Saturday, December 10, 2011


The Big East Conference just announced to the whole world that SMU, Houston, San Diego State, Central Florida and Boise State have now joined a league formerly mostly comprised of schools in the northeastern United States, well OK East. Navy, and two schools yet to be determined (Air Force declined) are expected to follow shortly for football only. God only knows what’s going to happen to the basketball program – the main motivator for the formation of the Big East which is now in survival mode.

Ladies and Gentlemen, this is just the tip of the iceberg and no one is pretending anymore – it’s all about money, that big elusive automatic qualifying BCS ticket and national exposure with athletics seemingly driving academics. Now as for that automatic qualifier (AQ) for the BCS? Well, that’s not even guaranteed as the landscape of college football will surely change as contracts lapse, new ones are negotiated and the whole BCS system comes under even greater scrutiny. Having said that, the Big East does not appear to have strengthened their hand in football and unless there are some dramatic changes in fortune, this is a last gasp exercise in futility.

The good ole boy network is alive and well and the Deans, Chancellors and Presidents of our great Universities like SMU’s Gerald Turner (one of our bright spots) are scrambling to pay the bills and increase their exposure. Turner commented on SMU’s move to the Big East, “Coupled with our steady rise academically and athletically, we are in a good position to continue our rise among national universities.” Does Gerald mean that the ultimate success of SMU depends on what athletic conference they belong? No, Toto we aren’t in Kansas anymore.

That certainly appears to be the lay of the land for our major universities who feel this move is critical to their survival. Exactly what do San Diego State (SDSU) and Rutgers have in common? Well, absolutely nothing - up to now. SDSU was only invited to placate Boise State who wanted to link with another western school. And why does Boise State want in the Big East? The only reason is to secure a berth in the BCS, period. And what if that goes away?

However naïve, I have always believed that rivalries among those institutions that compete in the same geography and based on academics and that indispensable sense of Alma Mater (ie the 12th Man) are the necessary ingredients of great colleges and universities and a quality post-secondary experience. That those universities have successful athletic programs are the gravy on the biscuit. If you saw the 112th meeting of US Military Academy (Army) and the Naval Academy (Navy) today on the gridiron then you understand.

Many schools are now more of a means to an end for and unto themselves and there is no visceral sense of loyalty, fraternity - being part of a special Family. My anthropology genes are kicking in as I even evoke kinship as a major part of that paradigm. When we talk about our schools conversations seem to be limited to athletics not that Ole Miss was able to attract Dr. Daniel DiBardino who joined the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s congenital heart surgery team, moving here from the University of Michigan Medical School. Then there’s Dr. Jorge Salazar… but you get the idea. There is life after football.

For those colleges and universities thrust onto the national landscape and prompted to engage this conference merry go round, the challenge is now even greater to focus on academics. The great irony in a goes around-comes around world is that those small schools that comprise the Ivy League, New England Small College Athletic Conference and other like organizations may be the last bastion of a superior quality higher education. They may have always been as they are now - merely the best and not so ironically, where the game of American football started. Then, as now, they had the whole school environment and experience placed in a proper perspective.

To this day the Ivy League and schools like Amherst and Williams prohibit athletic scholarships. Their concession is that athletes will be admitted as students and, “awarded financial aid only on the basis of the same academic standards and economic need as are applied to all other students.” This would seem to guarantee that students will go to these schools for an education and not as a stepping stone to the NFL.

The point here is that the game started conspicuously as the opportunity for recreation and to solidify rivalries and relationships with other universities – all without the benefit of scholarship on that field of honor. It was the love of sport and, yes, Alma Mater.

Say goodbye to those “backyard brawls” and the traditional football rivalries that have made the game of college football special. College athletes in the Big East will now be required to travel thousands of miles to compete against conference schools. Fact: the University of Connecticut is 2,600.27 miles from Boise State University. Yikes! Potential dollars or not, as a parent I would certainly balk at those prospects. The academic life for the student athlete can’t help but be substantially compromised –and surely not enhanced.

Prepare yourself for more changes and know that in this circus atmosphere - the sky is falling. Think I’ll stick with the SEC who mostly seems to have their act together. Of course, I also have my personal favorites - Brown University or Williams and Amherst Colleges until they bolt – Nah

So what is the Big East going to call itself now? One person suggested the National Football League but was reminded it was already taken.


Ned Buxton

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