The realignment of major college football conferences has been one of the most important sports stories of the fall. As teams shift from one conference to another, many commentators have described these happenings as unprecedented, and in the minds of many, these developments appear to threaten the stability of college athletics. Rumor has it that the National Sports Law Institute is planning to hold a conference on the legal implications of such changes.
However, the wailing and gnashing of teeth reflects more than anything else a lack of historical awareness on behalf of the wailers and the gnashers. In reality, the history of college athletic conferences has largely been a story of instability and change and not of stability and respect for tradition.
First of all, conferences themselves have come and gone on a fairly regular basis over the history of college sports. For example, most of the major football-playing conferences of today were created in the past half-century. There are currently eleven Football Bowl Division college conferences (Division 1-A, in the previous nomenclature), and 14 Football Championship Division conferences (formerly Division 1-AA). Only three of the former and three of the later (6 of 24 conferences) existed in 1952. As late as 1974, only 6 of the 11 I-A conferences and 3 of the 14 I-AA conferences of today had yet appeared. The remaining 16 were created after 1974. Four of the 11 current FBS conferences—Big 12, Mountain West, Conference USA, and Big East football—were created in the 1990’s.
Periods of change have outnumbered eras of stability. Consider, for example, the saga of the Southern Conference.
In 1894, seven southern universities—North Carolina, Alabama, and Georgia, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Georgia Tech, and the University of the South (Sewanee)—organized the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Association. The SIAA wasn’t so much a league as it was a sort of regional NCAA, designed to facilitate the “development and purification of college athletics throughout the South.”
By joining the SIAA, a college or university pledged to abide by the association’s rules, which initially included a ban on participation in intercollegiate athletics by faculty members and players who were not enrolled as students, a rule limiting players to five years of eligibility, and a prohibition of cash payments to players. The SIAA left the scheduling of games to individual schools, and it did not stage conference championships, other than in track and field.
The association proved to be quite popular, and its membership rapidly expanded to include schools from Kentucky and all of the former Confederate states except Arkansas. Eleven schools joined the following year (1895), and by 1922, the number of member schools in the association had reached 28. (A total of 42 schools had been members at one time or another before 1922, but 14 had subsequently withdrawn.)
However, In 1921, the authority of the SIAA was challenged when thirteen leading football schools in the South—Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kentucky, Mississippi State, North Carolina, North Carolina St., Tennessee, Virginia, Virginia Tech, and Washington and Lee—organized the Southern Conference. Initially, the schools in this group which were SIAA members, which included all of the 13 except for the schools from Virginia and North Carolina, remained members of the SIAA.
However, after 1922, when the new conference added six additional schools: Florida, LSU, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tulane, and Vanderbilt, all the Southern Conference schools who were members of the SIAA withdrew from the older organization. The primary impetus for the withdrawal was a clash between larger and smaller schools (measured by the size of their athletic ambition) over athletic eligibility rules, especially as they applied to freshmen. The SIAA continued to operate until 1942, but for its last 20 years it was essentially as an umbrella association for smaller Southern colleges.
Like the SIAA, the Southern Conference operated in the 1920’s more as an association of like-minded schools than as an integrated sports league. By the end of the decade, the number of schools in the conference had increased from 19 to 23 with the addition of the University of Maryland, Sewanee, VMI, and Duke.
However, as the emphasis shifted from common agreement as to the rules governing college sports to championship competition, the 23-school conference proved to be somewhat unwieldy. In 1932, twelve members from the lower South withdrew to form a new league known, then and now, as the Southeastern Conference. (This group included Georgia Tech and Tulane as well as all of the 2011 members of the Southeast Conference, except for South Carolina and Arkansas.) That same year, tiny Sewanee also dropped out of the Southern Conference, leaving it with a presumably more manageable 10 members.
However, still wedded to the idea of an association of like-minded colleges who did not need to necessarily compete against each other in every sport, the Southern Conference refilled its depleted roster in 1936 by adding seven new members drawn from the ranks of smaller schools. George Washington, Richmond, William and Mary, Davidson, Wake Forest, Furman, and the Citadel, temporarily raised the number of schools in the conference to 17, and made the conference one of schools located in the upper South.
However, the University of Virginia withdrew from the conference the following year, but after that membership became more stable, and from 1937 to 1950, the Southern Conference operated as a 16-team league/association.
