LAST EDITED ON 01-02-13 AT 06:06 PM (EST)
First off, "conferences" were created when the Universities of Chicago, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin and Northwestern and Purdue University banded together in 1896 to form the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives. Showing how informal conference affiliations are, the group continued on under that name until 1987, when the group officially changed its name to the Big Ten Conference.
What changed? A 1984 Supreme Court case, that's what. Until 1984, the NCAA negotiated a central TV contract for ALL Division I-A football schools. No team was permitted to appear in a nationally televised game more than three times in a year. As a result, a number of powerhouse football schools, believing that the NCAA did not actually have this power, started a group called the College Football Association, and they negotiated a separate contract with NBC in 1981. In response, the NCAA said that it would place all of the sports programs, not just football, at the participating institutions on probation and ban them from any TV appearances. Naturally, the program leading the CFA action, Oklahoma, sued the NCAA before it could do that. In the case of NCAA v. Univ. of Oklahoma, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the NCAA had no such power and that its actions were an unconstitutional restraint of trade.
The CFA contract bound all of the teams for only five years. After that, each conference was free to make its own TV deals. And suddenly the conferences, which had played little role in the world of NCAA Division I-A football, became dominant.
Prior to that, conferences had only mattered because the champions received an automatic bid to the NCAA basketball tournament. That was the reason that certain Eastern schools had banded together to form a basketball-only conference called the Big East in 1979. When the CFA deal ended and TV contracts became a conference responsibility, the Big East suddenly became a football conference as well. And that's what prompted the first realignments, with every conference trying to improve its TV package.
So the ACC added Florida State and the Big Ten added Penn State, while the Pac-8 added the state of Arizona with both Arizona and Arizona State and became the Pac-10. The Big East added Virginia Tech and Miami, plus Temple for football, to get to the NCAA minimum of 8 teams to offer a sport; later, Connecticut decided to upgrade its football program and the Big East then dropped Temple. But the big shift came about in Texas, where the Southwestern Conference had been a 9-team conference composed of 8 Texas schools (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Baylor, TCU, SMU, Rice and Houston) and Arkansas. Obviously its TV package had little appeal outside of Texas. And the Big 8 included Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, Colorado and 4 small market weak sisters (Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State). Oklahoma and Texas pushed for a merger to increase the TV package, and ultimately the first four Texas schools joined the Big 8 to create the Big 12, while Arkansas joined the Southeastern Conference and the other four Texas schools got screwed.
Then, the NCAA permitted schools to add an extra game, expanding the regular NCAA season from 11 to 12 games. And then the NCAA permitted a 13th game for a "conference championship" if a conference had at least 12 members.The conference championships are what triggered the next round of conference jumps, because the conferences were aligned as follows:
Big East - 8
Atlantic Coast Conference - 9
Big Ten - 11
Southeastern Conference - 12
Big 12 - 12
Pacific-10 Conference - 10
Clearly four of the conferences needed to add teams to get to the magic 12. More importantly, the Big Ten and Pac-10 had the most lucrative TV contracts of all, so they weren't under as much pressure, but the Big East and ACC were desperate. The fireworks started when the ACC decided to add 3 teams from the Big East: Miami, Boston College, and Syracuse, to get up to the magic number of 12. The state of Virginia threw such a fit that Virginia Tech was added to the ACC in place of Syracuse. That brought the ACC up to 12, but the Big East was crippled at 5. It then added the two most prominent programs in the country not already in a major conference: Louisville and Cincinnati, as well as a minor program in the right location: South Florida, and it got back up to 8. But everyone knew that the Big East couldn't survive with 8 and the Big Ten and Pac-10 weren't going to stay at 11 and 10.
Nevertheless a lull followed, until the Big Ten did something that caught everyone by surprise: it launched a successful cable network of its own in partnership with Fox. As a result, the Big Ten schools became the richest by far. Meanwhile, the SEC's championship game turned its schools into national powerhouses, which meant that the Big Ten would still want to add another team despite its wealth, because the Big Ten didn't like being the "little sister" to the SEC.
