Maryland chancellor, once skeptical, now sold on conference musical chairs

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University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan looks University System of Maryland Chancellor Brit Kirwan looks on as University of Maryland President Wallace D. Loh speaks during a press conference annoucing Maryland's decision to join the Big Ten Conference. (Nov. 19, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and

Long before Maryland and Rutgers declared themselves bound for the Big Ten and its larger pile of money Monday, college football as an amateur endeavor was yesterday's news. This is just the latest in the voracious, spinning-in-the-hamster-wheel scramble for richer conference affiliations.

Maryland is going for an influx of $24.6 million per year that Big Ten membership will bring, an immediate annual boost of more than $7 million over the current Atlantic Coast Conference deal. For Rutgers, the windfall will be far greater, up roughly $18 million over its Big East spoils.

Regional and traditional ties be damned, the plan is for Maryland and Rutgers to begin playing football in the Big Ten by the 2014-15 academic year, although academics has no more to do with the 21st century than locomotive cheers and coonskin coats.

Worse, we have arrived at a point where even the voices of reason are becoming steadily muted. When the lawless scramble for more lucrative league relationships began to reach critical mass last year, Maryland chancellor Brit Kirwan -- in his role as co-chairman of the watchdog Knight Commission -- worried that the "fragmented governing structure" in college football was "wreaking havoc on a number of institutions."

On Monday, Kirwan -- though he didn't have a vote in Maryland's decision to accept Big Ten membership -- rationalized his school's determination to keep up with the Joneses.

"Most people," he said, "when they first hear about it, think, 'Why would you do it? It doesn't make sense.' But the more you think about it, you understand the advantages and think about the way the world's changing, and the ACC isn't the ACC any more."

In fact, Maryland's departure, as a charter ACC member and only the second school ever to leave the conference -- South Carolina departed 41 years ago -- is what ensures Kirwan's declaration. And Rutgers, which joined the Big East 12 years after its 1979 creation, also is hastening the potential demise of that once-marquee basketball league.

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Rutgers will become the ninth school to abandon the Big East in the last eight years, with Connecticut rumored to be next. Why go over a financial cliff?

What concerns those college educators who also believe in the value of intercollegiate sports is that king football not only shoulders aside academic considerations but also non-football athletes.

The Big Ten, for instance, doesn't include men's or women's lacrosse -- powerhouse sports at Maryland -- in its program. Thomas Ross, president of the North Carolina university system, noted that sports such as volleyball, tennis and soccer -- those playing more than once a week -- are afterthoughts in the conference realignments that will force long-distance travel, cutting severely into their athletes' class schedules.

Athletic directors routinely claim that football revenue helps finance the so-called minor sports, but many studies have indicated that football profit is mostly plowed back into attaining yet more football resources: facilities, coaches, travel and so on.

Everyone realizes that television is the force behind the ghastly overemphasis of football, and that markets fuel TV payouts to conferences. So, though Rutgers hardly is a behemoth in the New York market, the New York market is still the New York market, and therefore plenty appealing to the Big Ten.

All this big business is taken up a notch in anticipation of the new four-team football championship playoff after the 2014 season, which is expected to bring a television contract worth $7.3 billion over 12 years. To have a shot at that, administrators believe their schools must be in the biggest, richest conferences.

"I think," LSU chancellor Michael Martin told a recent Knight Commission meeting, "we could end up with two enormous conferences, one called ESPN and the other one called Fox."

Or maybe just one: NFL/Campus Division.

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