The Partnership at the End of the World

The Mountain West Conference and Conference USA rule Bartertown.
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The Dark Tower, but also Fresno State is inside the tower somehow.

Illustration by David Rappoccio.

February 16, 2012

Commissioners Banowsky and Thompson,

I greet you at the dawn of a wonderful partnership!

It was with tremendous excitement that the news of the association of your respective conferences, Conference USA and the Mountain West, was received. (Notice how I used your preferred term “association” rather than “merger.” “Merger” represents the kind of voracious thinking you’re trying so hard to avoid.) Division I/BCS-level conferences are all in a state of general unease and upheaval. And they have been ever since the Big Ten decided to subsume Nebraska in 2010. There have always been fluctuations, defections, movements lateral and hopeful. A vast number of these involved the Big East and ACC, or at least seemed to, but nothing was ever too seismic or explosive.

That’s not the case anymore, is it. You two ought to know as well as anyone, especially you, Commissioner Thompson, since your Mountain West has been as permeable a membrane as any. Since 2011 you’ve seen your brightest lights and prettiest faces all wander off. Utah. TCU. BYU. But at least you snagged that redeeming meteor, your gem on blue turf, Boise State. Helluva way to recover, I must say. The Broncos are new blood, BCS arrivistes, but that made no difference. Actually, the outsideryness made sense in your context, lonesome West, rugged Rockies, expansionist individualism et al. But after only two years, two measly years, they’re headed off to the Big East. You’re bereft and we both know it.

You know it too, Commissioner Banowsky. To be honest, I never entirely understood your conference. It seemed like it was born a rump state. It felt like it was longing for a glory that never existed. Weren’t the University of Chicago and Rhodes College once members of Conference USA? Wasn’t it where the triple option was invented? No? Sure seems that way. The Big East got to you too. Memphis, Houston, SMU, Central Florida. Memphis at least had basketball clout, but now they’ll be trading punches with the Jesuits. What’s left? What have you got?

Since the complex and communicative reorganization . . . hell, we’re friends, why be coy? It’s cannibalism. The power conferences are trying to devour one another. Really, it’s just the Pac 12, Big Ten and SEC that are safe. The Big 12 and Big East have become feed, those living meals in the basement in The Road. The Big 12, especially now that Texas A&M has sought refuge in the SEC, stumbles on only at the mercy of Texas. The Safe Three have all taken bites and the woozy survivors append West Virginia and TCU to themselves to try and keep moving. Chomped hard by the Big 12 and ACC, the Big East—that is, the football Big East, as distinct from the potent, lumbering Catholic-heavy basketball entity that we all hope and pray continues on in perpetuity—becomes an unnatural confederation, an abhorrence of geography, a beast whose desperation to live outstrips its sense of logic or meaning. The monsters are consolidating their powers and the only thing left is to live.

As a not wholly unrelated aside, I’d recommend you both take a look at Norman Davies’ new book Vanished Kingdoms. It’s about countries that don’t exist anymore. Sure, it’s strictly about Europe but that doesn’t make it any less resonant. He identifies eleven differing, geographically fluid places all called Burgundy between the Third Century CE and the present. Temporality may be a crushing phenomenon but at least it’s constant. The book’s only available in hardback, but it’s worth the cost. You’d like it a lot.

But the mechanics of fallen republics aren’t at the heart of the matter for now. What we’re dealing with is you. As the fellow said, what is to be done?

The sentiment behind your alliance is as poignant as it is clear: who wants to die alone? As rotten as it is that nobody powerful wanted you, it’s wonderful to see your two leagues coming together, pooling your resources, mustering your strength, facing the darkening skies as one. The ambition can’t be doubted. Your roster goes from sea to about a hundred miles from shining sea. You’ve made it clear that this isn’t a merger. It is a “presidentially-led association.” Whatever a presidentially-led association is, it smacks of forward thinking, of action and volition and of brave presidents looking to the broad, sunlit uplands. Rather than the sluggish, enveloping action of a merger.

So then. The Mountain West contingent: UNLV, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado State, Air Force, Hawaii, Nevada and Fresno State; from C-USA: Southern Miss, Tulsa, Marshall, Rice, UTEP, UAB, Tulane, East Carolina. The overlooked, the underfunded, the ill-noticed. The not really relevant. The there.

