November 15, 2010

VB and Conference changes

Quite the summer and fall for conference membership changes - I had written a post about some of these changes (here), but then some more collegiate dance partners made some switches.

In my first article, the big news was Colorado to the Pac 10, Nebraska to the Big 10, Boise State to the Mountain West and everything else stayed the same.

But, if you did the math, the Pac 10 was at 11 members and conferences like round numbers so they can have a conference football championship game. Please remember that college football does not share revenue with the NCAA. So, these conference championship games are a financial bonus for the power conferences (not so much for the mid major conferences); the SEC taught the rest of the country the value of the conference championship game and now the Pac 10 and Big 10 are maneuvering for this football conference championship game (still awaiting the new names of the conferences as the Pac 10 now has 12, the Big 10 now has 12 after having 11 for a long time, and the Big 12 now has 10).

The Pac 10 found their 12th member in Utah - Of all the conference membership changes, I think Utah won the lottery and came out ahead. The Pac 10 is regarded as one of the most equitable conferences from a sports point of view (much credit to Stanford for winning championships in all sports and celebrating these championships) and carries significant academic clout (Stanford and Cal jump right out). Of course Utah will need to increase their budgets, but they will enjoy huge yearly conference payouts (Pac 10 is next to renegotiate their conference television deal), instant national marketing and media recognition, and they have academically aligned themselves with some of the elite public research institutions in the country (Cal, Washington, UCLA, Colorado, etc.).

After the Utah invite, I felt that All Is Quiet on the Western Front. The next round of conference tremors caught me by surprise. I will try to list them in sequence, as I found out about them, along with the rational/rumors known to me:

BYU - This caught me completely off guard and was quite the strange sequence. First, there were rumors that BYU thought they should have been the Pac 10 invite, and decided to go Lone Ranger with their football program as a result. They had verbally agreed to bolt the Mountain West for the WAC in all sports except Football, in which they were going to be an independent. In a sense, they were/are trying to be the Mormon version of Catholic Notre Dame (the feeling being that by having an independent football team, and the strength of their religious affiliation they can create a financially viable BYU sports network).

The WAC thought they had pulled off a major coup by replacing lost Boise State with BYU; even though BYU would not play football in the conference, they would play a number of football games against WAC members. When looking at this scenario, it would have been a good thing all around. The WAC got a marquee program and some good football games, and BYU stayed in a comparable athletic conference for all other sports while allowing the football team to develop its independent status and television network.

But, then the Mountain West decided that losing Utah and BYU was not the best thing to happen, so they started fishing around for replacements. And this is where it gets really fun - The WAC heard rumors of the Mountain West's mind set (combined with Boise State already jumping ship) and wanted a contractual agreement from each current member which included a hefty buyout. Well, some of the schools signed the agreement and some of the schools said they were signing the agreement.

During this twilight time (by the way, it is always a tough call with the time change - better to be light in the morning or light in the evening? As a child, there was nothing better than staying out until after 9 p.m. playing because it was still light out and nothing worse than it already getting dark when you got out of school), Fresno State and Nevada-Reno said the check was in the mail and jumped to the Mountain West. Not only did this leave the WAC down three conference members, but BYU suddenly found the WAC much less appealing when a couple of its nearest future conference members were no longer conference members.

The next bounce of the pachinko ball was for BYU to join the West Coast Conference, and not the WAC, in all sports except football. This is one change which I am still undecided about (this site carries huge influence among conference commissioners by the way!) - The West Coast Conference membership is private schools with religious affiliations, so that would be a good fit for BYU. In addition, it is located in a much smaller geographic area than the WAC, so less travel burdens, but the WCC does not carry the national recognition of the WAC because of its lack of football and is seen by the national media as a small, regional conference. Sure, Notre Dame is independent in football, but its conference affiliation is the Big East. Unless someone is talking about long standing elite athletic and academic private schools (Stanford, Northwestern, TCU, SMU, USC) there is more weight carried by conferences which have large public schools, in the national media marketplace.

I can't help but think that the West Coast Conference is just a layover for BYU, while it searches for membership elsewhere. Also, there are continued rumors of more shifts coming - Big East to add football members, Mountain West still looking to add schools to form two halves and a football championship game, WAC was needing to add members because they will be at 6 schools all too soon, the Big 12 is at 10 members and the NCAA says you must have 12 to split into halves and conduct a football championship game so there is incentive to add schools, etc. Me thinks that more entertainment is on the way.

