(This is the fifth part in an on-going series examining the possibility of SEC expansion from a business perspective.)
Mention the words “conference expansion” and fans start dreaming of ways to create the world’s greatest football league. “This team is great and it’s in the Southeast.” “Well this team would be a natural rival with Georgia and Florida.” “This team won a national title this decade.”
That kind of talk is fun. But it’s not the kind of chatter you’re likely to hear when a group of university presidents get together. And ultimately, any decision on SEC expansion will be made by the league’s 12 presidents, not by Mike Slive, the league’s coaches, or its fans.
Money will be key. Securing future funds, future fanbases (ie: population bases) and future power will all be goals.
And football? Well, it’s part of the equation, too, but it’s not the 95% of the deal that some in the media would have you believe.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said this week that academics shouldn’t be overlooked in the current expansion frenzy.
“You’re hitting on the most important part of this deal that people are actually missing. Our presidents are in it not because of football. Let’s be clear. And I agree with them.” Adding more schools from the AAU — more on that group in a minute — “would take us to a whole other level” as a conference.
That’s not just a Big Ten view. Former ACC commissioner Gene Corrigan recently discussed just how much of a role academics played in his league’s expansion back in the early 90s.
“I think if you would have asked the people at Florida State about joining, there were some who probably thought, well, (the ACC is) not good enough in football. But if you ask some people in the faculty, they’d say, ‘We get to be in the same league as Duke and Virginia and Carolina and Georgia Tech!”
Even football coaches understand the importance of finding good academic “fits” for a league. “At Wake Forest, we want to be a great football team, we want to win as many games every year as we possibly can, but we can’t sacrifice academics,” Jim Grobe said. “And it’s good to compete against other schools that have the same goals and aspirations.”
In other words, while you and your buddies are debating the merits of Florida State or Texas A&M as potential SEC dance partners, you’d best not be forgetting about academics.
The AAU and The CIC
When you read the letters AAU, you probably think of a mid-summer basketball league. But in the Big Ten, those three letters mean something completely different.
Each of the Big Ten’s 11 schools are members of the Association of American Universities. That’s a collection of 63 of the biggest research-oriented schools in North America.
According to the AAU, the 110-year-old organization “focuses on national and institutional issues that are important to research-intensive universities, including funding for research, research and education policy, and graduate and undergraduate education.”
Compared to the research spending of top-flight major universities, even the biggest athletic budgets pale in comparison. In 2008, the University of Florida was one of only three schools to top $100 million in athletic spending.
Think $100 million is a lot of cash to spend? Multiply it by five and you have what UF spent in 2008 on research projects. In fact, Florida receives more than $550 million annually in sponsored research funding.
Presidents pay attention to those kinds of dollars.
In addition to focusing on AAU membership, the Big Ten has also created the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. The CIC, according to its director, was designed to “save money, solve problems, share assets and build opportunity for faculty and researchers.”
All eleven Big Ten schools — as well as original member the University of Chicago — benefit from this consortium. Imagine the ability to buy in bulk. The CIC has also digitized millions of books that can be shared across the conference via fiber optic network.
“By almost any metric — investment in research, number of top ten academic programs, national rankings and enrollment — the CIC universities are very similar,” said Barbara McFadden Allen, the group’s director. “This helps us move together on projects and initiatives in ways that would be difficult for a more disparate group.”
If and when the Big Ten expands, Allen said the league will “be bringing in a university and not a team.”
Michael Hogan, the incoming president at the University of Illinois, has thought about possible Big Ten membership while serving at his last school, the University of Connecticut.
“Part of what appealed to me about it was, there’s an academic counterpart to the Big Ten, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which is based there in Urbana (Illinois). It brings together presidents and provosts to share ideas on the academic side, including sharing programs that make them widely available to all students in the Big Ten. It’s a nice match of the academic and sports part of the institution all across the board in the Big Ten.”
Starting to get the picture? The presidents of the SEC do. They’re surely aware that their own league lags behind the Big Ten in terms of academic reputation.
According to the latest rankings provided by “US News & World Report,” the average Big Ten university ranks at #50. The average SEC school comes in at #91. On average, Big Ten schools receive and spend more than $500 million in research funding each year. In the SEC research funding reaches only about $227 million per school.
Then there’s the whole 11 to two lead the Big Ten holds in AAU memberships. Only Florida and Vanderbilt are in that club from the SEC.
In short, the Big Ten is a league of massive, big budgeted schools that focus on graduate degrees and academic research. The schools of the SEC are solid, spend well in research, but focus more on the undergraduate side of things.
That’s something for fans to think about when trying to hash out which schools are most likely to receive SEC invitations (if any).
The SEC’s presidents are trying to take steps to close the gap on the Big Ten academically.
Part of ESPN’s television deal with the SEC forced the network to partner with the league in the creation of the SEC Academic Network.
