Monday Notebook: UCF, Big 12 Survive And Thrive In Changing World

AAC Championship - Memphis v Central Florida

Photo: Julio Aguilar / Getty Images Sport / Getty Images

I heard time and time again as I traveled over the years:

"This has to be exciting for you guys today to play here."

"Should be fun for your team to play in front of a crowd like this."

"Hey, you guys are having a nice season."

Maybe it was from a member of the other school's broadcast team or a sports media information person from the school or a member of the media or even an assistant AD. It was their way of saying how UCF was a nice little school and aren't you lucky to get a chance to play in a big giant stadium against a school from a real conference.

I heard it all and I often said to myself: "Dude, look around...your school is not the one driving the revenue in this league. You are a member living off the riches of others."

And when UCF did play at one of the blueblood houses it was worse. They often treated you like you had no idea what the world is they live in and you cannot comprehend their history. 

We are and have always been about brands. Marketing research shows we make 90% of our consumer choices based on brands. If given a choice you pick the brand you know. The same has applied to college sports and college football. You are either a member of a Power 5 league or you are...well, you are one of those misfit toys that gets tossed in the discount section. And no matter what you did on the field and how successful you became, you were still not one of them.

For years I watched many schools pound their chest about how much bigger and better they were because they played in one of those leagues and UCF did not. Schools that just happened to get invited to a meeting where a conference was formed almost a century before UCF opened was supposedly the reason they were bigger and better. Schools in smaller markets and with state populations smaller than central Florida received tens of millions of dollars more than UCF every year despite their record on the field. And no matter what UCF did on the field, including winning that Fiesta Bowl after the 2013 season, schools kept looking down at the Knights. 

"You're not one of us and no one takes you seriously."

Despite its 25 game win streak and back-to-back undefeated regular seasons in 2017 and 2018 UCF still could not get into one of "those" leagues and therefore major media and others in college football didn't compare anything the Knights did with the "power" schools.

Then it happened in September of 2021 when UCF was invited into the Big 12. Suddenly UCF's image changed a little. There were, and remain, many critics because the argument is UCF only got in because Oklahoma and Texas left. That is correct. And it's also correct that the Big Ten and SEC may not want a single member of the Big 12 to join their league today. But you know what the Big 12 is today? Alive, stable and a place other "power" programs needed to stay...well, powerful.

The SEC seems content at their 16. The Big Ten made a move to 18, even though I am still not sure why they needed to do this move. But the Big Ten is the biggest conference in the country. The SEC is the best on the field in the country. Who is next? Well, I am not talking about revenue. I am talking about stability. The answer is the Big 12. Now 16 strong and measuring coast-to-coast. Maybe Arizona State's leadership is not happy the Pac 12 fell apart and the school had no choice but to call the Big 12, but they did. Why? It was their only way to stay "powerful."

The ACC has internal issues and maybe half its members want to leave. And the Pac 12? Four schools remain and the options now are trying to find life with the Mountain West and maybe the American.

Today, UCF finds itself in what might be the most competitive league in the country in football and basketball. The basketball league has and is the best in the nation and only gets stronger with the addition of Arizona. In football, plenty of national media tell you the Big 12 has no school that would be considered an annual favorite to win the national title. Maybe that's true. But you can guess the favorites in the SEC and Big Ten for the next decade and likely be right. The Big 12? No one looks like they are in position to dominate and the league might be the deepest and most wide open in the country.

Speaking of the Pac 12, the collapse of one of the most successful conferences in the country is sad on so many levels. Now, four remaining schools ponder their future. I heard a lot about how bad people feel for Oregon State and Washington State. They are likely facing a significant drop in operating budget and may see the elimination of jobs. Let me say, I feel bad for any person who will be impacted by these potential cuts. But welcome to UCF's last decade. Except, Oregon State and Washington State benefited by being in a league with USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington. It's not that the Beavers and Cougars didn't play good football and basketball. It's just their ultimate value was exposed when the dominos started to fall in the Pac 12. If they had "real" media value they would be in the Big Ten or Big 12. Heck, they still may get to the Big 12 but not at the moment. 

My point is for years UCF, Boise State, Cincinnati, Houston, Memphis and other G5 programs invested in their programs, played on the road at P5 stadiums and won at a high level only to watch so many mid and low level P5 programs look down on them because they weren't in a "power" league. UCF and those others saw those programs cash those big media checks only because they were at the table when a conference was formed decades ago. They didn't play their way into those leagues. They were in the right place at the right time and because of that it made them better than UCF and the others? Now Oregon State and Washington State may see the roles reversed. Even if the forgotten four from the Pac 12 manage to take some Mountain West and AAC schools and still call it the Pac 12, it may not be up to them to still be called a power league and their media deal will be nowhere near anything the ACC and Big 12 have. 

I have no idea where we are headed next. Is the Big 12 done? Will the SEC see what happens in the ACC and add schools? Is FSU really looking for an equity partner to help them get out of a deal I am not sure they can get out of? I don't know but conference realignment never really ends.

The happenings over the last week have once again led to some suggesting that college football should break away. I will write about regional conferences in the other sports soon. I have called for that for the last 20 years. But as I tweeted Saturday, anyone calling for college football to breakaway I just want you to tell me who will run whatever the breakaway is? I will help you answer that. That would be the same group of leaders who gave you last week in conference movement. Last week was about money and stability and brands with value. And in the end university presidents and boards had no problem tossing aside century old rivals to run to money and survival. Do you think this group can actually govern themselves in a football breakaway? This group, not the NCAA president, has made up the NCAA for decades. Wake up people. 

But in the end, UCF finds itself in a league that is stable, has a long term media deal and may still grow even more. And when it comes to football, there may not be a more competitive league in the country. How did UCF get here? Timing, luck, success in football at the right moment, media market, alumni growth and long term value. UCF has never played in a league where it lived off the brand value of others. Not in the MAC, CUSA or the American. In fact, in the last decade, UCF and Cincinnati's performance in football allowed others to benefit in a media deal that is smaller now with the Knights and Bearcats gone.

So does all this now make UCF better than Oregon State, Washington or any P5 team getting left behind? No. But all this leaves UCF in a better position in regards to brand value because as Andre Agassi said many years ago: "Image is everything."

Final note: Idaho was a member of the Pacific Coast Conference starting in 1922 when the league also added USC. In 1959, a pay-for-play scandal saw the league disband and Idaho was not part of the AAWU(Athletic Association of Western Universities) which would go on to become the Pac 8. If they were invited, maybe Idaho would be in the Big Ten today.

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