Wednesday, August 03, 2016

So You're Saying There's a Chance. . .

In words rarely used together and in this order - it all started in Nebraska. Shortly after, it spread to Colorado, Missouri, and Texas. With one fell swoop, college athletics spun and turned and twisted like a Rubiks cube as universities bolted from their historical conferences in a quest for greener pastures and that ever-growing mighty dollar. The effects of this systemic overhaul continue to reverberate through the college athletic landscape even today as the rumbling of expansion rumors have magnified. But this time, my alma mater actually might get to play.

When the Cornhuskers made the initial move from the Big 12 to the Big 10, their former conference began a slide from a legitimate claim as the best Power 5 conference to arguably the worst of the five in the past few seasons. Even with the addition of TCU from the Mountain West Conference and West Virginia from the Big East, the loss of Nebraska, Texas A&M, Missouri, and CU eliminated the opportunity to host a conference championship game - a luxury item (and money making television event) for the other four Power 5 conferences that include twelve or more teams. The Big 12 has discussed expansion in previous years in order to capitalize on the dollars associated with the additional members and that coveted conference championship game. This discussion reached a boiling point at the end of the 2014 college football season as the 12-1 TCU Horned Frogs were not selected for the college football playoffs. The playoff committee instead selected the ACC champion (Florida State), the SEC champion (Alabama), the Pac-12 champion (Oregon), and the Big 10 Champion (Ohio State), all of which had won their respective conference championship games. After the 2014 exclusion, it took another year and a half of mulling and debating and pondering and hemming and hawing and thumb-twiddling, but the Big 12 Conference finally made a decision. The decided to maybe potentially possibly look at expansion. But maybe not. Despite the grey nature of the announcement, the news was more definitive than anything previously released by the Conference - expansion is now on the table.

Photo courtesy of @Ramsforthree (
When the conferences last realigned, CSU was in no position to claim a seat at any of the Power 5 tables. The shuffling began at exactly the same time that CSU was slogging their way through the painful Steve Fairchild era of Ram football. Fairchild's 7-6 inaugural season in 2008 with a New Mexico Bowl victory was followed by three consecutive 3-9 seasons and Fairchild's quick departure back to the NFL. The men's basketball team was in their third season with Tim Miles at the helm and their 16-16 record was a huge improvement over the 9-22 and 7-25 records during the previous two seasons. Women's basketball was even further behind, just a couple seasons removed from going win-less in conference play (an impressive 0-16 conference record). When the only successful sports team at your university is the women's volleyball team, major conferences are not clamoring for your inclusion in their club.

Jim McElwain - Photo courtesy of the Denver Post
The year 2010 was not the right time for CSU to force themselves into the conversation. Neither was 2012 when Missouri and A&M joined the SEC. But now it is 2016 and the state of the Rams has been drastically altered for the better. The rapid improvement of the football team under the tutelage of Jim McElwain catapulted CSU from the laughingstock of the Mountain West to a perennial bowl game attendee. His successor, Mike Bobo, continued the bowl streak this past season and maintained CSU's candidacy for Big 12 expansion. Bobo's last recruiting class is statistically the best that CSU has ever seen. The trajectory of the men's basketball program with Tim Miles has extended into the Larry Eustachy era with back to back NCAA tournament appearances (2012 and 2013). Ryun Williams has completely changed the culture of the women's basketball team. The influx of Swedish basketball stars has helped the Lady Rams win three straight Mountain West titles. And our good buddy and forever stalwart Tom Hilbert has maintained an unparalleled conference dominance with the women's volleyball team, winning seven straight conference titles including an unblemished conference record this past season. In addition, CSU constructed a new indoor practice facility, reconstructed the team locker rooms, approved and started the construction of a 41,000 seat on-campus stadium, surpassed the University of Colorado as the largest university in the state, maintained our ranking as a top five veterinary medicine program in the country, and generally kicked ass and was awesome.
Mike Bobo - Photo courtesy of Mile High Sports
Ryun Williams - Photo courtesy of the Denver Post
Tom Hilbert - Photo courtesy of Colorado State
Larry Eustachy - Photo courtesy of Daily Mail
Unfortunately, the steady improvements and increased successes across the entire university system does not directly translate into an immediate invitation to the Big 12. It does, however, put CSU in the conversation with BYU, Cincinnati, Houston, UConn, Memphis, Central Florida, South Florida, Boise State, San Diego State, Little Sisters of the Poor, and every other university from a Group of Five conference that wishes to inject themselves into the discussion. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby laid out the five criteria that expansion schools would be measured against - size and support of the fan base, strength of the athletic department, media market, academic strength, and reputation.

