TCU's Journey to National Recognition: Next Stop, Big East

It has been three months since Texas Christian University made the announcement to become a member of the Big East beginning fall of 2012, and it has taken me almost three months to process the reasoning behind this move. While it may mean more national exposure and financial gain for the parties involved, are we moving further away from common sense thinking? Neither party, in a different college athletics landscape free of BCS ratings and automatic qualifiers, would feel the overwhelming need to align; thus it is difficult coming to grips with this latest reshuffling in college athletics.

Trying to Find an Identity

Although TCU has a proud athletic tradition, winning is still relatively new for the Horned Frogs. The football program was virtually a non-factor from the 1960’s until 1998 when winning became the norm. However, with just over a decade of consistent winning, the nation is still trying to understand where TCU athletics, particularly football, fits on the national scene. More than that, however, TCU has struggled to find an identity with old in-state rivals and new conference affiliates since the break-up of the Southwest Conference. The move to the Big East will be TCU’s fifth conference since 1996 and I am not sure this move will satisfy the long term fit that the TCU administration is hoping to find.

This move isn’t the first “have to” move to a new conference for TCU. TCU experienced its first forced move when the Southwest Conference (SWC) started splitting in 1991 after Arkansas moved to the Southeastern Conference (SEC) and in 1994 Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor announced they would join the newly created Big 12 in the fall of 1996. As a 1994 Sports Illustrated article highlighted, TCU (along with SMU, Rice, and Houston) were left out in the cold. Why? As McCallum wrote, “The hightailing Southwest Conference members exited, predictably, for the TV money, figuring they would be better off with new friends like Oklahoma, Nebraska, and Colorado instead of their old buddies.” Interestingly enough, we have learned that friendship in college athletics does not last very long, as Nebraska bolted for the Big 10 and Colorado for the Pac 10. Why? Better friends with more TV money!

TCU, along with SMU and Rice, later joined the expanded Western Athletic Conference (WAC) in the fall of 1996 with the hopes of creating a 16-team super conference that would command a major television contract. However, the conference design of “success in numbers” did not develop and the 16 members were quickly chopped in half when eight schools (Colorado State, Utah, BYU, Air Force, New Mexico, UNLV, Wyoming and San Diego State) left the WAC to begin the Mountain West Conference. Tom Dienhart and Mike Huguenin highlighted specific problems associated with the breakup of the WAC in an article that appeared in The Sporting News in June of 1998. Three specific problems are listed in the article: 1). Scheduling: the divisional rotation and the confusion created by separating teams into divisions, limiting rivalries and any consistency in scheduling. 2). Travel: expensive and time consuming for both schools and fans. 3). Revenue sharing: Dividing revenue, among 16 teams, especially those that were not winning, was very difficult. Interestingly enough, one of the schools not winning at the time was TCU – (1996: 4-7; 1997: 1-10). Thus, when the eight schools decided to leave the WAC and create the Mountain West Conference, TCU was not invited, once again leaving them to wonder about their athletic future.

Two years later, TCU was extended membership to Conference USA; this time, moving with Rice and reuniting with the University of Houston, but leaving long-time rival SMU behind in the WAC. The move to the third conference was supposed to create a national football identity with schools that offered stronger competition. Administrators announced at the time that the move to Conference USA was in the best interest of TCU. In an article published in the TCU Daily Skiff in the October 12, 1999 issue, Chancellor Michael R. Ferrari wrote, “The decision to join C-USA was made after considering the long-term strength and promise of this league at the national level. We have stated on numerous occasions TCU's goal of becoming a nationally recognized and respected athletic program at the Division I level. Joining C-USA is consistent with that goal."

Similar to the 16 team model of the WAC, C-USA decided to try and join the more prominent conference by using the more teams, more success approach. However, similar to the WAC, Conference USA could not provide the national recognition or long-term strength that TCU was ultimately looking for, especially when Marquette, Louisville, Cincinnati, DePaul and South Florida left for the Big East. Left with a different type of conference, administrators again scrambled to join a more stable conference and in 2004 made the decision to join the Mountain West Conference, with the schools that only 6 years earlier did not extend membership to TCU. In a 2004 Fort Worth Telegram article, reporter Damien Pierce wrote that this move would, “end months of speculation about TCU's athletic future and solidify a place for the Horned Frogs in a major conference.” In response to why TCU was added, MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson stated:

