Rumors of the imminent departure of Florida State and Clemson for the Big 12 have reached a fever pitch in the last few days, and this embarrassed Clemson fan will admit to Googling “Clemson Big 12″ every hour to check the latest message board rumors or statements by university officials taken out of context. While it seems unlikely that anything will happen until late June, when the playoff format has been decided, new Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has taken office, and West Virginia and TCU get full voting rights, Tiger fans all over the country have been salivating over the chance to join the “big boys” and leave the ACC behind.
Clemson has had a love-hate relationship with the ACC since its foundation. Although the Tigers were a charter member, they’ve always felt out of place in a basketball league. By most standards, Clemson would fit better in the SEC than the ACC. But association with prestigious schools like Georgia Tech, Duke, and North Carolina is a boon to the university’s continuing quest to become a top-20 public school, the primary goal of president Jim Barker’s tenure.
Estimates of how much money a move to the Big 12 would gain Clemson are about as well-founded as rumors claiming that the move has already been agreed to. But there’s no question that a transfer of conference membership would net the athletic department a significant upgrade in revenue, probably enough to make up for the increase in travel costs that would result from switching trips to Winston-Salem, N.C. for Lubbock, Tex.
Money isn’t everything. Not that long ago, the ACC received the most television revenue of any conference. But that didn’t translate into wins for the conference. At the start of the SEC’s run of national titles, the league wasn’t making the most money. Money tends to follow success rather than produce it–look at Boise State, for instance.
But at a certain level, an athletic department’s decisions have to take money into account. Clemson fans have watched the recent success of their bitter rivals across the state in Columbia. The Gamecocks have beaten Clemson football three years in a row, basketball two years in a row, and won the national title in baseball for two successive seasons. Surely the significant revenue advantage South Carolina derives from membership in the SEC has been part of the school’s ability to hire a basketball coach away from Kansas State, while Clemson’s most recent hire came from Wright State. The disparity is most evident on the football field, where SC can afford certain Hall-of-Famer Steve Spurrier, who has the school playing its best football in history. Clemson, by contrast, is coached by a guy named Dabo. For the foreseeable future, South Carolina will be a stronger program than Clemson, a galling thought for Clemson fans used to looking down at their “little brother.”
Is all of this justification for abandoning sixty years of tradition and any semblance of regional affiliation for a league based in the Great Plains? That’s a tough question to answer. In my wildest dreams, a $25 million per team contract for the ACC would descend from on high, leaving no financial motivation to leave, and the Big East would return from irrelevance, leaving six major conferences and forcing a six-team conference-champions playoff rather than a four-team one that leaves the ACC on the outside looking in. Penn State and Notre Dame would suddenly decide that the ACC looks pretty good, and the league would be set forever.
None of that is going to happen, though. I hate the destruction of regional college football that’s been going on for the last twenty years, and I hate that it’s driven by TV money. I know the ACC is in large part responsible for it with the Big East raid of 2003, but at least that move made geographic sense. Virginia Tech and Miami belonged in the ACC more than they belonged in the Big East. In no sense whatsoever can it be said that Clemson or Florida State “belong” in the Big 12. The regional, schematic and cultural differences between leagues are what make college football fun and distinguish it from the cookie-cutter NFL. A Clemson move to the Big 12 would be another step toward college football becoming nothing more than a feeder league to the pros.
My diatribe ultimately has no real conclusion. I want Clemson football to be the best it can be, and have the greatest access to national championships, and I think (although it’s certainly debatable) that the Tigers would be in a better position for that in the Big 12. I can’t find it in myself to argue against a Clemson move, and I would honestly breathe a sigh of relief if it happened. That’s one of the drawbacks of having a non-conference rival; the Tigers have to keep up with the Joneses, and that’s a big problem when your Joneses play in the most profitable league in college football. But I can’t find it in myself to advocate a move, either; we’ve had sixty years of interaction with NC State and Virginia, and that’s not something to give up lightly. Even the conference’s dead weight like Wake Forest has a special place in my heart — I don’t want to abandon them to obscurity.
But in the cutthroat world where coaches get only three years (or maybe it’s become two, if you consider Turner Gill), it’s not surprising that it’s come to this. Texas-Texas A&M is dead; Mizzou-Kansas is finished, too. Clemson-North Carolina or FSU-Wake aren’t nearly as meaningful as those storied games; with their chief rivals playing in another conference, there’s even less binding the Tigers and the Seminoles to the ACC than the Aggies or Tigers attachements to the old Big 12. Whatever happens, I’ll meet it with a detached “meh.” This isn’t what college football is supposed to be about, and it’s sucking all the fun out of it.
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