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Posted: July 01, 2010

Sports biz: CU’s Pacific heights

Stewart Schley

As the football coach at the University of Colorado in the 1980s, Bill McCartney invented a powerful offensive weapon: the T-bone.

The four-man backfield attack was a variation on the wishbone formation that had been sharpened to perfection by Barry Switzer's Oklahoma Sooners, and it was ideal for the Big 8 Conference, where winning in early November, in the biting fourth-quarter winds of Norman and Lincoln and Stillwater, meant you had to know how to run the ball.

When everything worked perfectly - when the quarterback could sense exactly when the linebacker would commit and the halfback was just hitting his stride and the lead back was bearing down on the defensive safety - CU's T-bone was a fearsome thing, as hell-bent and unstoppable as a George Romero zombie.

The greatest day ever for McCartney's triple-option formation came in October of 1986, when the Buffaloes stunned No. 3 Nebraska at Boulder's Folsom Field, slicing straight through the teeth of the Cornhusker defense for 182 rushing yards and a 20-10 victory that ended a 14-year losing streak to Nebraska. The box score paid delicious homage to McCartney and his T-bone offense. The Buffaloes rattled off 63 plays from scrimmage that day. Fifty-eight of them were runs.

You won't see that lopsided statistic again. In the Pacific 10 Conference where the Buffaloes will soon roam, there will be no need for the sort of grinding attack that in its heyday made defensive coordinators nervous and the Big 8 Conference great.

Instead, the CU schedules of the future will be weighted heavily with trips to pleasant, fair-weathered places like Palo Alto and Los Angeles and Tempe, Ariz. Gone, for the most part, will be Saturday afternoons in weather-beaten, windswept heartland towns like Lawrence, Kan., and Ames, Iowa. Gone, too, is the blood rivalry with the University of Nebraska, which is headed toward the greener pastures of a Big 10 Conference that comes complete with its own TV network.

Even so, lamenting the passing of tradition that comes with college football's Season of Realignment seems like a waste of time. By now, only the most naïve among us can muster up the energy to rage against the economic machine of televised sports. The story line of chasing TV revenues is simply too familiar and too expected to inspire a populist backlash.

Instead, the more intriguing competition now is among college conferences themselves, as they mutate into new combinations of component parts. In CU's case, the university has hitched itself to a conference that's big on star power, but surprisingly humble financially. Who knew, for instance, that in recent years CU generated more revenue from its football program than Pac 10 stalwart UCLA? It's true: According to the U.S. Department of Education's "Equity in Athletics Data Analysis Cutting Tool," the $27.8 million that CU's football program generated in 2008 (the latest full year for which data are available) topped UCLA's $26.6 million and Cal-Berkeley's $27.7 million. In contrast, the top revenue generator in the Big 12 Conference, the University of Texas, generated $87.6 million in revenue.

Did CU get duped into joining a conference that's all name and no money? Not so much. The Pac 10 is on the verge of leaping into the big-time, economically, as it nears the expiration of a five-year TV rights deal in 2012 and prepares to negotiate a whopper of an arrangement with the likes of ESPN and Fox Sports. You can bet that newly hired commissioner Larry Scott, a sports-business veteran who helped elevate women's professional tennis, wasn't brought on to uphold a proud tradition of economic humility.

For CU, that's good news. It gives the university's athletic department a chance to expand its budget significantly as the Pac 10 conference doubles or even triples the $8 million annually CU has been receiving for its share of Big 12 TV rights.

Meanwhile, in the tradition department, not all is lost. In addition to its pilgrimages to Seattle and northern California, there's a chance CU may still do battle with some familiar foes, regardless of where schools like Texas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State end up. That would be most welcome. So would the occasional revival, perhaps on a third-and-six with the game on the line, of the T-bone formation. Trust me, sports fans: Those chardonnay sippers in Berkeley won't know how to handle it.
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Stewart Schley writes about sports, media and technology from Denver. Read this and Schley’s past columns on the Web at cobizmag.com and email him at stewart@stewartschley.com

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