Thursday, September 20, 2012

An Apology for Louisville

It has been well over a week now since I read Dan Wetzel's analysis of the new marriage between Notre Dame and the ACC. So much of what Wetzel offers strikes me as true, though I find myself stopping short of declaring this move the great stabilizing moment for all of college football that Wetzel wants it to be. More definitively, I object to his analysis of how this effects the prospect of expansion for the Big 12:

The Big 12 could still come after the Big East's Louisville, Cincinnati or someone else, but that league is adamant, both on and off the record, that it is excited about having just 10 members right now. Everyone from commissioner Bob Bowlsby to Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds has spoken of the advantage of playing a true round robin in football and basketball and avoiding the additional challenge of a conference title football game, which can knock a team out of national title contention.

Besides, the league just signed a huge new television deal. With Notre Dame and any ACC powers now no longer a possibility, there isn't any program out there that would make economic sense to add. Everyone else just waters the league down.

For someone who just expended a great deal of energy arguing that the Big East had just been saved as a major league, Wetzel sure doesn't seem all that impressed with its top teams. His most basic claim that adding Louisville would water down the talent pool of the conference is easily debunked. Since joining the Big East, Louisville has posted a 72-42 record, one that becomes more impressive if you exclude the deeply unfortunate years under Steve Kragthorpe. Sure, that was a record achieved in the Big East, but it is nevertheless better than Iowa State's record during the same period. Better than a resurgent Kansas State as well. Without even doing the research, I'd be willing to wager it is notably better than Baylor and Kansas's records as well (maybe combined). Not all of that success is attributable to being in a weak conference either. Just before joining the Big East, Louisville would finish its season ranked sixth in the AP poll, a feat it would achieve again two years later after beating the ACC champion Wake Forest in the Orange Bowl. Undefeated and well ranked again already this season, I think it is indefensible to suggest that their addition to the Big 12 would just be a watering down of the conference.

But I had a problem with Wetzel's analysis even before I sat down this past weekend and giddily watched the Cardinals handle the Tar Heels, and I will still have a problem with it even if by some miracle Louisville is upset by Florida International (1-2) this weekend. There are at least two reasons beyond football prowess why the Big 12 should continue to keep Louisville in its sites. The most obvious is basketball. While college basketball certainly isn't the money machine that college football is, it is hardly something to scoff at either. Louisville's basketball credentials are familiar and impressive. Even just a quick perusal of some reputable sources would have taught Wetzel that Louisville has the 9th best winning percentage in college basketball all time, two national championships, nine final four appearances, and 38 tournament appearances with 64 tournament wins. All in all, they are variously ranked either the seventh or sixth best men's collegiate basketball program in the modern history of the sport. With the obvious exception of the Kansas Jayhawks, no one in the Big 12 even comes close. In fact, the rest of the teams don't have a national title between them, unless, of course, you want to count the two noteworthy championships of Oklahoma A&M in the forties. Adding Louisville would dramatically improve the basketball profile of the conference.

There is an even greater contribution the Cardinals could make, though we may be loath to admit it. Adding the University of Louisville to the conference would substantially improve its academic profile. The Big 12 is constantly fighting with the SEC for the title of the toughest conference in football. The two are equally determined to squabble over which can have the poorest academic standing. With the departure of Texas A&M for the SEC, the Big 12 is pulling ahead (maybe in both categories). While adding Louisville is not likely to replace A&M and it certainly won't be like adding another Texas, it will represent a substantial improvement over the present academic state of the conference. (And the same would be true of adding Cincinnati, but I am less taken with that idea.) Louisville has a much better track record of producing substantial research, particularly in the field of medicine, than most of the Big 12 schools and a much larger endowment to student ratio. With schools like Texas Tech and Baylor on the cusp of pulling their universities into the Tier 1 category, adding a school like Louisville can only aid the academic standing of the conference.

There are, of course, more if less compelling reasons. For example, it might be nice if poor West Virginia was floating off on a veritable island east of the Mississippi. It would also be great to start to develop a fan and recruiting base in the South, particularly now that the SEC has its claws into Texas. It is also almost too delicious to bear to imagine the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry being an annual weekend for the Big 12 to gloat over the SEC.

So no, Mr. Wetzel, I will not be content with ten teams, or at least not the ten teams presently in the Big 12. I don't think the powers-that-be in the conference should be either. While Wetzel's vision of the future is more probable than my own, I would like to continue to naively believe that the Big 12 is run by people who are capable of seeing beyond mere football in the decisions that they make. It is not too much to hope that the Big 12 can be the SEC in football, the ACC in the classroom, and still entertain bored fans in the spring while we wait for colleges to start playing a real sport again in September.

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