Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Airplane Conference

“Once word of the proposed conference leaked, other schools, witnessing the Darwinian changes in college football during the period, began nosing around for invitations as well.”

Written yesterday? Not quite. With the news that that the basketball-only members of the Big East Conference are considering either pulling out of the conference or disbanding it altogether, we’re being subjected to yet another round of headlines on conference realignment.

Realignment over the past few years has dealt more or less exclusively with the football side of things, and it usually boils down to two considerations: television and money. Or perhaps more accurately, television’s money – since the revenue generated by television, either through appearances in BCS bowl games or the conference’s television contract, is the prime consideration in almost (?) all of these moves.

It’s caused a lot of us to look back to the relatively stable days of yore, when the Big Ten actually had 10 teams, when all the schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference actually were on the Atlantic Coast, when the Southwestern Conference and the Big 8 existed side by side, and so on. Most of all, we remember when conferences were geographical collections of schools that shared particular commonalities. But when we consider a Big “East” that includes schools from Hawaii, Nevada and Idaho, we just shake our heads.

And yet, it may come as a surprise to learn that the idea of a conference in which the members were connected by planes rather than buses goes back over 60 years.  It certainly did to me, until I ran across it in a couple of books I've been reading for articles on the TV blog: The Fifty-Year Seduction by Keith Dunnavant and College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era by Kurt Kemper.  And thus we come to the origin of the quotation at the beginning of this article.

The idea of a so-called “Airplane” Conference first arose in 1951, promoted, ironically, by Notre Dame President John Cavanaugh.* And, as we might have assumed, “the ability to attract revenue lay at the center of the proposal.” Cavanaugh’s plan included Indiana, Iowa State, Navy, Michigan State, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Army, Penn, Pittsburgh, SMU, Texas, USC, UCLA and Yale – an interesting mix of schools from around the country, including the presence of several which we might scoff at in any discussion of major college football today.

*I say “ironically” because Notre Dame has long been known as a holdout against joining any conference, at least for football.

Although Cavanaugh’s plan never really got off the ground, it laid the groundwork for Thomas Hamilton’s later plan for a National Conference. Hamilton, the AD at Pittsburgh, left in 1957 to head up efforts to form the conference, consisting of 12 members in two divisions, the winners of each division meeting for a de facto national championship game on New Year’s Day in the Rose Bowl. The Eastern Division of Cavanaugh’s National Conference would have included Army, Navy, Pittsburgh, Penn State, Syracuse and Notre Dame, while the Western Division would have included the five members of the AAWU (the conference providing the Western representative in the Rose Bowl) – USC, UCLA, Stanford, California and Washington, plus Air Force.

Hamilton’s plan was an intriguing one, because it didn’t poach on any existing conferences – the AAWU would have been the fulcrum of the conference, and the rest of the members were all independents at the time. And the idea gained great support – one newspaper columnist said “it will mean the beginning of a new era in college football. Harry Stuhldreher, member of Notre Dame’s legendary Four Horsemen, called it “a must.” Another supporter called it the “most outstanding sports idea” of his lifetime. As word leaked out, other schools – Houston, Miami, Penn, Duke and Georgia Tech – tried to position themselves for inclusion.

And yet it never happened. Why?

There are various theories – some thought that the military academies scuttled the idea, but that seemed unlikely; President Eisenhower was a great supporter of the football program at West Point, and it’s likely that membership in such a prominent conference would only help the service academies during the Cold War.* More likely, it was due to the administrators from the West Coast schools, worried about the increasing prominence of big-time sports. (They have fewer scruples today.)

*One called service academy football “travelling advertisements” for the schools.

Whatever the reason, the National Conference never did get off the ground. But isn’t this what we’re seeing today? Speculation is that college football will eventually wind up with four major superconferences, each with 16 members, and when that does happen there will be those who look back and wonder about the good old days. Who knew that progress was always on the agenda, and the good old days were merely an interruption? As I’ve written more than once, the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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