(USA Today) -- When the Big 12 finalized its new television deal in early September, followed just days later by the Atlantic Coast Conference adding Notre Dame as a partial member and raising the league's exit fee to $50 million, a sense of relative calm settled over college athletics. The fear and greed that had fueled a rash of conference realignment since the summer of 2010 seemed to be at a pause.
But athletic departments across the spectrum were once again thrown a huge realignment curveball this weekend when they learned of reports that the Big Ten was in advanced discussions to add Maryland and Rutgers, increasing its membership to 14 schools. Though nothing is official yet - Maryland could get authorization from its Board of Regents as early as Monday to leave the ACC - conversations with officials at multiple schools revealed a sense of shock Saturday night and Sunday and some concern that another round of panic-driven moves could be at hand.
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Just a couple months after decision-makers in college athletics seemed ready for the landscape to stabilize, at least until assessing the impact of the college football playoff in 2014, uncertainty once again hangs in the air.
"Everyone's going to start looking over their shoulder again," said one major conference athletic director, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issues. "You can see the Big Ten's strategy if you think about it, but not a lot of people expected this so soon after the last round. Certainly, it makes you wonder what's the next thing that's going to drop in our laps."
The Big Ten's potential expansion caught the industry off guard for a couple reasons. After adding Nebraska last year, which got the league to 12 schools, there seemed to be little immediate incentive for the Big Ten to get even bigger unless Notre Dame was one of those teams. The Big Ten's deals with ABC/ESPN and Fox don't expire until 2016, and according to a report in the St.Louis Post-Dispatch, league schools received $24.6 million each last year,which is the most lucrative television deal in college sports.
It also caught many by surprise that Maryland, which has recently had to cut sports to meet budget, would swallow the $50 million buyout from the ACC, and that the Big Ten would be interested in Rutgers. Neither school will help the Big Ten's football reputation, which has struggled in recent years, or add much of a draw for fans in the way that Nebraska did as a nationally renowned brand. What it does, however, is provide an entrée for the Big Ten to get its television network on more basic cable tiers on the East Coast, which translates to even more millions.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick speculated Saturday that News Corporation's minority purchase last week in the YES Network, a New York-based regional sports channel, could have played a role. News Corp. is the parent company of Fox, which also owns part of the Big Ten Network.
"If this occurs, this particular outcome does not come as a surprise," Swarbrick told reporters. "The timing is a surprise. If anything else was going to happen in the Big Ten, it was going to be east."
On Sunday, Rutgers coach Kyle Flood said it wouldn't have an impact on his team, which is trying to win its first Big East title. It is widely known, however, that Rutgers has been trying to find a lifeline out of the Big East, which has lost Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia and TCU (though they never played a game) in the last year.
"I've heard a lot of things over the last 8 years and I've come to realize the best thing for me to do is not react to it," Flood said. "Those types of decisions I leave in the hands of (athletics director) Tim Pernetti and the athletic department, and regardless of what happens we'll be in a good place."
Another shakeup could have profound effects on college athletics, though nobody is quite sure what they are. Though Maryland isn't a football power, it is a founding member of the ACC, and the circumstances of its departure could destabilize other leagues to varying degrees. The industry is now back to the point where pretty much anything and everything in conference realignment could be on the table.
Maryland was one of two schools, along with Florida State, to vote against raising the ACC exit fee to $50 million. If Maryland joins the Big Ten, it will likely attempt to negotiate the number down or challenge it legally. One ACC official, who asked not to be identified due to the sensitive nature of the situation, said the conference would take a hard-line stance on the buyout.
"Our legal council was present during those meetings and they listened to the discussions that surrounded the increase and they absolutely are satisfied that it's legally binding," the official said. "There are no loopholes."
Raising the exit fee to $50 million was a direct response to the events of this past May, when the chairman of Florida State's Board of Trustees publicly blasted the ACC's television deal and encouraged school leaders to look at what the Big 12 might offer.
The Big 12 currently sits at just 10 teams, but its sweetheart TV deal ensures that only a handful of schools would increase the conference's value enough to be worth adding. Florida State is one of them, though, and the school's anti-ACC faction could be re-energized by Maryland's move, especially if the $50 million exit fee proves to be less rigid than it appears on the surface.
One way or another, the Big 12 is going to be a key figure in what happens next. If the Big 12 stays at 10 teams, the ACC has a couple options. It could try to entice Notre Dame to replace Maryland as a full football member (an admittedly unlikely scenario at this point), sit tight for awhile as a 13-school league (with Notre Dame, it has an even 14 in basketball and other sports) or add an all-sports member (UConn would seem to be the most logical candidate).
Meanwhile, the SEC is in the late planning stages of its own television network, which will mimic the concept behind the Big Ten's. The SEC added more television sets last year when it brought Texas A&M and Missouri on board, but nobody from the league office has publicly or privately ruled out going to 16 teams in the future. The only question is whether schools that add value would be available. A destabilized ACC would be one of the few remaining pathways for that to happen, and it could also open the door to the Big Ten expanding even more (it sniffed around Georgia Tech during the 2010 expansion, and North Carolina would be a big, shiny prize) or for the Big 12 to go to 12,14 or more.
A lot would have to happen for those kinds of superconference scenarios to take shape, but when something as big as Maryland leaving the ACC comes out of the blue like that, imaginations and emotions run wild. The ACC hasn't had any schools leave since South Carolina went independent in 1971, so this is a significant blow in perception, if nothing else.
Meanwhile, the Big East is bracing for another round of possible defections coming right in the middle of its television negotiations. ESPN's exclusive negotiating window with the Big East expired at the beginning of this month, and its rights are currently on the open market.
If Rutgers were to follow Maryland to the Big Ten and also lose UConn, the league would essentially mimic the group of teams that merged from the Metro and Great Midwest Conferences to form Conference USA in the mid-1990s, plus Boise State and San Diego State's football programs and a smattering of old-guard Big East basketball schools like Georgetown, Villanova, Providence and St. John's.
The Big East can always replace schools - it has already been pursuing BYU or Air Force for the 14th slot, and East Carolina among others would like to be in the mix - but any additional expansion by the Big 12 would leave the Big East vulnerable to more poaching. If the television contract doesn't meet expectations, that could be problematic given the inherent logistical issues of the Western experiment. Meanwhile, chaos only enables the minority faction of basketball-only schools to make more noise about breaking away and forming their own league, even though the data doesn't support that it would be as financially viable as sticking with the football side - at least for now.
Across the spectrum of coaches and administrators, nobody knows right now where all this is headed. They just know it's about to be their headache again.
"I'm not a big fan of (it), maybe because I'm spoiled in traditionalism. But I'm also questioning travel with how hard school and academics (is)," Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo said. "I give our conference credit that we're being proactive the best we can, because it's kind of a zoo out there right now. And I'm trying to figure out, watching a little football, is West Virginia in a conference or the human race or somewhere else? It's a little more difficult to do than it used to be. TCU, SMU, I'm not sure where they are. I don't enjoy that, but I understand that's part of the business we're in."