Launched last August, the online network features “content from every (SEC) institution ranging from research, innovation and economic development to community partnerships, civic engagement and service.”
“The commitment to highlight the accomplishments of SEC member institution academic programs was a key component of our new television agreements,” Slive said. “This network will provide our 12 institutions with the ability to create and distribute academic and other non-athletic programming through the world on a regular and full-time basis.”
In other words, it’s a PR wing designed to push and improve the SEC’s academic brand. But good advertising isn’t the only step the league’s presidents are taking.
In 2005 the SEC created the Southeastern Conference Academic Consortium. Consider it a very young version of the Big Ten’s CIC.
According to a 2006 press release, the consortium was created to “bolster teaching, research, public service and other educational activities” at SEC schools. It’s goal is to “provide opportunities for schools to work together to enhance and share academic resources. All 12 SEC member schools will work together, outside of the athletic realm, to create a cooperative environment for all students.”
If you’re bored to tears, you shouldn’t be. This is how conferences expand. This is how schools decide which league they will join. Take Texas, for example.
Make no mistake, Texas is the prize that the SEC has its eye on. The Big Ten is looking toward the Lone Star State, too. And Washington’s athletic director Scott Howard recently said, “I’d be surprised if our (Pac-10) office is not in contact with them. I’m sure those conversations have happened and are taking place.”
Texas is big. It’s got the television markets, alumni base, name brand, huge facilities and A-1 athletic programs that conference commissioners lust after.
The school also fancies itself to be a Harvard on the Colorado River, which appeals to university presidents.
To hear former SEC commissioner Harvey Schiller tell it, Texas was ticketed to join the league back in the late 1980s. “I spent some time with (Texas athletic director) DeLoss Dodds and he really wanted to join the conference.” Unfortunately politicians got involved and the deal fell through. That’s how Schiller recalls it anyway.
Folks in Texas remember things a bit differently. Former University of Texas president Robert Berdahl told MySanAntonio.com in 2007 that at the time he was unimpressed with the SEC’s academic reputation.
“We were quite interested in raising academic standards and the Southeastern Conference had absolutely no interest in that.”
If the former Texas prez is to be believed, we might not be talking about the SEC possibly wooing the Longhorns now had the league agreed to boost its academic standards some 20 years ago.
Academics play a role, folks. A big role.
Politics Play A Big Role, Too
Go back to the early ’90s and everyone seems to have a different take on how that wave of expansion took place.
According to Schiller, the SEC didn’t want Texas A&M and balked at a “take ‘em both or you get none” stance from the Texas state legislature.
Meanwhile, Vince Dooley was pushing for Georgia Tech to earn an SEC bid. Florida supposedly wanted both Florida State and Miami to join.
As you know, in the end, Arkansas and South Carolina were the only schools to come on board.
But in Texas, the powerbrokers say that Texas A&M and LSU officials had been angling to bring the Aggies into the league as early as the late ’80s. As the story goes, after talks with Miami fell apart, LSU athletic director Joe Dean called A&M AD John David Crow and told him that LSU would sponsor an entry bid from A&M.
Dean said at the time that he believed Texas was “headed north” to the Big Ten or Big Eight (now the Big 12) and that A&M was the “most logical addition to the SEC.”
Unfortunately Texas legislators weren’t going to let the state’s two biggest schools split. So that meant a Texas and Texas A&M package deal to the Big Eight. But the politicians weren’t done yet.
Baylor and Texas Tech had powerful allies throughout the state legislature and, according to some, threats were made to Texas and A&M officials. If they tried to jump from the old Southwest Conference without the Bears and Red Raiders riding shotgun, both schools would see their state funding cut.
Presto Chango, the Big Eight grew not to 10 teams but to 12.
The lesson here is that in many cases, targeting just one of a state’s schools can lead to political headaches. There’s been much talk that Texas and Texas A&M would still be bound together by politicos today (though officials from both schools seem to be fine with the idea of going in different directions).
History would tell us that any deal for Texas might not just be a combo package with A&M but a super-sized meal that includes Baylor and Texas Tech, too.
Want Oklahoma? You’ll likely hear a howl from Oklahoma State grads in that state’s legislature. Ditto Kansas and Kansas State. Double ditto in the case of Virginia Tech and Virginia.
The above information isn’t sexy. It’s not fun. And it doesn’t make for good sports bar conversation.
But it will play a role in any expansion decision the SEC makes.
Academics and politics will be involved. Just take note of what Missouri Governor Jay Nixon told the Associated Press this spring: “I’m not going to say anything bad about the Big 12, but when you compare Oklahoma State to Northwestern, when you compare Texas Tech to Wisconsin, I mean you begin looking at educational possibilities that are worth looking at.”
A governor ripping one conference while talking up another. Academics and politics, folks. Academics and politics.