The chaotic reshuffling of college sports conferences got me thinking about the Donner Party. They were a group of American pioneers who became snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains while on a wagon train to California in the winter of 1846-47.
When they ran out of food, they resorted to cannibalism to survive. The extent of the cannibalism is often disputed, but the story lives on as an example of what lengths humans will go to when faced with desperate circumstances.
Consider now what is happening in college sports.
Two years ago, the Big 12 Conference was figuratively snowbound when Texas and Oklahoma announced they were headed to the SEC. The Big 12 responded by poaching Cincinnati, Houston and UCF from the American Athletic Conference and adding independent BYU.
What followed were conference additions and subtractions down the line, falling like dominos.
Now the PAC 12 is dissolving. Its grant-of-rights deal—streaming on Apple TV—was viewed as a form of financial starvation and schools rushed to the exit… Oregon and Washington to the Big 10; Arizona, Arizona State, Utah and Colorado to the Big 12.
On one hand, the Big 12 and Commissioner Brett Yormark deserve credit for not only surviving, but coming out of the chaos in a position of strength. Two years ago, the conference was in danger of collapsing. The will to survive is strong because the only other option is, figuratively speaking, death, or in this case the ruination of the athletic programs of WVU and other Big 12 schools.
WVU President Gordon Gee deserves credit as well for the survival of the league. Gee was on the search committee that hired Yormark, and Gee has myriad contacts at universities across the country that help ensure that WVU always has a seat at the table.
The Donner Party made several key mistakes. They were not fully prepared for the rigors of the long trip from Illinois to California, they set out too late and they opted for what they believed was a shorter route. These were fateful choices that bent the arc of their journey toward tragedy.
And so, it is also reasonable to reflect on the mistakes college football has made with conference re-alignment. How did this multi-billion dollar industry that impacts so many higher education institutions, and millions of alumni and fans, arrive at this point?
I suspect that is what happens when there is no true central leadership in college athletics; there is only a hierarchy—the powerful, the less powerful, and the powerless. Any greater good is supplanted by a genetic desire to survive, even at the cost of others.
As an alum and fan, I’m relieved that WVU appears to be emerging from chaos in a position of strength. It’s better to be among the haves than the have nots. But I also have regrets, as I suspect do fans of most of the schools impacted. Other schools are suffering from our gain.
Of the 87 members of the Donner Party, 48 survived, thanks to the iron will of those individuals who went in search of rescuers. Historian and author Ethan Rarick wrote, “More than the gleaming heroism of the Donner Party is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous.”
The story of conference realignment is similar; there are no heroes or villains, just those trying to survive when faced with life or death decisions.