Change In College Athletics: The Risk Of Forgetting Who You Are

This past week college sports was again thrown into disarray as schools bolted from Big East to ACC to Big 10 to Conference USA to WAC to Sun Belt and back and forth. The jockeying and rumors continued, with those left as not moving felt hurt and disappointed while those moving looked to greener fields ahead. Greener in terms of dollars for most, if nothing else.

The nothing is really the concern. Certain schools talked about aspiring to be with more elite academic institutions (Maryland and Rutgers) while thumbing their noses at the elite institutions (Georgia tech, Duke, Georgetown, Villanova) they are leaving behind. Others (Grand Canyon) moved to a league even though they have never played at the level of any of their league partners, and unveiled plans to sell some sort of stock to raise funds. Still others (Cincinnati) spoke of defeat when they were not selected by a league while having a solid place in the league they are in. They need the money to balance the books after all. In the end, success on the field and core values with other schools seem to have little to do with alignment athletically these days, “It’s not about success it’s about geography,” Central Florida head coach George O’Leary said earlier this week, while the Washington Post’s John Feinstein pointed out on Sirius XM that the schools like Rutgers and Maryland talk about academics but they only reason they are of value is because of their location. If Rutgers was in Albany, NY, they could be the best program in the country and they would not be of interest to the Big 10.

So as Louisville, departing for the ACC and Rutgers (off to the Big 10) battled in an exciting game for the Big East title Thursday night on ESPN, I thought about when those schools in their new leagues might play for such high stakes again. It may be a while, if history tells us anything.

While schools that have bolted for bigger conferences have done so with much fanfare, few have been successful athletically. Boston College was a nationally ranked football team and had a basketball team that advanced to the Final Eight in 1994 before it left for the ACC in 2005. Miami won a national championship in football as a member of the Big East in 2001, has yet to win an ACC title since it left. West Virginia, which played in two BCS games and was picked to contend for the Big 12 championship, is 6-5 after losing five straight games. Virginia Tech is struggling, and Pitt and Syracuse are nowhere near where they were in football during their best Big East years as they transition out of the conference. Colorado in the Pac 12? More money and some bigger stages? Yes. But not a whole lot of equity for any of the schools that went elsewhere.

If you go back a little further there are even more examples of being careful what you ask for. Temple to the MAC? How did that work out. They are now back in a much better fit, the Big East again. How about a school like New Jersey Institute of Technology, who plays in the…Great West…with schools like Texas an American and Utah Valley…who they have a great deal in common with.

From personal experience I have my alma mater Fordham University, long the also-ran of the Patriot League and the doormat of the Atlantic 10. The Rams took their highly successful program in the MAAC and moved it to the Patriot League, which at the time was non-scholarship but more aligned academically with the Fordham. When that didn’t work out the school moved to the Atlantic 10, where they have had two winning seasons in…17 years. While it is true that Fordham has thrived academically it has died from a branding standpoint in athletics. Yes there are common bonds between schools like St, Joe’s and maybe even Duquesne and maybe Dayton, but there are no ties on any level to state schools like Charlotte or Rhode Island or in past years Virginia Tech or even VCU and Butler. No history, no common groups of alumni, no common academic platforms no rivalries. Football? Four winning seasons in 20 years, three of which were in a short stretch of prosperity under one coach, Dave Clawson. Prior to that, Fordham had great success in athletics with local and regional opponents in all sports, and enjoyed some solid national success while sacrificing nothing in academics. Better off now? Hard to see how. There certainly is no identity with their league opponents.

So that leaves us where we are today on a much larger scale. Do Wisconsin and Rutgers have any common ties? Maryland and Northwestern?  There was a point where the term “directional schools”  had a negative connotation…some land grant school that existed only to play sports. Now it’s a “locational school” that has great value, not for what they stand for but for where they are located.

So we forsake tradition and common bonds for the dollars…dollars which are seen as coming in to offset huge deficits that athletics drain. Instead of funding smart business practices to fund programs (some schools like the University of Michigan have hired smart business people to find alternatives to raise dollars and bring in brands to cover costs) schools act like startups…spending all the money until it runs out and then going to find more capital to keep funding the idea. It has started to change, but not yet to the degree it should.