This played out when the University of Texas decided to start its own football network, the Longhorn Network, without any of its Big 12 partners, thus ending any chance of the Big 12 starting its own network, At the same time, the Pac-10 and SEC started their own networks. This made the Big 12 very unappealing, and Big 12 schools scrambled to leave. Texas and Oklahoma tried to make a deal with the Pac-10, but the first to succeed was Nebraska, which was immediately offered admission in the Big Ten. That solved the Big Ten's problem, but it led Colorado to jump to the Pac-12 and Texas A&M to jump to the Southeastern Conference.
Now the number of schools in each conference were:
Big East - 8
ACC - 12
Big Ten -12
SEC - 13
Big 12 - 9
Pac-10 - 11
Problem was that the 13-team conferences couldn't stay there, because one team would have to play a nonconference game every week. So the SEC recruited Missouri from the Big 12. Meanwhile, the Pac-10 added Utah, which had become the first non-major conference school to make it to a major bowl game, and became the Pac-12. So that left:
Big East - 8
ACC - 12
Big Ten - 12
SEC - 14
Big 12 - 8
Pac-12 - 12
Now the schools in the Big East realized that they didn't have any good way to get to 12 teams and increase their TV revenue. That meant that the schools would need a new confernce, and some of them had the advantage of being able to bring new TV markets to their new conference. Thus, Pittsburgh and Syracuse hopped to the ACC, while Wast Virginia bolted for the Big 12, which needed immediate help before it disintegrated. The Big East recruited TCU, which had been screwed when the Southwestern Conference broke up, but then the Big 12 called on it too, and it jumped at the chance to rejoin its Texas friends. So that left:
Big East - 5
ACC - 14
Big Ten - 12
SEC - 14
Big 12 - 10
Pac-12 - 12
However, 14 is an unnatural number for conference size: the natural numbers are 12 (to play a football championship game) or 16 (to create two 8-team divisions). The ACC proceeded toward 16 by adding Notre Dame in all sports but football, which moved it to 15 (though 14 temporarily for football) and set the state for it to invite another Big East team for the 16th spot. Rutgers was rumored to be that team -- but the Big Ten had already had conversations with Rutgers about adding it when it thought Notre Dame might join. Thus, the Big Ten needed to find another team to join along with Rutgers . . . and it was in luck, because ACC member Maryland, in its desire to maximize its revenue from football, had already contacted the Big Ten to see if they were interested in it. So the Big Ten promptly added both Rutgers and Maryland, which meant that the ACC needed to add another at least one new member for football. It quickly poached Louisville from the Big East, leaving Connecticut and Cincinnati as the last two powerhouse football members of the conference.
That left the landscape as follows:
Big East - 3
ACC - 14/15
Big Ten - 14
SEC - 14
Big 12 - 10
Pac-12 - 12
The Big East is adding a slew of second-tier teams to get to 12, if they don't make better deals elsewhere first (see Boise State), which will decimate its TV revenue, so both Connecticut and Cincinnati want to bolt desperately. The logical place for Cincinnati to go is the Big 12. However, there is no comparably logical place for Connecticut to go (at least until Notre Dame becomes a football member of the ACC). Nevertheless, this has to be considered the lull before the final storm, as each of the 5 superconferences will look to move to 16 while the Big East tries to stave off irrelevancy or complete collapse.
The final major driver in the move to 16 schools will be the upcoming 4-team playoff for the college football championship. To protect their revenue sources, NCAA Division I-A football was the only division of the NCAA that did not have an NCAA championship, and the schools were determined not to give control of a championship to the NCAA, which would keep the lion's share of the revenues for itself. Instead, the major conferences and major bowls have agreed on a four-team playoff starting in 2014. It goes without saying that the playoff teams will probably be conference champions. A 16-team conference builds up the chance that the conference will have its champion invited to the playoffs.
So, in the end, this is all about TV money -- and it's always been all about TV money, ever since the Supreme Court stripped the NCAA of the right to be the exclusive bargaining agent for college football.