A Brief History of Conference Realignment is a study of how we got where we are today, the traditions that we are burning like bridges in the chase for television money and the ones we burned long ago for far stupider reasons.
As the 1906 college football season drew to a close, the seventeen-game schedules of the 19th Century had largely been replaced due to an absurd number of injuries and deaths in college football. A reduced schedule -- along with things like the forward pass, which opened the game up from the usual scrum -- reduced the heat on university officials and allowed the sport to proceed. There were two conferences -- The Western Conference and Rocky Mountain Conference -- and 54 independent programs playing football, from Harvard in the northeast to Southern Cal in the southwest.
The third conference bloomed into existence in 1907: The Missouri Valley Conference, which eventually became the Big 6, Big 8, and finally the Big 12. In the beginning, the Missouri Valley consisted of five teams: Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas, Washington University of St. Louis, and one team you might not expect: Iowa. From 1907 to 1910, Iowa was a member of both the Western and Missouri Valley conferences. The Hawkeyes were the only team to hold dual conference membership at the time; no team has held dual membership in football since. As the western outlier in a Western Conference that extended to Indiana and Purdue in the east, Iowa actually was a better geographic fit in the Missouri Valley. In 1907, Iowa went 1-1 in the Western Conference, 1-0 (good for a co-championship with Nebraska) in the Missouri Valley, and 3-2 overall. It was Iowa's only conference championship in a conference other than the Big Ten.
There was another massive shift in 1907: Michigan left the Western Conference. After being a founding member of the Big 10 in 1896, Michigan's priorities changed with the reduced schedules. No longer could they play both a handful of Western Conference opponents and local teams, and with the newly-opened 46,000-seat Ferry Field, Michigan chose opponents who would come to Ann Arbor over conference loyalty. In 1907, the Wolverines played Case University from Cleveland, Michigan State, Wabash (Indiana), perennial powerhouse Pennsylvania, and that greatest of all nemises: Ohio State. None of them were members of the Western Conference yet. All of them came to Ann Arbor; Michigan's only road game was an early November trip to Nashville to face Vanderbilt. Five of Michigan's eight games in 1908 were also played at home. Case became an annual early-season home game, and Michigan annihilated them repeatedly. In practical terms, Michigan became the first serial cupcake scheduler.
The three existing conferences continued to expand and solidify over the next decade. In 1908, the Missouri Valley Conference added Iowa State and Drake. In 1911, Iowa finally settled in as a Big Ten member, breaking ties with the MVC and leaving the fledgling conference with six member schools. Kansas State joined the MVC in 1913, the same year Ohio State joined the Western Conference. The Wildcats didn't win a game in their new conference for four seasons. OSU had no such trouble.
The next seismic shift in conference alignment came in 1915, when seven schools from the southern plains formed the Southwest Conference: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Arkansas, Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Rice. For the next 97 years, Texas and Texas A&M would be part of the same conference. And yet, even as conference formed, independent programs expanded even more quickly. In 1915, 55 teams played football as independents.
1915 also featured an event that had no outward immediate effect on conference alignment but would have seismic effects nearly a century later: Washington State defeated Brown in the first Rose Bowl.