I mean, honestly. Do you stop yourself and ask if anybody would care if you disappeared tomorrow? Okay, Virginia Tech needs another guarantee game in 2015. The Wisconsin boosters have to cancel those Thanksgiving Luau packages for the game in Hawaii next year. You matter to no one but a few of your alumni and the people you employ on game day. You are the scores that are always in the way of our team on the crawl-ticker.

Sorry. Sorry. That’s the ESPN in me talking. It’s a reflex. It’s built up over time. I’m working on it.

You’ve done so much for football, though! You’ve given us Brett Favre, Randall Cunningham, Randy Moss, Matt Forte, Dee Dowiss. And basketball: Tim Hardaway, Paul George, Clarence Weatherspoon. The Pit! You control media markets in which pro teams wouldn’t make an emergency landing during a white-out blizzard. You’ve got gimmick offenses, unforeseen undefeated runs; you’re the expert miners of lesser recruits now that the Bishop Gormans and Archbishop Moellers of the world work for the higher powers.

But you’ll keep all these things. They’ll stay with you as the giants continue to ravage the land, and the nobles close off their domains; you’re the figures in the abandoned countryside. You’ve got the 10:30 PM Wednesday slot on CBS Sports Network. You’re what remains, partisans in a ruinous war that’s already concluded, foraging, fighting off disease, surviving.

With the understanding that I am not a president-leader but a disinterested yet admiring party, I submit herewith the following suggestions for the brand and culture of your new association:

Name: The Big Entropy (also considered: The Great Miscellany [in homage to C-USA’s inexplicable basketball-only progenitor, The Great Midwest]; The Left Behind 16; Them).

Look, there’s no getting around it. Society is collapsing and your new band of the forgotten is just another sign along the way. Embrace it. Take up the flag of the sputtering remnant of Western Civilization. The process of entropy, the decay of energy, is slow. In 15 years, when the last dozen BCS schools are paying Norfolk State and William & Mary to play in highly-fortified stadiums in Tuscaloosa and Lincoln, you’ll still be around with your 68-66 triple overtime games on drizzly October afternoons.

Divisions: Detritus (Tulsa, UNLV, Nevada, Colorado State, Marshall, East Carolina, Wyoming, UAB) and Chaff (Hawaii, Tulane, Southern Miss, Air Force, Rice, New Mexico, UTEP, Fresno State).

It seemed essential to keep the UNLV-Nevada rivalry intact and to align Hawaii with Air Force, in case there are any remaining functional aircraft in this posited afterfuture. In any event, you’ve got Legends and Leaders beat by a mile.

Stadium Requirements: For abandoned lots, 120 people; for disused currently existing stadiums, 500 (and no more than one-third of the available seating may be taken up by roving blood cults).

Game Day Entertainment: All teams must enter accompanied by F#A# ∞ by Godspeed! You Black Emperor. Halftime entertainment ought to include puppet shows or games of skill by children. Try to avoid Thunderdome-style spectacles or zombie fights a la Land of the Dead.

Bowl Agreements: first place vs. Big East first place, The Esso Gasoline Bowl; second place vs. Sun Belt first place, The Duragizer Battery Bowl; third place vs. MAC West runner-up, The Gazprom Potable Water Bowl.

Conference Tournament (basketball): top four finishers in each division qualify; site rotates annually between the Rice facilities beneath the charred remains of Houston and runway 7R25L at McCarran International Airport (UNLV host).

I have some additional ideas re: your player of the year awards, your slogan, your promotional campaign (have either of you seen Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice?). But this can be discussed further along into your partnership.

Truly, yours is the way of the future. This is not, as Mr. Orwell said, a boot stomping on a human face but a gathering of stomped faces comparing boot-wounds. There is nowhere else for the have-nots to turn but toward each other. You, commissioners, are the first to understand that and for that you should be commended. Be certain that my vision for The Big Entropy includes trophies bearing the names Banowsky and Thompson. See them being hoisted with pride. In a damp field on the edge of Jefferson County. In a gym hard by the Truckee River, while blackbirds cluster in the rafters.

I eagerly await the fruits of your union.

Until then, I am, and remain, humbly and sincerely,

Yrs in Beef o’Brady,

Pete Segall

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Your writing is excellent. I lost it at the names of the divisions being Detritus and Chaff.