NCAA Conferences Explained - trackboundUSA

NCAA Conferences Explained

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With the majority of NCAA conferences taking place this weekend, we review the defections, mergers, and general to-ing and fro-ing of universities in the past two years that have led to demonstrable changes in the NCAA conference structure. As these changes can easily impact the competitiveness of your prospective conference, we take a look at who has moved where, the mooted plans for future exchanges, and how this can influence your NCAA experience as a whole.

Much like a frantic January transfer window, the relocation of one university can cause a knock-on effect that reverberates throughout the entire conference arrangement. However, due the lucrative nature that simply being associated with a particular conference carries, there is often a lengthy bureaucratic review as to whether applicants for a newly-opened position would add value to the current reputation and marketability of that conference.

If you are familiar with the conference system already, we won’t bore you by breaking down what a conference is. Just know, historically, geographical location has, for the most part, been the overriding factor as to why certain universities have been paired together. That being said, there have always been exceptions. For example, the 2011 edition of Western Athletic Conference Outdoor Championships was held in Honolulu, Hawaii. Despite only having a women’s track and field team, the University of Hawaii acted as hosts for both the men’s and women’s championships – much to the gratitude of teams like Utah State and Idaho, no doubt. Nevertheless, current trends have run against the geographical grain and have looked to pit some of the biggest and most successful teams against each other in what can only be seen as a prelude to the NCAA Championships.

Currently, how many conferences are there?

The U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USTFCCCA) has defined 31 NCAA Division 1 conferences, which you can find here.

If geographical location is becoming ever more redundant, why then bother with a conference set-up at all?

One word: money. The majority of conference moves have been predicated by the opportunity of universities striving to be within the most competitive, and subsequently lucrative, American football and basketball teams. Much like Sky’s Premier League television rights being that much higher than teams in the Npower Football League, so are the upper echelons of collegiate sports. If we consider American football as the prime example, we can see that it, more often than not, is the fulcrum for shake-ups within the major conference structures.

Kaye Hawes, staff writer for The NCAA News, said, “The NCAA’s father was football and its mother was higher education.” Needless to say, like any sport, the universities with the biggest stadiums and fan bases generate the highest revenue. According to the Department of Education, in 2010, the University of Texas – solely through their college football team — accrued gross revenue of $93,942,815 with a net profit of $68,830,484. As the Huffington Post put it, “There’s Big Pharma, Big Agra, Big Oil — and then there’s Big College Football.”

In fact, the branding of the conference name is of such importance that it can belie the true number of teams within it. For example, the Big Ten has such a franchised marketability that it has its own cable network, the Big Ten Network. Where this becomes farcical is when the conference realignment causes, for the time being at least, the Big Ten Conference to have 12 teams while the Big 12 Conference to have only 10. Conversely, Oregon’s Pacific-10 Conference, with the addition of Colorado University and the University of Utah, has become the Pac-12 as of last year and forsaken its longstanding name.

What relation does this have to track and field?

In effect, there is far from a direct correlation with a university being a NCAA Football champion — based off the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) since 1998 — and a NCAA Outdoor Track and Field team winner (see table below for past 20 years). With that being said, Arkansas somewhat skew the results as their dominance on the track has not translated to BCS Championships. However, one thing that can be unquestionably deduced is that the Southeastern Conference (SEC) is a sporting powerhouse in either category, totalling 13 of the past 20 track and field winners, as well as 12 of the last national football champions.

Year

NCAA Track

National Football

1992

Arkansas

Alabama

1993

Arkansas

Florida State

1994

Arkansas

Nebraska

1995

Arkansas

Nebraska

1996

Arkansas

Florida

1997

Arkansas

Michigan

1998

Arkansas

Tennessee

1999

Arkansas

Florida State

2000

Stanford

Oklahoma

2001

Tennessee

Miami, Fla.

2002

LSU

Ohio State

2003

Arkansas

LSU

2004

Arkansas*

USC*

2005

Arkansas*

Texas

2006

Florida State

Florida

2007

Florida State*

LSU

2008

Florida State

Florida

2009

Texas A&M

Alabama

2010

Texas A&M

Auburn

2011

Texas A&M

Alabama

* Means title vacated for NCAA violation.

