The Pacific-10 Conference, for months a seemingly motionless palm tree amid a countryside of swaying pines, has itself been swept into action by change in the college athletic landscape.
The Pac-10, reacting to Penn State's recent move into the Big Ten and talk of conference realignments elsewhere, has created a long-term planning committee that Pac-10 commissioner Tom Hansen said is "looking at expansion in what I'd call a very generic sense."Stating that proximity to member schools is "a very, very important consideration," Hansen, in Blaine, Wash., this week for conference meetings, earmarked the Dallas, Houston and Denver areas as viable sites for expansion. Among the schools in those areas - all of which are top-20 TV markets - are the University of Colorado (Boulder) the Air Force Academy (Colorado Springs) Southern Methodist (Dallas), Houston and Rice (Houston).
But Hansen quickly qualified his statements by adding that the Pac-10 is directing its focus, "more on what the implications would be for us if other conferences added schools than on adding schools ourselves."
Given the right set of circumstances, one school that would be amenable to becoming the Pac-10's 11th member is Houston, presently aligned with the nine-school Southwest Conference.
"We're very happy to be in the Southwest Conference," Houston athletic director Rudy Davalos said.
But if the Southeastern Conference woos fellow SWC members Arkansas, Texas and Texas A&M to its fold, as it reportedly is trying to do, Davalos said his school would seek a move, possibly to the Pac-10.
There's no question Houston is athletically sound. Last year, the Jack Pardee-coached football team compiled a 9-2 record behind the exploits of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Andre Ware. The Cougars received a bid to the NCAA basketball tournament after finishing second to Texas in the conference tournament.
"A lot of it is dependent on what our conference is going to do," he said. "We're always going to keep our doors open. If I felt like our conference was not sustaining its members, I think we'd have to look at other alternatives, and the Pac-10 certainly would be attractive, not just because of its athletics but because of its commitment to academics."
The Big Ten kicked off the musical chairs game among conferences last December when it extended Penn State an invitation for membership. Since then there has been widespread conjecture that independents Florida State, Miami, South Carolina and/or Louisville might be headed to the SEC along with Arkansas, Texas and/or Texas A that Big Eight power Oklahoma, a charter member of the SWC, will return to its roots; and that the Big Eight and what's left of the SWC will combine to form the Big Southwest Conference.
Closer to home, Western Athletic Conference member San Diego State has sent a letter of interest to the Pac-10 and Fresno State has quietly peddled its program to the Western Athletic Conference.
How to explain this summer of discontent?
"Television. That's it in a nutshell," said Davalos, who had occasion to talk with Hansen informally in Florida during last week's national meeting of athletic directors. "Conferences are concerned with their futures as far as television exposure and being able to negotiate successfully with the networks."
Hansen gave credence to Davalos' words when he articulated the Pac-10's primary concerns, which the long-range planning committee - in existence since last winter - addressed at length this week.
"What if other conferences form alliances for football television? Are we going to fall behind the Southeast and Big Ten (conferences)? From our standpoint that's seemingly the most important and impactful ramification," Hansen said.