Big 10? 11? 12? The NCAA’s Magical Math

Missing from the college athletics equation: accounting and accountability

It’s no wonder that American students’ math skills aren’t up to par with many of their counterparts around the world. Our college presidents aren’t very good in math, either.

Consider that the Big 10 conference actually has 11 teams. Make that 12. The University of Nebraska just opted to abandon the Big 12 for the Big 10.

Or take the Pac 10. It actually has 11 teams: The University of Colorado just agreed to join, abandoning the Big 12.

The Big 12 is actually now the Big 10 (not to be confused with the other Big 10 that should have been called the Big 11 once Penn State joined in 1990). Subtract Nebraska and Colorado from the Big 12—the conference from whence they came before jumping ship—and it adds up to 10, not 12.

Frankly, the Big 12 is lucky. For a moment last week, it looked like it would shrink by another four or five teams including the University of Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, which were being courted by the Pac 10 (really the Pac 11 with the recent addition of Colorado). But they decided to stay put, at least for the time being.

The University of Texas was initially rumored to be headed to the Southeast Conference (SEC), which tells you that our college presidents don’t know much about geography either. The last time I checked MapQuest, Texas was in the Southwest, not the Southeast.

In the event you have been singularly focused on the Gulf of Mexico, awash in black oil with its local business barely treading in red ink, that is not the only place where significant environmental change is occurring.

Our collegiate sports conferences are undergoing a seismic shift that resembles the movement of tectonic plates eons ago that changed much of the world’s topography and continues to fuel earthquakes. With conferences now on shaky ground, earthquakes are occurring in collegiate athletics also, fueled not by tectonic plates but by money—tons of it.

And the money is not printed by the Federal Reserve but by television deals.

So university presidents have been huddled with their athletic directors and financial advisors, playing Let’s Make a Deal, as they are being courted by competing conferences.

Much of the potential realignment is based on maximizing television revenue for the conferences by poaching teams that may be in richer television markets. As of now there is a wide disparity in the television deals each conference demands. The Big 10 (the one that includes Penn State) garners $242 million; the SEC, $205 million; and then a big drop-off with the Big 12 (the one that includes Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, but no longer Nebraska and Colorado), with $78 million.

By trying to attract Texas, Texas A&M, and a couple of other Big 12 schools, the Pac 10 was attempting to increase value of its television market so it could increase its current meagerly $58 million take.

But Texas and the other potential defectors declined the offer because it was able to use the leverage of “free agency” by striking a new television deal, worth a reported $20 million more for the Longhorns.

By deciding to stay put in the Big 12, Texas may have slowed down the musical chairs of conferences that seemed to be spinning out of control.

Still at some point in time, it will resume and I will need to tell my sports-fanatical, naïve grandsons that not only isn’t there a Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy and Easter Bunny but that sports is much more about $$$$ than Xs and Os.

Fair enough. We are a capitalistic economy where the bottom line rule is our new Golden Rule. But at what point do college presidents try to salvage some old fashion values like integrity and fair play?

During the same week universities were jumping ship from one conference to another, the storied University of Southern California athletic program got walloped with a two-year probation, loss of bowl games, scholarships and, perhaps, the football team’s 2004 national championship because then-Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush was apparently the recipient of goodies barred by NCAA rules.

But before the sword fell on the Trojans, Bush entered the NFL where he gets many more goodies to the order of $10 million a year, and USC’s heralded football coach Pete Carroll escaped town and the consequences of having to clean up the mess that occurred on his watch. He is now receiving $7 million a year—up from his $4 million college salary—as the new head coach of the NFL Seattle Seahawks. So much for accountability.

Carroll is just the latest to run for cover before the shit hit the fan. The master, of course, is University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari who left the University of Memphis and University of Massachusetts programs with ethical clouds hovering overhead. But with winning now the only measurable criteria, he is being rewarded as one of the nation’s top-paid basketball coaches as head of the Kentucky Wildcats.

To highlight the steep decline of values in college athletics, the USC “verdict” and the team swapping among conferences occurred within days of the death of the legendary 99-year-old John Wooden, the old-fashioned and most successful basketball coach in history with 10 national championships at UCLA.

His speeches, books and his Pyramid of Success should be required summer reading for university presidents.

And, of course, they should also brush up on their math and geography.