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Time for a realignment history lesson

MORGANTOWN - So I get an e-mail the other day that I think pretty much typifies most of those I get these days regarding conference reorganization and realignment and West Virginia's place in it.

The guy says he's a 1992 WVU grad. He lives in Florida and wants to know "how much longer until we know something solid.'' He goes on to say, "Man, we've got fans about to blow up wondering what the heck is going to happen.''

So I wrote the guy back and told him that, based on his graduation date, I guessed he was in his early 40s. I'm 55 and I'm convinced that "something solid'' will likely postdate my eventual demise. But maybe, I wrote, he'll see it in his lifetime.

Then again, don't bet on it.

Universities have been attempting to position themselves for bigger and better paydays and more stability virtually since college athletics began.

Don't think so? Think again. The reasons for realignment have been different over the years, but schools breaking away dates back to 1920 and perhaps before.

For instance, let's just look at the SEC and the ACC. And, yes, West Virginia is a minor player in the histories of those conferences.

The roots date back to 1895, when something called the Southern Collegiate Athletic Association became one of the first organized college conferences. Within two years, the league consisted of current SEC members Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and current ACC members Clemson, Georgia Tech and North Carolina, among others (Texas, Tulane and, yes, that noted powerhouse Sewanee).

The issue that tore that league apart 25 years later was freshman eligibility. The bigger schools were in favor of making freshmen sit out a year because they didn't need them. The bottom feeders wanted to go out and recruit newcomers who could help right away.

So the SIAA begat the Southern Conference. Within two years, most of those eventual SEC and ACC schools were part of the new league (with freshmen being ineligible), along with others like Maryland, Virginia, Virginia Tech, N.C. State, Florida, Mississippi and Vanderbilt. The SIAA, meanwhile, became a small-potatoes league with schools like Southwestern Presbyterian, Millsaps and Miami (yes, that Miami) before just disbanding in 1942.

But the Southern Conference lasted for only about 12 years until most of the current SEC schools broke off to form the SEC. That was mostly just geographical (a quaint notion nowadays, huh?). In 1950, West Virginia joined the Southern Conference and it was still a powerhouse. But three years later, the ACC was formed by the heart of what is still the ACC. West Virginia stayed around until 1968, by which time Virginia Tech had also departed (in 1965), until finally it became apparent that WVU's future was not in a league with William & Mary and Richmond.

So the school floated unattached for the next two decades until the Big East football league was formed in 1991.

We give you this history lesson not with the thought that it is relevant to today's issues, but with the understanding that conference reorganization and realignment are nothing new. Even the past 20 years have not been stable - the demise of the Southwest Conference and the expansion of the Big Eight to the Big 12, South Carolina and Arkansas to the SEC, Florida State to the ACC, Penn State to the Big Ten. Those were no different than the breakup of the SIAA or the Southern Conference, save for the driving forces behind the moves.

Granted, the driving forces of today seem far more significant - as in billions of dollars and exposure - but at the heart of it the reasons are still the same: Schools are searching for bigger and better and more stable.

There is, of course, one other reason we bring up history, and specifically the history and eventual demise of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

It was the Big East Conference of today.

Think about it. The SIAA was born of a vast number of universities looking for something to tie them together. The Big East basketball league was the same in its earliest years. Syracuse and Georgetown had nothing in common, nor did Villanova and Boston College or Providence and Pitt. Whereas the SIAA schools allied to create rules and an equal playing field, the Big East did it for scheduling and TV. Ditto the football schools that were added a dozen years later, all of whom had been floating about unattached.

The SIAA eventually crumbled because its members saw greater opportunities elsewhere. Yet the league spent another two decades drafting new members, each class getting weaker and weaker, until it collapsed for lack of interest.

Is the Big East any different? Not to date. Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College are replaced by Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida. Syracuse and Pitt will give way to who, Navy and Air Force? The league adds basketball schools to prop up that side and save its image, but what of football?

Even if there are no more defections, which is unlikely, there are but two remaining original members of the football side of the Big East - West Virginia and Rutgers. Everyone else was a replacement, including Connecticut.

In other words, it's the mid-1960s all over again and WVU is looking around to find out that the Southern Conference it joined is no longer the Southern Conference. Back then, WVU bailed even though it had nowhere else to go. That's how bad it was.

That can't happen this time, of course. Times change. Independent status without your own network (Notre Dame) isn't an option.

The purpose here, though, is not to explain what will happen now. I don't know. You don't know. And don't believe anyone who tells you they know. They don't. They can only speculate on what their version of logic says will happen. And eventually, if they are correct in guessing one of the approximately 100 scenarios that could play out, they can tell you they knew it all along.

The Big East, like the SIAA 90 years ago, is fighting to rebuild. Perhaps it will have better success, I don't know. John Marinatto, the commissioner saddled with the task, is under fire. There are segments of the membership that believe he should be replaced. I'm not convinced Marinatto is the sharpest tool in the current box of conference commissioners, but I also haven't heard anyone calling for his head who has stepped up with a magic plan of their own.

Just know that history is both on West Virginia's side and against it in all this. It's against the Mountaineers because history suggests that conferences that attempt to simply replace members with the next-best out there generally fail miserably. And WVU is a member of one of those conferences right now.

Then again, West Virginia was in exactly this place 45 years ago and not only survived, but thrived. But remember how long it took. And if you're my age or older, don't hold your breath.

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com.


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