Wiedmer: Vols' Derek Dooley among cynics about SEC expansion

Wiedmer: Vols' Derek Dooley among cynics about SEC expansion

November 8th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Coach Derek Dooley shouts at his players during a timeout.

Photo by Jake Daniels/Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE -- The cynicism in Tennessee football coach Derek Dooley's voice was impossible to ignore.

"Missouri's in the [Southeastern Conference] East, aren't they?" Dooley said Monday. "That fits right along with all this stuff."

All this stuff. All this greedy stuff.

Not content to be a stupendous 12-school league that's won five straight BCS national football championships and two straight College World Series and played in three of the last six basketball Final Fours while winning it all twice, the SEC continued its television-market-grabbing ways Sunday by officially welcoming the Missouri Tigers to the family.

Along with its earlier acquisition of Missouri's Big 12 brother Texsas A&M, the SEC is now 14 members strong, which signals a remarkable change in philosophy in the 11 weeks since Aug. 14.

It was on that summer Sunday that Florida president Dr. Bernie Machen said of a rumored addition of A&M: "The SEC presidents and chancellors met today and reaffirmed our satisfaction with the present 12 institutional alignment."

But in football parlance, that was merely the obligatory fake to the fullback up the middle, something to suck in the gullible.

The real play was for the league to turn upfield as swiftly as possible, grabbing as much real estate as possible before the Big Ten, Pac-12 or ACC beat them to the punch.

To Machen's credit, he strongly hinted as much in that same Aug. 14 statement, adding, "We recognize, however, that future conditions may make it advantageous to expand the number of institutions in the league. We discussed criteria and process associated with expansion. No action was taken with respect to any institution, including Texas A&M."

Now action has been taken on two institutions that previously had almost no ties to the SEC other than that LSU and A&M occasionally played football against each other and Bear Bryant left Kentucky to coach at A&M, then left A&M to return to Alabama, his alma mater.

And Missouri does make the SEC a slightly stronger basketball league and should hold its own with the bottom half of the league in football.

But what Missouri most gives the SEC was quickly recognized by Dooley: "It's a great academic institution, it really is. So it's going to really enhance our academic reputation in the league."

Of course, is a great academic institution going to stand for being stuck in the EAST division of the SOUTHEASTERN Conference when Columbia, Mo., is actually the league's third westernmost campus after A&M and Arkansas?

Moreover, is this really the end of the SEC's program poaching? Or is this halftime? Why stop at 14? Why not go to 16?

After all, most experts believe this is where we're headed. Four super conferences of 16 teams each. If the SEC was the first major conference to split into divisions and play a football championship game, why not be the first football league to go to 16 schools?

Why not pick up Kansas and either West Virginia or Virginia Tech?

(Yeah, I know the Mountaineers say they're bound for the Big 12, but TCU was going to the Big East a couple of weeks before it decided to go to the Big 12. If you're going to hire lawyers to get you out of the Big East, might as well slide 'em a few extra bucks to get you into the SEC.)

Regardless, think of the possibilities. First of all, you divide your football conferences into the Gen. Neyland Division (East) and the Bear Bryant Division (West).

In basketball, you could have the Phog Allen Division (West) and the Adolph Rupp Division (East).

The league could move to nine conference football games with one permanent opponent from the opposite division (Alabama versus Tennessee) and one rotating foe. In basketball you play your seven division foes twice and play half of the other division for two years, then the other half for two years after that.

Is it perfect? No. Especially when the Missouri field hockey team has to drive 870 miles and 14 hours one way from Columbia, Mo., to Columbia, S.C., for a division game against South Carolina. But the Tigers are so strong academically they'll surely be able to survive the missed classes.

Just don't expect Dooley to cheer an expanded SEC.

"I'm big on tradition, so I'm not looking [to change]," he said with a smile. "Although I do wish we hadn't had to play some of those teams this year. That wouldn't have been bad to put the rivalries on hold for a couple of years."

It's possibly putting those rivalries on hold for a good deal longer than two years that has the traditionalists among us wishing to return to a time when East was East and West was West and the SEC was limited to schools in the Southeast.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.