TCU is a fine academic institution that boasts a highly-competitive athletic program and possesses long-standing tradition. TCU's mission and values are also a solid fit with the collective and individual philosophies of the Mountain West Conference and its member institutions. More specifically, TCU's addition will enhance the MWC by:
• Bringing additional depth and competitive strength to virtually every one of the MWC's 19 championship sports.
• Balancing the annual football schedule, so that each member will have four home and four away conference games each year.
• Adding the nation's seventh-largest television market to the MWC footprint.
• Contributing the Plains Capital Fort Worth Bowl to the MWC's bowl line-up.
• Expanding the MWC's recruiting base as 10-13 percent of current football and men's basketball student-athletes hail from Texas.

Certainly all of these factors are a major reason why a conference would be interested in TCU, including the Big East. However, one very important factor that did not make Commissioner Thompson’s list was that TCU football was no longer the bottom feeder of the conference. TCU, at the time, just finished their second season in the Top 25 (2002: 10-2 and a final ranking of #23; 2003: 11-2 and a final ranking of #24). One of the major differences between 1998 and 2004 was that TCU football started to have success. TCU, of course, jumped at the opportunity to join the MWC and a chance at more television money, which later came in the form of a new 2006 television deal between the MWC and CSTV.

The Move to the Big East

This historical progression brings us to the present day conference shift. TCU will join the Big East as its 17th member and currently its strongest football member. Time will tell if the move works for both the Big East and TCU, but examining conference realignment from TCU’s historical perspective, the move to the Big East does not appear to be the long term solution for either TCU or the Big East. Some prominent issues that have plagued TCU’s past appear to be present with the new move to the Big East:

1. The mega conference model does not work: Once conferences get as high as 13+ members, the size of the league creates issues that become too complex. The exception to this rule has been the Big East, but most “experts” agree that the Big East is still a prime picking ground for another conference to come calling if expansion remains the move of the day. Similar to the problems that plagued the WAC and C-USA, factors such as greed, logistics, and a lukewarm response from alumni and fans have doomed “the more schools more success” model of conference realignment. Using TCU’s own history emphasizes the reasons why the mega-conference has not worked:

Greed: If the past is any indicator, schools that have football success get upset when they have to share revenue with conference members that are not competitive, and thus are a financial burden. It also hurts the schools chances of improving their BCS status in football and RPI standings in other sports if their conference schedule is filled with schools that are not competitive.

Logistically, it is difficult to travel across the country to play conference games. The two current defenses of TCU’s move to the Big East are that it is similar or perhaps a little bit easier to travel in the Big East than in the Mountain West. That may be true, but just because it is better, does not make it ideal. Travel, and other logistics, makes this a very difficult issue. Travel for TCU remains expensive and incredibly time consuming throughout the entire athletic season, not just in football. If TCU is offered an opportunity at a BCS conference with closer ties to Fort Worth, in a few years, than they will likely leave the Big East in a New York minute. As TCU has shown in the past, it is not afraid to jump conferences for a better opportunity.

TCU has drawn well recently, but historically attendance at TCU home games had been down since leaving the SWC. There should be major concern about fan attendance if TCU football drops out of national championship contention. Are fans in Fort Worth going to remain loyal to a TCU team that could have 2-3 losses and be playing for a second-tier bowl game? TCU’s current run of football success is incredible and one would have to assume that this success may not continue at this level. Based on the recent past, TCU’s alumni and fans did not always respond in the early 2000’s when the team was having good, but not great success. Also consider that the conference schedule did not excite their fans base; but how could it, since there has been no consistency in home date opponents since playing against the Texas schools in the SWC. TCU’s conference “rivals” have changed so many times that fans have not had time to develop any passion for a traditional opponent. It is also important to note that the visiting conference members are typically not sending many fans to TCU because of the distance, thus eliminating any geographic benefits.

