A Brief History of Conference Realignment, Part 4: Schism!

A Brief History of Conference Realignment (the first three parts available here) 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.

When we left off in January -- sorry, I should have saved this series for post-basketball and post-spring football -- it was 1922. The 22-team Southern Conference had just formed, the Pacific Coast Conference had just added USC and Idaho to boost its membership to eight, and Oklahoma had left the Southwest Conference for the Missouri Valley. At the close of 1922, six major conferences -- the Western/Big 10, Missouri Valley, Pacific Coast, Rocky Mountain, Southern, and Southwest -- controlled the landscape, with 30 teams playing as independents.

Minor adjustments to the major conferences marked 1923 through 1926. Montana State joined the Rocky Mountain in 1923, while on-again, off-again member Northern Colorado re-enrolled. The RMAC added Western State in 1925, moving to 12 members. TCU, an independent from 1896 to 1922, joined the Southwest Conference the same year. For two short seasons, the Southwest played with eight members. When Oklahoma A&M (later renamed Oklahoma State) left for the Missouri Valley in 1925, the SWC opted to remain at seven teams: Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, Baylor, Rice, SMU, and Arkansas.

The Southwest was not the only conference that was solidifying. Everywhere, the initial conference Big Bang was coming to an end, with teams arranging into galaxies. The Big 10 had been the same since Michigan returned in 1917; it would be 29 years before the University of Chicago stopped fielding competitive teams and 33 years before the conference added another school. Montana was added to the Pacific Coast Conference in 1924; the conference made a slightly bigger impact when it extended an invite to UCLA in 1928, expanding membership to ten schools. Those ten teams -- Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, USC, UCLA, Stanford, Cal, Idaho, and Montana -- would remain the only ten teams in the PCC until 1950. The Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference stayed at 12 members through 1937.

There was still some volatility, though, particularly in the Great Plains. The Missouri Valley had expanded rapidly: After being formed from seven institutions in 1907 and quickly relegated to six when Iowa left, the conference had poached Oklahoma and Oklahoma State from the SWC, lost and then brought back Nebraska, and invited independents Kansas State and Grinnell (IA). By 1928, the conference was looking slightly ragged. The private schools -- Grinnell, Washington University, and Drake -- were occasionally competitive, but did not stack up with the large state universities at the heart of the conference, and we know what happens when the Great Plains schools aren't happy about the small, private mouths at the table leeching off their largesse.

At a conference meeting in Lincoln in May 1928, six of the seven state schools -- Nebraska, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri, and Oklahoma -- pulled one of those "Everyone who is in the conference next year step forward NOT SO FAST DRAKE" stunts and broke away from the others. The new conference retained the MVIAA name, but quickly became known as the Big 6. The remaining schools -- Oklahoma A&M, Drake, Grinnell, and Washington -- started the Missouri Valley Conference that you all know and love in your March office pools today. The small schools tried to build their own league, adding teams like Creighton, Tulsa, Washburn, Saint Louis, and Wichita State over the next decade, but they never got back to the major leagues. It eventually stopped sponsoring football in 1985. The Big 6, on the other hand, became one of the nation's most celebrated conferences, and remained stable through the 1946 season.

That left just one Wild West, anything goes conference on the map: The Southern Conference, still swollen to 22 teams of varying sizes and abilities throughout the deep south and mid-Atlantic. The conference remained more a loose confederation of teams than a formal, contiguous organization (though, ironically, the Southern Conference was the first league to hold a postseason conference basketball tournament, in 1922). Teams played between five and seven conference games a season, and a conference champion was basically an educated guess. It was simply too big, too weak, and too Southern. Yet another secession by the schools of the Deep South was, frankly, inevitable.

In December 1932, the 13 biggest programs south and west of the Appalachians notified the SoCon that they were leaving to form their own conference. Those 13 schools -- Alabama, Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Florida, LSU, Vanderbilt, Georgia Tech, Sewanee, and Tulane -- were the charter members of the Southeastern Conference, beginning play in 1933. Alabama won the first football championship. Roll Tide.

The remaining teams -- Virginia, Clemson, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia Tech, South Carolina, Maryland, Duke, VMI, and Washington & Lee -- continued on under the Southern Conference banner, at least for the next few years. Their fates, and those of some territorial schools in the West, are the story of realignment in the Great Depression.

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