Mark Wiedmer: Expansion may not deliver what's wanted

Mark Wiedmer: Expansion may not deliver what's wanted

May 28th, 2012 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

Georgia State coach Bill Curry shouts from the sideline during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Shorter at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

The date was June 12, 2008, a shade less than four years ago. Having just been named the first football coach in Georgia State University history, Bill Curry was stopped by a GSU booster as he left the podium.

"When are we going to be I-A?" the man asked. "When are we gonna beat the Dawgs [Georgia]?"

"Sir, we don't even have a chinstrap yet," replied Curry, knowing the first game would not be played for more than a year. "We don't have a practice facility. We don't even have players. How are we going to play Georgia?"

Said Curry three days ago, knowing Panthers football will join a form of I-A in 2013 as a member of the Sun Belt Conference: "For someone like us, this is especially daunting. You ask, 'How can this be happening?' But everybody wants to compete at the highest level now."

Let's be clear. The Sun Belt is the highest level of college football only in the sense that it competes in the Football Bowl Subdivision, same as the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten and the rest of the game's financial giants.

But the sheer fact that Georgia State didn't even have a program in May of 2008 and six years later will take the field as a sort of, kind of major college program is astounding.

Or as Curry noted, "I am shocked at how fast it's happened. I don't think anyone thought the earth would move under our feet this quickly."

As the SEC Spring Meetings get under way in Destin, Fla., this week, Curry isn't the only one using soil and sand to get his point across regarding conference expansion and contraction.

"Ah, the shifting sands of conference realignment," Tennessee athletic director Dave Hart mused last week. "And I don't think the sands have totally settled yet. I think we're happy right now with 14 in the SEC. But everybody wants a chance at the Holy Grail (football national championship). Everybody wants to be an automatic qualifier for that playoff, if and when it happens."

Whatever does or doesn't happen this week in Destin, a Bowl Championship Series playoff is going to happen. It may indeed start with four schools, but it will surely quickly jump to eight and might even expand to 16 by the close of the decade, if not sooner.

And given that, no one wants to be left out. Which is why current ACC members Florida State, Miami, Clemson and the like are supposedly reaching out to the Big 12, which only has 10 current members, which makes it ripe for expansion.

Furthermore, with the SEC and Big 12 already joining forces to create a new bowl game, most believe that game would at least be considered for one-half of a four-team playoff, the annual Rose Bowl pairing of the Big Ten and Pac 12 the other obvious semi.

But what happens to schools such as Georgia State, or fellow Sun Belt member Middle Tennessee, schools that are technically FBS, but have next to no relationship with the top conferences, other than they now go to bowls instead of playoffs?

"The mindset now from the fans is that if we're not at the highest level, we're not having the success we should be," Curry said. "Everybody wants to see their program go to the top, the very top."

Both Curry and Hart caution that neither the goal to be the best nor the concern that this is all going to end badly is new.

"When I got to Georgia Tech in 1980 we learned that there had been a meeting to consider dropping football to a non-scholarship level," said Curry. "There was real concern among some faculty and administration members that the school was going in the wrong direction."

Said Hart, "I really believe we're on the doorstep of a [football] playoff evolution, but I've been hearing about football playoff scenarios for 20 years. I've been hearing conference expansion scenarios for 20 years, too. So while it may have heated up more lately, the talk has been around for some time."

Still, this all seems inevitable and unstoppable, every university in the country almost desperate to at least consider fielding a major college football team.

And for those who fall short?

"The marketplace will take care of that, just as it always does," said Curry. "People who don't have success will fall by the wayside and disappear."

Until then, Curry offered a classic word of caution to the haves, have-nots and wannabes as college athletics, particularly college football, approaches its brave new world.

Said Curry, one of the wisest men in any athletics arena: "Be careful what you wish for."