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Changing college sports landscape makes Syracuse’s future uncertain

This is the end of the world as we know it, and if I’m John Wildhack or one of scores of other major college athletic directors, I’m not feeling fine. After last week’s seismic shifting news that USC and UCLA were bolting the Pac-12 for the riches of the Big Ten Conference, Wildhack has to be wondering what the next move is for the Syracuse University sports programs he oversees.

The only thing certain in college athletics these days is uncertainty — and unbridled greed. The bloating of the Big Ten (which, with the addition of the Trojans and Bruins in 2024, will boast 16 schools) isn’t over. More moves are sure to come as the enormous Big Ten and Southeastern Conference (SEC) stage furious arms races that threaten to reduce the Big Five power conferences to the Big Two.

We prognosticated years ago that the football juggernaut schools would eventually break away from the equally avaricious and dysfunctional NCAA and form their own super-duper conference. It appears that day of reckoning is upon us. “Apocalypse now” is the apt description.

The poaching of USC and UCLA by a conference that isn’t good about counting its number of members but sure is good about counting dollars has propelled this Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest game into warp speed. The SEC got the avalanche rolling when it stole Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 a year ago. Now there’s talk about the SEC raiding the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) to grab Clemson and Florida State, and perhaps Miami and Virginia, too.

The inaccurately named Big Ten isn’t done, either. Oregon and Washington would like to join USC and UCLA, but Big Ten officials have told them they’ll have to wait, because the league reportedly is courting Notre Dame heavily. The Irish have a national brand and a television deal with NBC that has poured hundreds of millions into their athletic coffers. Notre Dame would prefer to remain a football independent and continue its loose agreement of playing its non-football sports schedule in the ACC; but the really big Big Ten would make perfect sense, given its geography and clout that soon may land it a billion-dollar-plus TV and streaming deal. The Irish have to wonder about the future of the ACC. Should the four aforementioned schools leave for the SEC, that will be the death knell for the ACC.

Which brings us to Syracuse. The Orange program is no stranger to the permutations of conference realignment. A century ago, when the likes of Harvard, Yale and Cornell were football powerhouses, SU considered joining the Ivy League, but some bad blood between the Orange and the Big Red on the gridiron thwarted the move. Syracuse remained independent until 1980, when it became a charter member of the Big East. That arrangement worked marvelously, especially in basketball, for almost two decades. But like other conferences, the Big East eventually became too big for its own britches, expanding into areas that made no geographic or athletic sense. At one point, more than half of the conference’s schools didn’t field Division I football programs, which greatly complicated matters.

As the first decade of this century drew to a close, college realignment reared its ugly head again. Though widely criticized for steering SU to the ACC a decade ago, athletics director Daryl Gross really had no choice. Yes, the geography of the switch was awkward, but it helped that SU was joining forces with longtime rivals Boston College and Pitt. And Syracuse only enhanced its academic profile and student recruitment by associating itself with the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Virginia. Some schools, such as Connecticut, waited too long to align with a Power Five conference, and found themselves on the outside looking in. The Huskies’ once promising football program is now the dregs.

A decade later, Syracuse finds itself pondering the question The Clash once posed to punk rock fans: “Should I stay or should I go now?” It’s an existential query for ‘Cuse sports, given the precarious future of the ACC. Six years ago, the conference reportedly sought to deter schools from jumping ship by passing a grant of rights resolution, which legally secured the ACC television and streaming rights of its members through 2036. So, even if two-time football national football champion Clemson were to flee, the broadcasting and digital revenues the Tigers earned from their new conference would have to be shared with ACC schools. Some have called the resolution air-tight, but it’s never been legally challenged, and who knows what would happen were it litigated. We could soon find out. And if it were struck down, the floodgates would burst open and the ACC might be on life support.

When asked about UCLA’s dramatic move last week, Bruins’ athletics director Martin Jarmond cited the dangers of inertia, telling ESPN, “We cannot afford to stand still.”

Should the ACC dissolve, the really big Big Ten might be a good fit for Syracuse. If Pitt and Boston College were to join the Orange, they’d be able to maintain their longstanding Eastern rivalries and revive old ones with Penn State. One of the other unknowns is how big the Big Ten and SEC want to become. Twenty schools apiece is not out of the question — maybe even 30 apiece.

Personally, I hate what’s happening to major college sports. I’m not naïve. They’ve always been big business, but in the past decade, the pursuit of the almighty dollar has kicked into hyperdrive. It is so out of control. Where it ends is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to end well for a college sports world that has become way too big.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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