The WAC announced the addition of Texas State, UT San Antonio and The University of Denver to replace the lost three. That will bring the WAC up to 9 members, and 8 football playing schools, but these football playing schools are either start up and/or Football Championship Series (old term - DI AA). This does not help with any efforts for television contracts or bowl tie ins when the WAC lost 3 of its 4 best football schools.

OK - Enough about the big picture and stinky football (olfactory reference only); let's talk some Volleyball.

Utah - They will be behind the multi colored ball at the start (still like the old school white volleyball which I believe is easier to watch on television), but will catch up soon. The Pac 10 is traditionally the toughest conference in the country and for any program in the country to joint the Pac 10 would be a challenge (save Penn State, Nebraska and maybe two others). Utah has enjoyed very good success, they are from a region which supports high school and club volleyball so they can recruit locally while continuing to develop their attendance base. I think their biggest challenge will be no 'off' matches - When you are a dominant team in a weaker conference, you can have a number of 'off' matches; look at Florida in the past and now Hawaii. Having 'off' matches is a wonderful luxury - You can rest players who are mending injuries, travel does not have as significant of an impact, the players can not be completely focused and you still win, etc.

BYU - I would have to check the rating of the Mountain West versus the West Coast Conference, but my impression is that BYU joined a tougher volleyball league. The west coast volleyball teams are just plain good. Volleyball is so well supported in the west and these players have been playing for so long, that even the bad ones are good. Back in the day, the non Pac 10 western school PSA's tended to be on the shorter side, but these days are long gone - Now they are all tall and good!

Fresno and Nevada - While neither of these teams are considered powerhouses, and Fresno is still recovering from the mess it's athletic department created with a little thing called Title 9, each school has enjoyed volleyball success and is located in regions which support volleyball. The Mountain West should rate out higher than the WAC, so each program will need to respond accordingly, but it is not the huge jump which Utah will be facing.

UT San Antonio, Texas State - Will lump these two together because of proximity and they are joining the WAC. Because of their geographic location and their support via the State of Texas, they transition well into the WAC. Their football teams are another matter, but in Volleyball each school enjoys current success, nice facilities and are located in or near prime recruiting areas.

U of Denver - This non-football upcoming member of the WAC, will also transition well just because of proximity and financial support. Colorado is continually growing in its high school and club volleyball reputation, and the school not having to feed the beast of football will allow for more support of its other sports.

Conference Volleyball:

Pac 10 - It will be rated weaker now. Colorado is very low ranked just because they are in a rebuilding phase and it takes a lot of time to rebuild in good conferences. Utah does not have as far to go, but they are not a Top 25 team year in and year out.

Big 12 - As it stands right now, they are probably a little weaker. They lost Nebraska which is a traditional powerhouse, but they also said goodbye to Colorado which has really struggled these past few years. Long term, they will be weaker because Nebraska will always be good, Colorado will rebound in ability (just too many positives to stay bad), and I can't really see any additions to be conference being on par with Nebraska or Colorado's return potential.

Big 10 - Much stronger; anytime you add a traditional top 5 team with national championship banners to an already top conference it is a good thing.

Mountain West - Down a bit. BYU has been good in year's past and has had some recent challenges, but this is a short term situation. Utah is a very good program which continues to win year in and year out, along with being a big state school. Boise State is getting better each year, Nevada is usually solid, and Fresno is rebounding, but these three cannot replace the lost two.

WAC - Down a bit. Losing Boise State and Fresno and Nevada, and not securing BYU is bad thing. Even though the departing WAC members were not elite, they were solid or improving programs, and BYU is the same. As mentioned above, the new members will get up to speed, but Hawaii will still stand alone in eliteness. If the three new members can upgrade their budgets and support to match the departing three, then the WAC should only slip just a bit during this transition.

WCC - Better, just by potential. Again, BYU may be down just a bit, but it has a long history of volleyball success and will rebound sooner than later.

I will close by saying that the school I feel the most empathy (or is it sympathy - Ocean's 12 reference) is Hawaii. Hawaii is just stuck because of its location and it has to be a wee bit frustrating, especially for volleyball. It is the only DI in the state, there are no professional teams (maybe minor league baseball?), all the locals love UH, all their games in all sports are on television, they could be the gateway to the economic powers of the Pacific Rim, travel in the WAC is just a killer and they don't EVER seem to be mentioned in any possible conference shifts. But, maybe they like the WAC and are happy to be right were they are? Novel concept - A school/athletic department happy with its situation.

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