2. Conference membership does not equal loyalty and therefore you would have to assume that conference realignment is not over. The move of adding TCU may save the Big East for this BCS evaluation period, but it will not guarantee Automatic Qualifier (AQ) status in the long term unless the other football playing members of the Big East can earn respectable non-conference wins and be consistently ranked in the Top 25. The logical thinking is that TCU will remain a top football school and other Big East schools will have to improve their programs to be competitive. However, it is possible (as Nate Silver points out in his blog post for the New York Times) that TCU could become mediocre in football. Average results in football and what is anticipated as virtually no benefit to Big East basketball and other Big East members might find that sending their teams to Fort Worth is not so rewarding. Depending on the football success of schools over the next 5-7 years, the Big East could once again see a defection of schools that are looking for greener pastures, including but not limited to, TCU.

3. The TCU - Big East relationship is flawed. You have to give credit to the Big East, because they have managed to stay relevant in the BCS. The problem is the Big East Conference’s status as an Automatic Qualifier is being challenged by other conferences, (the Mountain West) and more importantly by public perception. The only way to fix this is for members to win big games, including TCU. TCU will now have to carry the torch, so to speak, for all the Big East members, but what happens if they lose? Does a TCU football team with 2 or 3 loses benefit the Big East? Probably not. The first few years of this relationship could determine the long term future of TCU as a Big East member.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the TCU-Big East relationship is TCU is essentially being asked to “save” a conference that has issues too big for one member to solve. A long standing issue has been the conference operating under the dichotomous relationship of being loyal to the past (a history of strong private basketball playing schools) and committing to the promise of the future (building strong revenue generating football programs). This creates underlying problems starting with the number of schools that do not play football at the FBS level and yet benefit greatly from FBS football playing conference members. It still creates challenges at member institutions to perhaps spend above their financial means to remain competitive. Specifically, consider the current decision that Villanova has to make or remember that schools like DePaul, Seton Hall and Providence are asked to compete financially with the likes of Notre Dame and state schools like UConn and West Virginia, and you quickly realize the unique challenges of the Big East. Now add into the mix TCU (a 17th member with a history of changing conferences), and the overwhelming expectations that the Horned Frogs’ football program will legitimize the Big East and you quickly realize the fragility of this relationship. Under these circumstances, one would have to assume that one or more of these issues will rise to the top and the Big East will see changes over the next 5 years.

4. The BCS is flawed. The biggest injustice of the college football system is not the idea of the bowl games versus a playoff, but rather the Automatic Qualifier status. I understand the argument of a playoff but the AQ status is absurd based on the thought that you are denying a team, such as TCU, the opportunity to play in a relevant bowl game. In April 2010, the BCS Group released their formula for deciding if another conference(s) should be added to the AQ status starting in 2012. For a seventh conference to even get consideration for the AQ status for 2012-2013, the BCS committee will review conference results from 2008-2011. As stated on the Bowl Championship Series website, “results from the 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011 regular seasons will be evaluated to determine whether a seventh conference earns automatic qualification for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 bowl games.” Essentially, the success of a school’s football season is in part determined by a formula that measures how conference members played as many as 4 years ago. The bottom line is that the success of a conference in the past should not determine the ability of a team in the current year to play in a bowl game (nor should a team benefit from conference history). The current set-up encourages short-sighted conference moves, such as the one by TCU to the Big East, in order to have a chance at a BCS game.

After almost 3 months of analysis my conclusion is this…I don’t blame TCU and the Big East for joining forces. Both are in near impossible situations to remain part of (the Big East) or get more of (TCU) the BCS dollars. I have come to believe that a school like TCU with a well respected athletic program and strong academics should not have to continue to try and “fit in” to the college athletic landscape because voting members do not feel they are worthy. Administrators should not feel like they must send student-athletes across the country to play conference games in order to get national recognition. Rather than praising a school like TCU for its academic and athletic success, critics of college athletics can point to TCU as the next school to join the highest level of the Arms Race. Shouldn’t TCU be able to enjoy its current run of success and not have to make an awkward move to the Big East? Remember, TCU just beat Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl – it may not get any better than that! Likewise, the Big East conference should not have to search out and add the current “hot football team” in order to survive in college athletics. Athletics is cyclical and the hot team 10 years from now may not be TCU but perhaps another upstart in college football ready to jump into the Arms Race. Maybe even a future BCS football playing member, like Villanova? At the end of the day, the decision for TCU to join the Big East might make “cents”, but it just does not make sense. From a bigger picture perspective, the move has brought attention to the imperfections of both TCU and the Big East, as well as the flaws of the current college athletic system and how the system has devalued both entities.