It seems as if we can't get away from realignment. Rumors swirl on an almost daily basis, but as the BCS level schools have cooled, off the dominoes are starting to fall faster and harder in the mid-major ranks, and frankly I think it is slowly killing everything that is great about college athletics.
I know football is a motivating factor in most of these realignment moves, but should it be? I grew up watching sports in the Colonial Athletic Association in Richmond, Virginia. The conference was great, and what made it great was watching the in-state schools (VCU, Richmond, James Madison, William & Mary, ODU, and George Mason) play each other and experience passionate rivalries and fan bases on the court and in the stands.
Local rivalries draw fans to sports and create memories. If you find yourself at a water cooler at work, you're likely talking about "State School A" versus "State School B".
The first domino to fall was years and years ago when Richmond left the CAA for the Atlantic 10. The move made sense because despite being in the south, the University of Richmond and its student base is a very northern school. The move was an insult to the CAA, so much so that it was frowned upon to see someone wearing Spiders gear at the Richmond-based CAA basketball tournament.
Even without Richmond, the CAA flourished. Some of the most memorable conference tournaments ever played took place in the Richmond Coliseum in the mid-2000's and birthed teams that are now legendary like Jim Larranaga's George Mason team or Shaka Smart's VCU team. Now all of that is gone.
George Mason left for the Atlantic 10 earlier this week and the rumor is now that James Madison may not be far behind in leaving the CAA for the Sun Belt Conference. That means a conference with such strong state ties and great rivalries will have one team left in the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Tribe of William & Mary.
What do you do if you're William & Mary? You're just left sitting in an abandoned house, in a depleted CAA, with a stretched out geographical footprint. Do you wait to see if the CAA will expand? But how would that benefit the Tribe? Do you bolt for the Patriot League, Big South, or Southern Conference? It's just hard to believe that it has come to this. Realistically, can the CAA even hold on? Or are they just going to follow in the footsteps of those who have depleted them and raid the likes of the Southern Conference, America East, Northeastern Conference, or Big South?
Conference officials, college presidents, and athletic directors in the BCS made a decision long ago to start this mess. Do they care? No. But in their wake they have left carnage; carnage that is destroying everything that is great about college athletics and hurting every other sport that doesn't have goal posts. It's incredible to think that some states haven't gotten involved or that academics didn't think of their peer institutions before making some of these moves.
I don't know what the answer is. I realize I'm probably an exception rather than the rule. I enjoyed growing up watching local rivals and peer institutions go at each other. A prime example is where I went to college, Longwood University.
For years Longwood traveled the Division I ranks as a nomadic Independent. We'd play anywhere and anyone who would have us. We just finished our first year in the Big South and I'm more than happy to have a home. But it's not only that, it's that we're in a conference with 12 schools who are in close proximity of one another and are truly peers on and, for the most part, off the court.
One of the Big South peers is Liberty University. If you've been to Liberty's campus lately then you'll notice athletic facilities all around that far out-do anyone else in the Big South. Liberty has money through online programs that mimic a University of Phoenix and other channels that allow them to make these types of upgrades.
As long as I can remember, Flames fans have been clamoring to move to the Sun Belt conference to play "big time" football. Why? I just don't get it. The ceiling for that is beating Louisiana-Monroe or Arkansas State for a Sun Belt title and heading to the GoDaddy.com Bowl. Can someone explain to me what's so great about that from a sports fans perspective? Not to mention that your basketball team is going to travel ridiculous distances to play teams in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, Arkansas, etc.
Why can't we be content with playing at a level that is comparable to our peers and keeping intact the traditional and geographic rivalries that make college sports great? Fans have a syndrome where they immediately stick their fingers in their ears and start yelling "LA LA LA LA LA!". The truth is, realigning now is going to help you. We've all seen the future and its four mega-conferences, likely with their own championships and tournaments.
Schools are taking the easy way out and I'm not only talking about football schools, I'm talking about the likes of VCU. Fans will point at more at-large bids or how bad the CAA is looking now. That's not the point. If your program is truly elite, then take care of business where you are. Gonzaga is the prime example of this.
Was the CAA pretty bad this year? Yes. Does the future look pretty dismal? Yes. But what fans don't realize is schools like VCU were the flagship and they had the ability to stick with a conference rather than destroy it. Say things stood pat last summer and instead of running, the conference decided to build upon their flagship program and bring in other programs like Davidson or Richmond or George Washington, then the CAA would look just as enticing as the Atlantic 10 does now sans the teams mentioned and transitioned.
VCU isn't the only destroyer of worlds here, so I'm sorry to pick on the Rams. It's just the most regional example I have to offer.
I just ask as sports fans that we stop getting caught up in the fantasy sports that realignment has become and think about what moments drew you to support your particular school or team. What's best for your program as a UNIVERSITY? Think about the others you're leaving behind and think of where you once were and likely will end up again. Success and winning is hard to sustain and things aren't always going to go your way.
The grass isn't always greener on the other side, and its only a matter of time that many fans, colleges, and programs realize that.