Now maybe all of this talk about tradition and brand and core values is pie in the sky and gone somewhere else. Does it matter really if St Johns ever plays Syracuse in hoops again? Maybe in a bigger picture, a big time world of athletics today it doesn’t. It doesn’t if somehow those dollars brought in at the sacrifice of tradition go to pursuits that also benefit medical programs and the arts and technology…places where cancer can really be cured. Then the sacrifice of tradition is really for a bigger good. That remains to be seen.

In the end if all the movement is only a stopgap to balance a budget that will be thrown out of line again in a few years has expenditures grow and creative marketing and sales don’t then it will be a great tragedy. There are precious few major conference jumps…ones not with a shred of tradition tiring schools together that have really worked. For sure the global world of athletics could not rest on the past for all schools. Change and progress is inevitable. However when schools say they can move and break with all their ties of their alumni and their current athletes in a matter of days it seems something is amiss. Careful study and great reasons? For sure, let’s make it work. But a jump for just the dollars before someone else gets there is tough business planning for the long term.

Personally, I ache when I see Fordham getting waxed week in and week out but I also take pride in what was athletically, and what the University does in areas like business and science. It is a great school, even if its athletics (football and men’s basketball anyway) are lost in an ill-fitting sea.

This may all work out on all levels with all the change for these schools. Syracuse and Clemson alumni may start hanging out together; Rutgers staff will be welcomed with open arms in Lansing. Seton Hall may play a record setting and memorable volleyball match in Dallas against SMU.  Louisville grad students can do summer shares with Miami. The dollars for sure will flow and traditions can always be started anew.

What you don’t hope happens is the haves…the established schools with the established traditions, endowments, and rivalries…fully crowd out the new coming have-nots. The LA Clippers and Pittsburgh Pirates for sure get the Benjamin’s, but that doesn’t mean they are great brands who have enjoyed success. They benefit, save for some years of success, not because of what they have built but because they are in the club almost by default. Other members have to be tolerating them, but accept them as equals? Nah.

Sport above everything else is about tradition, passion and chemistry on the field. Without it you have fantasy sports. Looks great on paper, but making it work is a chore. On the college side, a person goes to a school not just for the programs but for the experience. It helps shape people into whom they become, and that comes from so many shared experiences socially, politically and academically. There is a ritual and a common bond. For those doing the shifting that common bond in many cases is probably leaving for now. Can it be replaced and does it have to be mark of the mix for success? Hard to say it doesn’t.

We live in a world today where sense of purpose and sense of self can get misplaced. Many of those touchstones that bring us back are formed during our younger years, many through the time and traditions spent socially on campuses and in dorm rooms and gyms and stadia. It molds who we are. Maybe it’s silly but for many people those simple traditions are what we can hold near and dear for years to come. Maybe the dollars and the new alignments can offset that need, maybe it can’t.

Maybe like Fordham, other institutions will find out that they can grow without successful athletics for the most part, that what happens away from the field of play is way more important, and those dollars to be doormats for big time football do flow to places that need the money. Maybe also like Fordham, people see the grass greener somewhere else and when you get there you see the field isn’t really grass, its synthetic turf and it’s not something the landlord really wanted to let you play on anyway.

Hopefully all the changes give schools that have moved a new sense of self, and for those schools who don’t move on find their own niche. The Patriot League and the MAAC have moved on to do just fine without my Rams, hopefully the Big East and Conference USA and whomever else will do the same without their old partners.

Yes college sports are big business now…bigger than ever. You just hope at some point that balance…moderation in all things as the great leader Ben Franklin preached…gives this process some sense of normalcy again.

The biggest mistake any brand makes is losing its core focus, and the curious shifting of some  in the collegiate circles can make one wonder if the dollars forsake the brand and with that, will the identity go too.

Hopefully in this case the movements will create the right mix down the line, but the danger exists in forgetting who you are and trying to be something you are not. It doesn’t work most times in big business, and it probably won’t work in the big business of college athletics, where sense of who you are as an institution is just as valuable as at any Fortune 500 Company.

You are molding the minds of our future, collegiate leaders, don’t let us down.