It’s time for college football to leave conferences and let other sports make sense

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To clarify some narratives that might be out there, university presidents, television executives and other assorted Mr. Potters of this warped sports nation have not completely destroyed college football. The product will remain great. It’s the fabric of the sport they’ve destroyed. It’s shredding common decency. Think of it as sports’ slightly less felonious version of just another Tuesday for a Corleone business deal: “Leave Oregon State, take the cannoli.”

As Bill Curry, the rarity of a former long-time college football coach who always seemed to have his principles and morals correctly aligned, said when asked about conference Armageddon, “It’s not just the conference nightmare. It’s all the nightmares. It’s not unlike what’s going on in our country. It’s chaos. Everything we thought that lent stability is being shredded, and apparently, the only thing that matters is money and egos.”

Just one question: If football is the only thing that matters on an athletic department’s spreadsheets, as these hyperkinetic, soul-less creatures in suits have affirmed with their actions, why drag the rest of college athletics down with it?

There has been speculation in recent years that the major-college football programs — let’s just say some-60 teams from the remains of the Power 5 — would be best served by breaking away from the NCAA. There was a time I considered the idea absurd. That was probably the final surviving tradition cell in my brain speaking for me. But that sucker is dead now. It has been run over so many times, it resembles what a UCLA volleyball player will look like after four connecting flights on a Rutgers road trip.

College football: Leave the nest now before you kill everybody else. One athletic director told me that West Coast schools will need to factor an extra $10 million in travel expenses into their annual budgets for non-football teams. That’s before even taking into account the physical and mental toll of added miles and time during the season, fewer chances to play in front of family and friends — a major attraction for athletes in all sports, not just non-revenue — the inability for other fans to travel long distances to watch their team and possibly a ripple effect on academics.

Actually, forget about academics. That hasn’t mattered for a while.

College football: Just go. Let basketball, softball, baseball, tennis, soccer, volleyball, swimming and the rest stay behind in conferences that make geographical and economic sense, in a world that hasn’t been soiled by greed.

No school or conference powerbroker who made conference realignment decisions really thought this through for all sports. Because if he or she did, I would love to hear the explanation of why they believe this is a good thing.

Crickets.

Football: There’s the door. Nobody will stop you. It wouldn’t be the first time universities competed in one conference for several sports and did something different for football. Hell, Notre Dame is doing it now. The Irish are a football Independent (with five ACC opponents annually) and in the ACC full-time for everything else. On a lower level, Louisiana-Monroe was just one example of a school that split things up, moving football to the Sun Belt in 2001 while leaving others in the Southland (all sports reunited five years later).

Notre Dame is a football Independent (with five ACC opponents annually) and in the ACC full-time for everything else. (Matt Cashore / USA Today)

There is nothing preventing college football from doing its own thing. The most important part of the postseason already is run by the College Football Playoff. The bowls run the bowls. The NCAA runs the FCS playoffs. That’s about as much as it can handle.

A potential football-only conglomerate could announce its intentions today if it wanted to, then take a year or two to set things up and resolve the important questions: bylaws, media rights deals, decide who’s in charge. Divide 60 programs into four 15-team divisions that make geographic sense (what a revolutionary idea)! Go all NFL-like with two conferences and three divisions in each.

Play with the numbers. Create a new playoff system (again). Doesn’t matter. Fans will watch and buy tickets, regardless. That’s all they care about.

It’ll get there someday. We’ve been trending in that direction for a while, and the recent moves by the Big “Ten” and the Big “12” and the former Pac-12’s self-immolation smothers all arguments against something so radical as an exit. There is no logical or economic downside to the idea.

Conferences mean nothing now, in either name or definition. The Big Ten will stretch to 18 teams when it adds four from the West. The SEC will be 16 teams when Texas and Oklahoma join. Most won’t even play each other, which is the whole idea of a college “conference.” The SEC won’t even budge off an eight-game conference schedule.

It was bad enough when the ACC expanded and Tobacco Road suddenly resembled a street block on the 1,500-mile stretch from Miami to Boston College or Syracuse. But when UCLA and USC announced they were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten, and Oregon and Washington followed, it was over. When Stanford and Cal, from a state that touches the Pacific, opened negotiations with the ACC, named for states that touch the Atlantic, it really was over. Suggested new conference: The Oceanic.

There’s a good chance the Big 12 will survive and the Pac-12 won’t. In what alternate universe is that supposed to happen?

Men’s basketball is the second-highest revenue sport after football. You probably would be correct to assume that hoops coaches aren’t thrilled with all this conference movement without their input, let alone their blessing.

Consider this statement from National Association of Basketball Coaches executive director Craig Robinson to The Athletic: “The NABC has consistently voiced concern that despite playing a principal role in generating revenue and public interest in college athletics, men’s basketball is often overlooked as key decisions are made that shape the national landscape. Our sport — and particularly its signature postseason — unites all levels of Division I, and is indispensable to the long-term flourishing of college athletics. While fluctuations in conference alignments are inevitable and indeed at times necessary, we urge those in leadership positions to prioritize the continued sustainability of college basketball and the outsized impact the game has on athletes, fans, communities, and our nation’s sports fabric alike.”

Robinson didn’t go as far as suggesting football separate from the others but Rick Pitino did this week: “Doesn’t it make more sense for football to break away to separate leagues and allow the rest of the sports to compete regionally? Rivalries remain (and) minor sports don’t spend half their day looking for bad food at airport restaurants!!!”

Several softball players from the West vented on social media the other day. Oregon senior Morgan Scott was among them: “Anyone going to talk about all the other sports that play multiple games in a weekend? What happened to mental health of student athletes being important? The balance of practice, travel, school, and having a social life is already hard enough. Why add even more stress?”

There is no making sense of what has happened. But there is a way to begin to fix it.

“Everything we’ve loved isn’t just being questioned or changed, it’s being uprooted, as if some monster is pushing buttons every day just for the fun of it,” Curry said. “At least that’s what it feels like.”

(Top photo of Kirby Smart and the Georgia Bulldogs celebrating their national championship in January: Steph Chambers / .)

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