David Briggs: As realignment ramps up, could Toledo leave the MAC?

·6 min read

Jul. 29—Anything is possible.

With Oklahoma and Texas set to toss a firecracker on the gasoline-soaked bridge behind them (sorry, Big 12) as they maniacally laugh their way to SEC riches — and as college athletics devolves into a full-on Hunger Games — it's become the stock administrative answer to all speculation on the next move in realignment.

Will the Big 12's leftovers be hunters or scatter like birdshot? Will the Big Ten pillage the Pac-12 and form the first coast-to-coast superconference? Will the sun swallow the Earth?

"At this point and in this era," Toledo athletic director Mike O'Brien said this week, "there's nothing that can be proclaimed to be off the table for any league or any institution."

And that, of course, includes Toledo, where the ripples from the waves set off by Oklahoma and Texas may not have reached the Ottawa River just yet, but tomorrow could be another story.

The natural question: Is this the Rockets' opening to pursue greener pastures beyond the Mid-American Conference?

If you'll indulge us, consider the potential dominoes, beginning with how the Big 12 responds to the loss of its two anchor tenants.

Suppose the soon-to-be-Little Eight stays together and is able to nab a handful of top Group of Five schools, namely from the American Athletic Conference, the premier non-power league in the country. If the AAC loses — I don't know — Central Florida, Cincinnati, Houston, and Memphis, it would then have to do some poaching of its own.

Could Toledo land one of those invites? Would it want one?

Before we try to answer, you may recall we've been down this road before, with UT most recently casting a stray eye in 2004.

The object of its affection: Conference USA.

Five years earlier, Toledo had made its first pitch to the league, which at the time included Cincinnati, DePaul, Houston, Louisville, Marquette, and Memphis, among other familiar schools. With the league having an opening, university president Vik Kapoor emailed his counterpart at Cincinnati — where Kapoor worked before Toledo — asking him to sponsor UT's candidacy.

"We believe the University of Toledo can make a significant contribution to Conference USA," Kapoor wrote, "due to our excellent football and basketball programs as well as the extensive TV market here, including the Detroit, Ann Arbor, Monroe, Toledo corridor with a dense population of several million."

Alas, then C-USA commissioner Mike Slive was not born the day before (really, the Detroit, Ann Arbor, Monroe corridor?). The conference instead added TCU.

In 2004, the roles were reversed, with C-USA — scrambling for replacements as nine schools prepared to leave the league — expressing the unrequited interest. While conference reps visited Toledo and appeared set to extend an invite, Kapoor's successor, Dan Johnson, preferred to remain in the MAC. (Joining C-USA instead were UCF and Marshall from the MAC, along with Rice, SMU, Tulsa, and UTEP.)

Now, 17 years later, Toledo could again have options, especially if the Big 12 raids the AAC.

That's no guarantee, because who's to say it won't be the other way around, with the AAC raiding the carcass of the Big 12? The Big 12 can offer a name brand but no longer much else, having lost the two needle movers that account for all but a fraction of the league's TV value. As Iowa State AD Jamie Pollard let slip in 2016, "The Big 12 exists because we have Texas and Oklahoma in the room. If we take Texas and Oklahoma out of the room, we're the Mountain West Conference, and we're getting $3 million [per year in TV money]."

So who knows where this is headed?

"I don't see the AAC going after Toledo just yet," said Austin Karp, a managing editor at Sports Business Journal and a UT Law School grad. "Just too much dust yet to settle from the Big 12."

But for the sake of discussion, let's say the Big 12 has a few cards up its sleeve.

Would the AAC go after Toledo then? And would Toledo want to join a diminished AAC?

To the first question, I have no idea.

To me, Toledo is the second-most attractive program in the MAC, next to Buffalo, which has the bigger city and top-shelf academics. It has a lot to offer. A top-100 market. Good fan support. Great facilities. Consistent success in the marquee sports.

Where Toledo falls short is in the perception battle, both athletically — the UT football and basketball teams remain in elusive pursuit of the kind of generational season that elevates a very good program into the it mid-major program of the moment — and academically.

Toledo is in the bottom quarter of the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings of national universities, which trails all but Eastern Michigan and Northern Illinois in the MAC and would have the university craning its neck up at everyone in the AAC.

I note this only because decisions on realignment aren't made by a few ADs smoking cigars around the fire pit. They're made by university presidents who prioritize the magazine ranking of the academic company they keep.

Toledo might not cut it.

And, for that matter, the AAC might not cut it for Toledo.

While Toledo could earn more revenue in the AAC, how much more? And at what cost?

Consider that AAC schools collect about $7 million per year from ESPN, an amount that might be halved if the league lost their top draws.

Let's say Toledo went from getting about $1 million per year from ESPN to $3.5 million. That wouldn't be nearly enough to offset the increased costs of travel — remaining AAC teams would include East Carolina, SMU, South Florida, Temple, and Tulsa — and the costs of keeping up. While Toledo leads the MAC in its financial investment in athletics ($32.3 million last year), it would rank ahead of only Tulane ($29.9 million) in the AAC. (One eye opener: SMU spent $68.8 million last year, including $21.2 million on football, per federal records. Toledo spent $10.4 million on football).

Does it really make sense to give up old rivals in a geographically sensible league to play some Dallas has-been that burns twice as much money on its program?

Then again, does anything make sense in college football anymore?

See everyone in Texas!

First Published July 28, 2021, 3:52pm

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