CSU ranks favorably in the categories of academic strength and reputation (zero major NCAA infractions). Checking those boxes on the resume should be fairly easy. However, the most worrisome selection elements for CSU is the history of fan support. National publication after national publication ranks CSU at the bottom of the viable expansion candidates when it comes to stadium size (even with the new stadium), game attendance, and television viewership. Colorado State just does not get enough butts in the seats and eyeballs on the television to compete with other Group of Five schools. The lackadaisical nature of the Ram alums, specifically those within the Denver metropolitan area has confounded me for years. Over 40,000 CSU graduates reside in the Denver metro area and yet ticket sales to the Rocky Mountain Showdown flounder year after year. Stagnant ticket sales might be the death knell for CSU's Big 12 bid. The new stadium should provide a bump in those numbers as folks will be more inclined to attend a game in order to see the new digs. With the Big 12 decision expected prior to the 2016 football season, the new stadium attendance bump will not be recognized by the Big 12 powers that be (unless the decision is to delay the decision, which is a complete possibility with the Big 12).

The weakness of the CSU bid created by the tepid fan base will need to be more than offset by other factors. Colorado State's bid should rely heavily on the upward trajectory of the department coupled with the commitment of the department to improve all facets of their programs. While the visible improvements like the new stadium and updated training facilities get the headlines, it is the behind-the-scenes upgrades like the increased salaries for higher quality coaches; the steady yearly increases in fundraising; the continued success of the non-major sports like track and field, softball, volleyball, and golf; and the higher quality of recruited athletes coming onto campus that are positive indicators of future success. CSU leadership, from President Frank to former Athletic Director Jack Graham to current AD Joe Parker, has changed the mentality of the entire University and the Big 12 should expect this upward mobility will continue into the future. Luckily for CSU, one of the people in charge of demonstrating the projected success of the university has history with the Big 12. Athletic Director Joe Parker came to CSU from Texas Tech where he was the senior associate AD. Prior to his time in Lubbock, Parker did stints at Michigan, Oklahoma, Washington State, and Texas. For those of you scoring at home, three out of his five former positions were with universities currently in the Big 12. The relationships he forged during his time working at the Big 12 schools must be leveraged to make CSU a favorite for expansion.

The biggest chip that Parker must play during the courting process is also a bit of a stretch - Parker must sell the close proximity of the Denver television market and his ability to gain market shares in that region. No one can honestly argue that CSU owns the Denver market. Hell, even college football does not own the Denver market. The Denver Broncos and the Denver Broncos alone own the market. But the Denver market is the 17th largest television market in the country and it has 60,000+ Big 12 alums living in it. Since CU's departure from the conference, there have been rumors that the Big 12 would like to get back into the Denver market as it is one of the faster growing metropolitan areas in the country. The Big 12 is discussing expansion in order to make money and the Denver area has population to register a bump on the national television market.

CSU may not ever get a call from Bowlsby. In fact, the odds would indicate that the call will not come. If you look at where CSU is now compared to where the university was when the last round of expansion occurred, I am proud that the growth and commitment and pride pushed upon the entire system by the administration and athletic department has propelled CSU to a point where our name is in the conversation. Should that call come, plan on a big celebration.

Side conversation - should CSU steal a spot in the Big 12, my hope is that Joe Parker finds a way to reinstate baseball as a varsity sport. CSU had a great baseball team back in the day and has a dominant club team now. The addition of baseball would trigger Title IX requirements, so additional women's sports would also need to be added. However, the increase in revenue from the Power 5 conference should allow the addition of a few new sports. The thought of varsity CSU baseball is exciting because of the possibility of road-tripping to Omaha for a CSU appearance in the College World Series. Keep those fingers crossed, Ram fans!
Photo courtesy of CSU Rams Baseball

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