When college sports are rolling along in what we once considered their normal existence, it’s a way of life, regardless of the school or the sport: hop on a bus, drive to the airport and jump on a flight that might cover a thousand or more miles, all to play a conference “rival.” When Miami is in the same league as Syracuse, and Houston is in the same league as Connecticut, there’s no practical way just to ride the road.
“You just replace a bus with a plane,” said Ray Leone, the women’s soccer coach at Maryland. “It takes an hour and 20 minutes to fly to Detroit. It’s amazing.”
That’s one way to look at it. There are others.
“What we all lack right now is a bus ride,” said Nikki Izzo-Brown, Leone’s counterpart at West Virginia. “That’s the thing I miss the most is being able to get on a bus and just compete.”
Conference realignment began in earnest 17 summers ago when the ACC began sniffing around the old Big East. The dust may be settled, at least somewhat. But that doesn’t mean the settling makes sense. Can it be fixed? Consider first the crazy landscape that exists, where overreach and outliers are almost the rule and not the exception.
Creighton is in Omaha. Its teams compete in the Big East. West Virginia is in the Big 12, in which its closest geographic league rival is Iowa State. As the crow flies, that’s 746 miles away. There is one conference that boasts schools in Florida, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Connecticut, Texas, Tennessee, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio and Louisiana. Hello, American Athletic Conference? What the heck are you doing?
The novel coronavirus pandemic has put everything on pause, sports included. Izzo-Brown and Leone are just two coaches trying to hold their teams together in all this uncertainty. But the people who run college sports might use this time to be productive, to put some of the toothpaste back in the tube. We have time now to take a breath. After we exhale, could we ask the question: Do nonrevenue college sports teams from the Northeast really need to be spending five nights in Texas, all in the name of playing two conference games?
“When everything broke up, nobody asked me, right?” said Izzo-Brown, whose tenure at West Virginia extends 24 years, from the old Big East days. “We love the Big 12, just as Rutgers would tell you they love the Big Ten. But does any of it really make much sense? No, it doesn’t.”
No, it doesn’t.
Last season, Leone’s Terrapins played conference games in Lincoln, Nebraska, and Iowa City. Izzo-Brown’s Mountaineers played two conference games in Texas (Waco and Austin) and two more in Kansas (Lawrence and Manhattan). If college sports resume in the fall - a major “if” at this point - similar trips await for all manner of teams in all manner of sports from all corners of the country. It has become so much the norm that we forget it’s abject lunacy.
“Ours are not as bad as you might think,” Leone said.
Leone’s perspective on this matters. More than three decades ago, he started the Division I women’s soccer program at Creighton. “We didn’t have a league,” he said. The closest Division I program was eight hours away.
“We drove everywhere,” he said. From Creighton, Leone went to Clemson, back when the ACC was relatively contained, spanning from Atlanta to Maryland. Seems quaint now, given the ACC runs from Florida to Massachusetts to Indiana and Kentucky, 15 schools in 10 states that aren’t contiguous. He has coached at Arizona State and Harvard. He knows about traveling with teams. He has logged the miles.
“I do like the professionalism of flying together,” he said.
But should so many trips be a flight? And should the flights be so far?
Disclaimer 1: I wish that the ACC were the old ACC (even minus Florida State), that the Big East basketball tournament included Syracuse but not Marquette, Connecticut but not DePaul, and that Texas was still in the same conference as Texas A&M. If that makes me sound like a cranky old man, well, guilty as charged.
But let’s talk about a transformation back to the good ol’ days not as a nod to nostalgia but as a nod to logic. What a concept.
Now, any discussion of this sort must acknowledge that college sports’ tectonic plates shifted all those years ago because of football, which dragged everything else with it. Football had the power then. Football has the power now.
Maybe, though, football could do one thing while other sports do something else?
Before you can say conferences would never allow such an arrangement, they already do. For instance, the Big 12 does not sponsor men’s soccer. So West Virginia’s men’s team plays in the Mid-American Conference - which isn’t as ideal as it sounds, given that means two conference teams in Illinois and another in Michigan. Still, it’s more logical than Waco and Lubbock!
Football has its television contracts and billions of dollars in revenue. Because of that, other programs can exist.
“There’s no secret that football runs the show,” Izzo-Brown said. “We all know that, and we embrace it.”
But must gymnastics and lacrosse and soccer and all the rest be tied to football not only financially but logistically?
Think, too, about the economic crisis facing so many athletic departments at the moment. Last week, Akron cut three varsity sports. Cincinnati, Old Dominion, Central Michigan, Bowling Green and Florida International have all cut sports. If entire teams are being lopped off, might cutting down on travel costs be a good way to salvage some that remain?
Morgantown, W. Va., and College Park, Md., are separated by just more than 200 miles and just less than four hours by car. Imagine if their women’s soccer teams, among others, played regularly. It’s not just sensible. It’s actively better for students.
“You can see the science behind it,” Izzo-Brown said. “When you travel time zones, there’s a toll that puts on your body. When you’re going to the airport and traveling for 12 hours and changing time zones, that’s hard. And then when you’re trying to get flights home, we might get back at 2 in the morning from one of those flights. That’s not very conducive to a student-athlete.”
Let’s pull some schools out of a hat, then. Maryland, West Virginia, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Rutgers, Temple and Virginia. None of those is even a six-hour drive from the other, yet their teams play in four different conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and the AAC. What if their nonrevenue sports created a league of their own, one governed by geography and logic rather than football money? Shoot, throw in George Washington and Duquesne or Navy, and it almost makes too much sense.
This is all hypothetical, a pipe dream, right? Probably. But whenever the pandemic ends, it seems unlikely that everything will be exactly as it once was. There’s time now to fix things for the better. The solutions might not take as long to work out as a flight from Morgantown to Lubbock.