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July 2, 2014

TOM LINDLEY: Follow closely as a dozen colleges do the conference shuffle

The most tenured coach at the University of Louisville might not find joining a new athletic conference so special. But for tennis coach Rex Ecarma, the Cardinals’ move is a moment to celebrate.

Ecarma has been at Louisville for 23 seasons, battling the competition in four different conferences, which now becomes five as the Cardinals officially join the Atlantic Coast Conference. The long journey to big-time status is complete.

Ecarma’s experience at Louisville reflects the evolution — some might say turmoil — in college sports over the past two decades or more. Gone are tradition-bound leagues that generally defined a region of the country. They’ve been replaced by five so-called power conferences — the Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern Conference and ACC.

Twelve teams have adopted new conference affiliations this summer. As Louisville moves to the ACC, the Big Ten adds Maryland and Rutgers. East Carolina, Tulane and Tulsa are new members of the American Athletic Conference. Western Kentucky and Old Dominion go to Conference USA. Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Idaho and New Mexico State join the Sun Belt Conference.

Regional affinity has been tossed aside in favor of a new identity that favors large television markets that fuel athletic departments with untold amounts of cash. For instance, Maryland stands to rake in an extra $100 million over the next five years from the Big Ten’s lucrative network contract.

Here’s one indicator of how fast things have changed: The venerable Big Ten conference now has 14 teams, but the same name.

The whirlwind of conference expansion will likely never end, but there’s sure to be a pause in the frenetic growth of recent years. Today’s league members are locked into long-term television packages, which contain prohibitive financial consequences for those wanting out. Checkmate.

In years to come the Big 12 seems to be the only major conference ripe for growth. The great league from the heartland now has 10 teams. There are open spots but not an openness by the league to consider expansion — at least for now.

There’s much more to consider than money. Maryland, for example, was a charter member of the ACC. It has traded its 61-year tenure in that league for a new experience in the Big Ten. Not everyone associated with the Terrapins was sold on the switch.

Old rivals, such as Virginia, are gone. Who will become Maryland’s next bitter foe? That will take time to answer, not only for Maryland but for all the other teams getting familiar with new territory.

As this major change for college athletics unfolded, it was fun to watch and exciting to speculate on how the transformation would work out. Now, with the pending start of a new athletic year later this summer — remember when it used to be fall? — fans will get to see what has been constructed.

What they won’t see are all of the teams. Teams in the Big Ten, as an example, will play an eight-game conference football schedule. That means any given team won’t play against five members of the conference during the regular season. Then there are new and much longer travel considerations. How many Rutgers fans are likely to travel to Nebraska on Oct. 25, when a trip from the New Jersey campus out to Lincoln measures about 1,300 miles?

The same could be asked for other teams switching conferences across the land. Maybe no one has it worse than Idaho, which joined the Sun Belt Conference and will have trips to several Deep South states.

If travel plans present challenges, so does the move into a more competitive league. Fans once accustomed to winning big in their old leagues will need to adjust to playing in a super-sized conference where talent runs deep. Not only have leagues gotten larger, the competition is stiffer.

In basketball, the ACC added three powerhouses from the old Big East to what was already one of the top leagues in the country.

The upcoming year promises a new experience. If bigger is better, fans of college athletics have never had it so good.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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