Friday, November 23, 2012

Bring Back the Big 8: A Conference Re-Alignment Lament

As I have mentioned here before, growing up in Nebraska meant worshipping at the altar of Cornhusker football.  Back in those days (the 1980s and early 1990s) this meant playing in the Big 8 conference, which was mostly a matter of Nebraska, Oklahoma, and everybody else, until the rise of Colorado under Bill McCartney.  The regular season culminated in the day after Thanksgiving, when Nebraska played Oklahoma, the game that usually decided the Big 8 championship, and which left every downtown street and shopping mall in the state empty.  The winner of the Big 8 had the great honor of going to the Orange Bowl in Miami, which meant fans tossing oranges on the field when the game was in hand.

Back in those days college football conferences were based on regional geography, and carried with them regional character.  The Big 8 was the conference of what I call the "Deep Midwest," and reflected that region's (almost overbearing) humility and conservatism (in that the Nebraska-Oklahoma hegemony lasted so long.)  The old Southwest Conference was made up of almost all Texas schools (except Arkansas,) the SEC was a crucial component of Southern identity, and the ur-Midwestern Big Ten did not stretch west of Iowa City or east of Ann Arbor.

That started to change in 1990, when Penn State joined the Big Ten (which still kept the old name, despite having eleven teams) and Arkansas jumped to the SEC.  The latter move undermined the SWC, leading to its dissolution and the formation of the Big XII, which was the Big 8 with four Texas teams tacked on.  That move, which effectively killed the once great Nebraska-Oklahoma rivalry by putting the teams into two different divisions, seems quaint today.  Now Rutgers and Maryland, well outside of the Midwest, have joined Nebraska as refugees to the Big Ten.  It might be cool for me to go down the road to New Brunswick and see the Huskers take on Rutgers in person, but that doesn't alter the fact that these changes are driven by nothing more than greed.

College sports have always been corrupt, of course.  We have already seen the bowl system made meaningless by a ridiculous number of games and an accompanying low bar for qualification.  Athletic departments continue to be awash in cash as academic departments and tenure-track positions are being mercilessly cut.  However, one true thing college sports could offer was a sense of belonging, both to a particular team, but also to a region, something that the conferences reinforced.  Having lived now in several different regions of the country, I am more aware than ever of the wondrous diversity of this nation's regions, and fear their increasing homogenization into one vast highway shopping strip anchored by Wal-Mart and McDonald's.

College football, like our nation as a whole, is being reduced to the lowest common denominator: the dollar sign.  Mitt Romney may have lost the election, but his capital management mentality still drives those who really run the country.  On this Black Friday I wear a black armband for the Big 8, another casualty of capitalism run amok.

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