Ex-SEC commish discusses expansion
Kramer expected Big Ten would eventually make move that set off Armageddon
Roy Kramer answered the phone on the second ring. The godfather of conference expansion and the BCS is 80 years old and lives on a lake in east Tennessee. He's retired, but like everyone else, he's also mesmerized by the latest expansion news.
After all, this is partly his doing.
Twenty years ago, Kramer attached plastic explosives to college football and blew up conventional wisdom. With two dramatic, audacious moves, the then-Southeastern Conference commissioner transformed his league from a powerful regional presence to a muscular national brand. The conference with a twang suddenly had clout.
In 1990, Kramer convinced Arkansas to ditch the Southwest Conference (remember the SWC?) and then persuaded South Carolina to join up. And just like that, the SEC had a 12-team league and the ability to create its own conference championship game beginning in 1992. The money began pouring in.
So when Kramer talks, I listen. And Thursday he talked about conference expansion and the Big Ten, Nebraska, Notre Dame, the Pac-10, the Big 12, the Mountain West, the Big East, the ACC and his beloved SEC.
"Just an old guy sitting on a porch thinking about it," he said.
Don't be fooled by the modesty. Kramer remains a major player -- not in an official capacity, but as a consultant, a wartime consigliere for those going to the mattresses. He knows how to monitor the recent seismic activity because he created the same sort of earthquakes two decades ago.
Back then, the SEC was the conference that forearm shivered the first domino to the ground. This time, said Kramer, the 11-team Big Ten is dictating the action.
"I always thought there would be something happening because of the Big Ten," he said. "Somehow, someday and somewhere the Big Ten was going to an even number, and when that occurred -- unless it was Notre Dame [as the 12th member] -- it was going to have a domino effect. And even if Notre Dame joined, the Pac-10 was going to do something. The Pac-10 has always been nervous about the impact and marketability of the Big Ten."
Nebraska, not Notre Dame, appears to be the first program poised to join the Big Ten. And Colorado kicked off the exodus, joining the Pac-10 Thursday. Doesn't matter. Kramer now foresees a scenario in which other conferences simply vanish and college athletics is ruled by as few as five super-leagues.
"If Nebraska goes it would be my understanding that Missouri would be not far behind," he said. If that happens, the Big Ten wouldn't stop there.
"Then they would have to look to the East Coast," he said. "Rutgers. Maybe Syracuse. But if you take one or two teams from the Big East, then you'll see the SEC and the ACC expand. If the Big East were to lose two, three teams, then you'd see other teams in that conference looking for other places to land."
As always, follow the money. When Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany rolled the bones on the Big Ten Network ("A crusading idea," Kramer said with admiration) and scored huge on viewership, expansion was all but inevitable. In addition, the success of the BTN put pressure on such conferences as the Pac-10 and Big 12.
"I always felt that the Big 12 was a little bit of a fragile conference due to the concessions made to Texas and that nature," said Kramer. "But did I see this on the horizon, did I see this change? No. But I always felt if the Big Ten went to 12 or more, the Pac-10 would immediately do something."
That "something" is likely a 16-team league that would destroy the Big 12. The Pac-10 also could add Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. The Big 12 leftovers -- Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas State (assuming Kramer is right about Missouri and the Big Ten) -- would be adopted by the Mountain West.
Kramer said he thinks the Big Ten will eventually become a 16-team conference. I mentioned that a Chicago Tribune story suggested otherwise, that the Big Ten didn't want to be perceived as causing "college football Armageddon."
Kramer scoffed at the theory.
"The Armageddon is already there," he said. "If the Nebraska domino falls, the Armageddon is out there. Now forget about your conscience and do what's right for your conference. You got to look at it from 10 years from now, eight years from now, six years from now."
To emphasize the point, Kramer recounted a phone call he received from a conference commissioner as the recent expansion rumors heated up.
Said the commissioner to Kramer: "How did you keep people from being mad at you?" Said Kramer: "You really didn't."
In other words, it's every conference for itself.
"It's evolution," said Kramer, "and I think in the long term it could be a positive for college athletics."
The evolution isn't done. I asked Kramer how he thought it would shake out.
"My best guess is that the Big Ten will eventually get to 16 in phases," he said. "That the Pac-10 will move forward with its proposal. That the Mountain West will evolve into a major conference. Then, depending on how the Big Ten plays out -- how they get to 16 -- you would have the possibility of the ACC and the SEC absorbing significant numbers of teams out of the Big East and we'd end up with five major conferences."
If the Big Ten reaches 13 teams with Nebraska and Missouri, the league is going to concentrate on adding TV sets on the East Coast. That could mean Rutgers or it could mean Notre Dame. Or who knows, maybe both.
"I will be surprised if Notre Dame moves unless the Big East really does fall apart," said Kramer. "If I were [Notre Dame] I think a move to the Big Ten would be very fortuitous for us in the long range. If the Big East were to fall apart, then Notre Dame would be in a tough position with the other sports. Nobody is going to take them as a part-time member."
Me personally -- I think ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick knows it's in the school's best interest to join the Big Ten. And if the Big East begins to crumble, I think he has his legitimate reason to join a conference. Meanwhile, if the Big East evaporates, then I think the SEC cherry picks West Virginia and then adds Florida State, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech from the ACC. And the ACC grabs some of the Big East leftovers.
As for Kramer's other invention, the BCS, it probably continues to live a long, healthy life. Sigh.
"In some ways [expansion] could resolve some of the issues that are out there," said Kramer. "You're always going to have some controversy with the BCS. I think it could work in the framework [of expansion]. I don't see [expansion] in the foreseeable future as catalyst for a playoff."
My 30 minutes are up. Kramer has other things to do.
"Interesting days," he said.
And about to get even more interesting.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.
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