Culture and shared history cast by the wayside as the Big 12 and other leagues realign
MANHATTAN, Kan. (AP) — Like a rite of autumn on the patchwork of fields of western Kansas, farmers will soon climb into their combines and bring in the harvest, taking advantage of whatever good weather might come their way.
If it happens to be a Saturday, they are probably tuning the radio to Kansas State football.
It has been that way for generations across the corn belt, a quaintly American scene that has played out on farms ranging from Iowa and Missouri to Oklahoma and Nebraska. Other farmers there might be searching airwaves for their beloved Cyclones and Tigers, or Sooners and Huskers, and quite often the old rivals would be playing each other.
Yet the ties that once bound so many schools together have been shattered by conference realignment. Shared history and cultural norms have been cast aside in the pursuit of money. And the latest round of maneuvering has birthed a soon-to-be 16-team league that will stretch from the sun-splashed beaches of Florida to the sun-baked deserts of Arizona.
There, fans will be tuning in not from a combine on the prairie but from blankets in the sand.
“What we can lose among all of this realignment are all sorts of traditions that give sports meaning,” said Victoria Jackson, a former NCAA track and field champion and now an associate professor of history at Arizona State, which will move from the Pac-12 to the Big 12 next year along with Arizona, Utah and returning member Colorado.
Jackson, who teaches about the intersection of sports and society, likened college athletics to European soccer, where teams that once had similar “generational and community attachments” are now owned by sovereign wealth funds and foreign billionaires.
“If that sense of meaning starts to decay,” Jackson continued, “people begin to field alienated from their team — that it is no longer theirs — and then the sport as a whole is in a state of declension, even if revenues continue to rise.”
Realignment has shaken every conference in the country, yet the fallout is especially evident in the Big 12.
Perhaps the strongest cord binding schools together was geography. Without motor coaches and chartered planes to whisk its teams from one campus to another, it was prudent decades ago that schools play others close to them. And by the time the precursor of the Big 12 — the old Big Eight — had settled on eight teams with the return of Oklahoma State in 1957, the longest distance for a conference game was 727 miles from Colorado to Missouri.
As the Big 12 added teams from the Southwest Conference in 1996, its footprint enlarged The arrival of West Virginia and TCU in 2012 further pushed the league’s boundaries, and the arrival of UCF this season and Arizona State next season will create conference games that require one school to travel more than 2,100 miles.
In fact, depending on how it is measured, the Knights will travel more than 15,000 miles over the course of six road games this season, more than any other Power Five team. No. 2 is fellow Big 12 newcomer BYU at more than 12,000 miles.
“The big challenge,” Central Florida coach Gus Malzahn admitted recently, “will be if you play a night game and you get back and the sun is coming up, getting prepared for the next week. But that’s something we’ll have to adjust to.”
The shifting landscape of college sports has done more than just obliterate geographic sensibility, though. It has torn apart the commonalities that once made schools with shared mores a legitimate conference.
Take the original Big Eight, where every member was a public school and five land-grant institutions, which were created by the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 to focus on teaching agriculture, science, military science and engineering. As a result, students at Kansas State Agricultural College, or what is now Kansas State, often came from the same background and socioeconomic class as those from Oklahoma Agricultural and Mechanical College, which is now Oklahoma State.
These days, there are three private and religiously affiliated schools with BYU joining Baylor and TCU. And a focus on agriculture and science has given way to a myriad of specialties, ranging from business to medical schools.
The original Big Eight also had similar and somewhat modest enrollments, at least by Division I standards; once Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah join next year, the last eight additions will be eight of the nine largest schools in the Big 12.
The sheer size of the universities is reflected in their locales: The Big Eight was once made up of small college towns, where the university was the largest employer and life hummed to the beat of the school year. By next year, eight of the nine largest cities in the league will be newcomers, and not one with a population fewer than 100,000 people.
“There was always this sense that the Big Eight was a family,” said Jeff Bollig, who worked in the league office. “It was smaller; there were eight schools. They were easy to get to. There was a lot of commonality. There was just that family feel about it.
“I understand the premise of getting different schools, different cultures from different time zones. As the league changes, it’s natural,” Bollig added. “But it takes time to create some allegiance and affinity for those other schools.”
It also takes time for rivalries to develop.
The “Border War” between Kansas and Missouri was rooted in actual Civil War-era bloodshed, but it largely ended in 2012 when the Tigers joined Texas A&M in leaving for the SEC. The “Bedlam Series” between Oklahoma State and Oklahoma will likewise go by the wayside after this year, when the Sooners join Texas in departing for the SEC.
“I’m a traditionalist when it comes to conference rivalry games,” Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said. “The Bedlam game is over because Oklahoma chose to leave the Big 12, period. It’s not nothing to do with Oklahoma State. Do I like that? No. Do I like that conferences have broken up in the past? No, I don’t. But I also know that we have to control what we can control.”
To be fair, some of the newcomers fit rather easily into the fabric of a new-look Big 12.
Arizona was founded as a land-grant college, like so many of the original Big Eight schools. Colorado is merely returning to the conference where it spent more than six decades before its 2011 departure for the Pac-12. And Houston played regularly against Baylor, TCU and Texas Tech before the dissolution of the old Southwest Conference.
“Those rivalries are going to naturally take care of themselves,” predicted Cougars coach Dana Holgorsen, who will return to the league after previously coaching at West Virginia. “I think it’ll happen a little quicker, and that’s great for college football. That’s great for the Big 12. Certainly, that’s great for Houston and our fan base.”
Besides, Gundy said, nobody seemed to ask coaches, players and fans what they thought before changing conferences.
“Wherever we end up and whatever schedule they give us to play,” he said, “we all play it and do the best we can.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll