How small schools navigate conference realignment

I haven’t yet posted anything on conference realignment yet, which is something I want to correct — though I admit I’m kind of glad I didn’t write a premature excursus on Texas’s and Oklahoma State’s strategic impact on the Pac-10 or how Will Muschamp would defend Oregon’s spread or how Ohio State would deal with Missouri’s. But the obvious (and most useful) angle to the realignment discussion treats the debate as about business decisions by very profitable entities, with the most coveted being the most profitable entities (Notre Dame and Texas, really). This angle has been much considered.

Yet the more interesting and less focused upon question is to think about what you would have done if you were one of these little guys to be left behind? Arguably nobody handled the realignment issue better — at least once factoring in the relative strength of their bargaining position — than Baylor, whose strong lobbying efforts (coupled with a lucrative TV deal for Texas) helped save the Big 12.

Thus, when I caught an item on the WSJ’s Deal Journal blog I was intrigued. The piece was “Football M&A: How One Small School Navigated Conference Realignment, about how Rice dealt with the demise of the old SWC and found itself in the WAC. It’s worth quoting most of it in full:

How do [small schools] play their M&A strategy when terms are being dictated by the bigger, richer, more winning schools?

Deal Journal tracked down Bobby May, the now-retired athletic director at Rice University who shepherded the Owls through the death of the Southwest Conference in the early to mid-90s to the Western Athletic Conference and, finally, to their current home in the Conference USA.

Then, as now, the culprit behind conference realignment was money, though in the SWC’s case it was how difficult and costly it was getting for its private schools (Baylor, Rice, SMU and TCU) to compete with schools subsidized by the state (Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech and Oklahoma), among other factors.

May is a Rice man through and through. He was a student from 1961-65, came back in 1967 as an assistant track coach, ascended through the athletic department and serving as AD from 1989 to 2006. Here is an edited transcript of our conversation:

Deal Journal: When you were caught up in this, was Rice, as one of the smaller schools in the SWC, trying to be proactive, or did you have to wait to see how the chips fall and then make your move?

May: We were as proactive as we could be. Initially, we were like Baylor University was recently, trying to make the case that it would be better to keep the conference together, in our case the Southwest Conference. But the larger schools have a tendency to have a little more clout, so you pretty much have to react and do the best with what you have. In our case, we found a home in the WAC that was very good for us. Looking back, it wasn’t something you want to see happen. We didn’t want to see the SWC go away, sad to see it go, with all that history, but you have to move forward.

DJ: As a small school among much larger conference forces, were you looking at possible new homes as the SWC was discussing the breakup, or did that only happen afterward?

May: No, that was all post break-up, after the announcement. There was no discussion with the WAC or anyone else prior to that. First, that break-up vote all happened over a weekend, with an announcement on Monday morning that we wouldn’t be going with the Big Four to what was to be called the Big 12, though it was, I think, two years before the SWC finally wound down.

DJ: So, what were your options then?

May: Our choices were pretty limited. We could be an independent, or we could join the WAC. Being an independent wasn’t really a serious option. Joining the WAC turned out to be good for us in many ways. It afforded our student-athletes a chance to play for championships, see different places in the U.S. Then later we found that going to Conference USA would be better for us, especially in terms of expenses of running an athletic program.

DJ: Rice is now a member of the Conference USA. That is three conferences in a fairly short period. Was there a sense that Rice was whipsawed by larger forces?

May: All the moves were positive for us. We were able to be more competitive in the WAC than in the SWC, where we had had a string of losing football seasons–that was not a great time for our program. Moving to the WAC wasn’t something we would have chosen initially, yet it enabled us to be more in the fray for conference championships. It is important to have that chance as athletes.

  • Brian

    Trust me, Baylor’s lobbying fell on silent ears in Austin. Baylor saved nothing, and were sitting ducks at the mercy of Texas, A&M, Tech, Oklahoma and OSU. They will be left out once more if (when) Texas decides to leave again to graze in greener pastures. This was a money grab for Texas, and they will do it again, Baylor be damned.

  • Ed

    Your premise seems solid, but it wasn’t Baylor that monkey-wrenched the Big-16 . . . Colorado jumped up and grabbed the first of 6 available spots, with Tech, UT, A&M and the Oklahoma schools invited to fill the rest. It was the Aggies who stopped the migration by refusing to follow Texas and Oklahoma to the West. When the Longhorns realized they’d be losing a traditional rival — and knew they’d be blamed for that as well as the breakup of the Big 12 and the marooning of Baylor — Texas took the cash and stayed put. BTW: Your Rice stuff is great.