Instability returned in the 1950’s. First, the conference increased its number of members back to 17 when the West Virginia University was added to its roster in 1950. Then, in 1953, the conference split apart for a second time when seven members—Maryland, North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, North Carolina State, South Carolina, and Clemson withdrew to form the Atlantic Coast Conference (along with former Southern Conference member, the University of Virginia). That same year, Washington and Lee also decided to de-emphasize football (and ultimately withdrew from the Southern Conference in all sports in 1958), reducing the Southern to a nine school league.
This time, the conference chose not to admit new members, and after the 1953 defections, the conference began to operate as a more conventional (in the late 20th century sense) athletic conference featuring round-robin play and regular championships. The league did not expand again until 1964, when it added East Carolina University, a move which brought the number of football playing schools to ten.
Unfortunately for the status of the Southern Conference, the late 1960’s and 1970’s saw a significant amount of attrition. Virginia Tech, the last original member, withdrew from the conference in 1965, and West Virginia followed suit in 1968. George Washington, Richmond, and William and Mary departed in 1970, 1976, and 1977, respectively.
The departing members were replaced, typically by smaller southern universities who were not traditionally associated with big time athletics. When the NCAA Division I was divided into Division 1A and Division 1AA (for lesser schools), the Southern Conference was placed in the latter category.
The Southern Conference has continued to operate, and currently fields a roster of twelve schools, located in North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama. One of its members, Appalachian State, which was added to the league in 1971, has achieved notable gridiron success in recent years. However, none of the original members are still affiliated. When VMI departed in 2003, it was the last school to have played in the league before the “spin offs” of the Southeastern and Atlantic Coast Conferences.
Three current members—the Citadel, Furman, and Davidson (which no longer plays Southern Conference Football)—remain from the list of schools brought into the conference as a result of the 1936 expansion. The next oldest school in terms of length of conference affiliation is Appalachian State. Long time Southern Conference fans certainly know that the only permanent thing about college football alignments is continuing change.
Even the Big Ten, the oldest college athletic conference, and for many years a symbol of stability, has had several periods in its history in which its membership fluctuated.
The conference was founded in February 1896, as a seven-member alliance that included the Universities of Chicago, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota as well as Northwestern and Purdue Universities. Lake Forest College had been invited to join the new association and had participated in an 1895 organizational meeting, but it apparently decided not to affiliate with the other schools. The new conference was officially known as the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives, but it was usually referred to as the Western Conference.
The Universities of Indiana and Iowa were added in 1899, and shortly thereafter the conference became informally known as the Big Nine. The University of Nebraska petitioned to join as a tenth team in 1900, but its application was denied. In 1907, the number of teams declined to eight when the University of Michigan withdrew after a dispute with other conference members over player eligibility rules. After turning down the University of Nebraska a second time in 1911, the league the returned to nine teams when it added Ohio State the following year. The number of teams increased to 10 for the first time in 1917, when the University of Michigan returned to the fold. At this point, the conference became generally known as the Big Ten (or Big 10).
The number of football teams dropped back to nine in 1939, when the one-time athletic powerhouse University of Chicago eliminated its football program. In 1946, the school withdrew from the conference in all sports, and over the next three years, the Big Nine considered several different schools for membership. The list of potential members included, according to contemporary newspaper reports, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Iowa State, Nebraska, and Marquette (which then had a football team that regularly played several football games a year against Big Ten teams).
Finally, in 1949, the league decided to add Michigan State as the new 10th team. Following the addition of the Spartans, the Big Ten (finally adopted as the conference’s official name in 1987) remained completely unchanged in terms of membership for the next 41 years.
It is the four decade period from 1949 to 1989 that led to the association of the Big Ten conference with stability in the minds of older fans. The next change in the Big Ten alignment came in 1990, when Penn State was invited to join as the 11th member. Nine years later, the league entered into negotiations with Notre Dame to become the conference’s 12th team, but the South Bend institution eventually withdrew from the negotiations. A 12th team was finally added in 2011, when long-time bridesmaid Nebraska was finally invited to join the league.
If one takes away the 40 years from 1949 to 1989, the history of the Big Ten has been as much about change as it has stability.
Recognition of the past doesn’t make it any easier to deal with recent developments, but it does remind us that there is nothing particularly new or unusual about what is going on right now.