its largest FCS football program and its oldest member departing, the WAC quickly responded to this loss. First, with the addition of the University of the Incarnate Word, UT-Rio Grande Valley’s future football program and another non-football university in UT-Arlington.
So, what could this mean for ACU?
Simply put, nothing, nothing yet. The current situation is that these moves affect ACU’s schedule quality, leaving the Wildcats and other WAC schools to hash out WACs’ future.
The Wildcats currently have no plans of moving; that’d be out of character. ACU has not historically been known for changing conferences, having a short track record of conference history, with most time spent in NCAA Division II’s Lone Star Conference.
In Division I, ACU spent nine seasons in the Southland before joining the Southlands’ mass exodus to the WAC in 2021. ACU is now in a conference that has shown, with its quick response to a realignment, that it wants to survive in all sports.
“I think about, ‘How does it value ACU?’” said Zack Lassiter, ACU vice president for athletics. “The WAC is the most difficult conference ACU has ever played in any sport. For us right now, we’re focused on Division I basketball, others, and then FCS football, and so for now, the WAC allows us to pursue those goals.”
Lassiter was at Oregon State during the realignment and came into his ACU position after the dust settled. He has worked in athletics for over 20 years and said he isn’t shocked by anything with realignment.
“Certainly, every time you have one of the dominos falls, there’s going to be an impact, and that’s going to be felt all the way down,” Lassiter said.
He also believes that even though these moves can cause instability for some Div. I conferences, it’s not the NCAA’s job to step in.
“It’s not their role, nor should it be their role,” Lassiter said. “Their job is to put on championships and to create rules and regulations, but the NCAA’s job is not to tell schools who they should or shouldn’t align with from a standpoint.”
So, while ACU looks set, for now, Chuck Carlton reminds everyone that college athletics is no longer as steady as it once was.
“Don’t be surprised by anything we might see in the future, and it’s going to be driven by money and TV contracts,” Carlton said.
(This article has been updated due to a misunderstanding involving Idaho’s relationship with the Sun Belt. It said that Idaho had moved its entire athletic program to the Sun Belt when, in reality, it was just football.)