David Williams believes the Southeastern Conference is already well established as a power conference.
So adding another school — or two, or three, or four — wouldn’t bolster the league. Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor of athletics is concerned, in fact, that expansion could hurt the SEC.
“I know a lot of people say, ‘Well you could have a format like in the pros,’” Williams said. “I think we want to make sure we keep the collegiate part of it. When you start to develop this concept of super conferences based on large numbers, you run the risk of [losing] that. One of the great parts about the SEC is — and that doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements — there are 12 like-minded places that seem to fit together. You always want to be careful about letting it get too big where you are just trying to fill a spot. Then you start to mess up some of the great chemistry.”
When Texas A&M announced less than two weeks ago that it would like to join the SEC, the Aggies opened the door for the makings of a “super conference.” Speculation arose that Clemson, Florida State and Missouri could join them.
The SEC’s presidents and chancellors met last week and agreed to stay put with just 12 members. Florida president Bernie Machen, however, did say, that “future conditions may make it advantageous to expand the numbers of institutions in the league.”
“We all like 12 schools,” Williams said. “We have great chemistry. It is nice but if the market dictates something like that ... but that is really the conference working on that. I think the SEC is pretty competitive right now. I can’t imagine it getting more competitive.”
Texas A&M’s possible departure from the Big 12 stems around football. The Aggies want to get out of the shadow of Texas, which recently launched the Longhorn Network.
While Texas has been a constant national power, especially over the last decade, A&M is no slouch. The Aggies were 9-4 last year, reaching the Cotton Bowl, and are ranked eighth in the Associated Press’ preseason Top 25 poll.
If Texas A&M were to join the SEC, it would strengthen what is already considered the toughest football league in the country. For Vanderbilt, which is coming off consecutive 2-10 seasons, that might not be a welcome sight.
“We have enough of our own issues to worry about,” football coach James Franklin said. “We have a very capable and talented commissioner [Mike Slive]. Whatever he thinks is best for the conference he’ll do. I focus on Vanderbilt and everything we have to do, which is a big enough job on its own.”
Landing an SEC school in Texas could open up the recruiting waters in all sports. The Big 12 has a stranglehold on the top prospects in the state right now. But if A&M joined the SEC, it would give member schools more of a reason to recruit the state.
Williams, however, argues Vanderbilt is already in Texas. Five football players hail from the Lone Star State. Plus, the baseball team has a handful of players with Texas roots.
“We have to be very, very diligent in finding those kids from all over the country who can basically handle the academics but at the same time want to play in the toughest conference,” Williams said. “We can’t rely on being in Tennessee [for a majority of the recruits] because we have some friends over in Knoxville and that’s the state university. ... It really doesn’t make any difference if there is a university in that state or not. We are going to be there.”
Still, Williams doesn’t want to see his squads traveling outside of the Southeast region on a consistent basis. His main argument against expanding to 16 teams is that scheduling will become an irksome task. He also believes it takes away from the “college” aspect. He fears the student-athlete is at risk.
Longer travel means more missed classes (the Big East is a perfect example as its 16 schools must trek from, for example, Milwaukee to Louisville to Syracuse to Tampa). Thus a good chunk of the revenue made from a bigger football market would be poured into travel expenses.
If the SEC does eventually add Texas A&M and company and becomes the first league to have 16 schools with football, will there be a snowball effect? Could more 16-team conferences be on the horizon? Does this leave the lesser profile, mid-major conferences behind in more than just football?
Williams doesn’t know and he doesn’t want to find out.
“Growth for growth’s sake is not always the best thing,” he said. “What is the advantage of 16 teams? Do you now have four conferences of 16 and you got 64 teams and it is those 64 that boo-boo all the rest of the colleges? I would hate to see that. No, that is not something I would look forward to.”