With the above in mind, how exactly should this impact your choice of what university to attend?

As previously discussed, big football means big endowment which normally means bigger budgets for the track team. Depending upon the set-up at the university, this often allows for greater facilities – whether that be student-athlete gyms and dining halls, more team gear, more trips to the bigger meets that require flying to get to, or just general amenities. Essentially, if the football – or basketball – team is highly profitable, that wealth gets spread around the rest of the athletic department and can almost ensure that you have your full quota of scholarships available.

What teams from smaller conferences have had national success?

Big revenue doesn’t always guarantee big success, nonetheless, as the table below shows, the team winners of the NCAA Cross Country Championships of the past 20 years have been predominantly part of some of the biggest conferences.

In the team standings, only four conferences are represented – Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, and the Big Ten. Despite this, individually, there have always been representatives from teams with a well-known running pedigree that have been able to have an individual shine; Keith Kelly for Providence for example. With regards the British contingent, Butler University have done well are part of a small conference and do not have a college football team; however, they do have one of the nation’s top basketball teams. With this in mind, it is that much more impressive that Iona – who has no college football financing and a mid-level basketball team — have been able to consistently perform at the national level without a strong conference background.

Year

NCAA Cross Country Team

Individual

1992

Arkansas

Bob Kennedy, Indiana

1993

Arkansas

Josephat Kapkory, Washington State

1994

Iowa State

Martin Keino, Arizona

1995

Arkansas

Godfrey Siamusiye, Arkansas

1996

Stanford

Godfrey Siamusiye, Arkansas

1997

Stanford

Mebrahtom Keflezighi, UCLA

1998

Arkansas

Adam Goucher, Colorado

1999

Arkansas

David Kimani, South Alabama

2000

Arkansas

Keith Kelly, Providence

2001

Colorado

Boaz Cheboiywo, Eastern Michigan

2002

Stanford

Jorge Torres, Colorado

2003

Stanford

Dathan Ritzenhein, Colorado

2004

Colorado

Simon Bairu, Wisconsin

2005

Wisconsin

Simon Bairu, Wisconsin

2006

Colorado

Josh Rohatinsky, Brigham Young

2007

Oregon

Josh McDougal, Liberty

2008

Oregon

Galen Rupp, Oregon

2009

Oklahoma State

Sam Chelanga, Liberty

2010

Oklahoma State

Sam Chelanga, Liberty

2011

Wisconsin

Lawi Lalang, Arizona

What does the conference experience consist of?  

Although competing at conference will, in fact, only end up being barely 1% of your university experience, it does have an indelible linkage as to how you will experience the remainder of your time there. A strange paradox of importance, the majority of teams will essentially build their year around conference, yet it is over, in most cases, in the space of a long-weekend. Winning conference titles shouldn’t ever be belittled, but when UK and Irish athletes head over to the States, athletic priorities almost always dictate fast times first, conference accolades a distant second. It is this mentality that has propagated criticism of the current British running scene and the systemic failure of present-day runners prioritising fast, paced BMC races over local and national championships. Regardless, one thing that the NCAA does provide is ample opportunity to hone your racing skills, often in with multiple times over the space of the same weekend.

Which teams are moving where?

Again, much like the 11th-hour rumours circulating on the last day of the transfer window, speculation has been rife as to which universities will chop and change for the upcoming season. College Sports Info has given a thorough and up-to-date breakdown here.

As for certainties, the Conference USA will be welcoming 6 additional teams for the 2013 season; which means the British contingent at Tulsa will have to deal with the incoming Florida International, Louisiana Tech, North Texas, Texas San Antonio, Charlotte and Old Dominion after Houston, SMU, UCF and Memphis left for the Big East.

On reflection, the conference structure is somewhat akin to the proverbial chicken and the egg: are universities in big conferences because they’re good, or are they good because they’re in big conferences? It seems that regardless of the answer, one thing that is infinitely true is that there looks to be no breaking the perpetual cycle of the big-conference stranglehold on NCAA titles.

 

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