A year ago, the Big East Conference was considered a megabuck conglomerate of made-for-television basketball schools. There were rumors that the three with Division I-A football teams -- Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Boston College -- were ready to bolt at the first good offer.
A year ago, the Atlantic Coast Conference was thought to be a traditional top-shelf basketball league whose football teams got about as much respect as Dan Quayle. Outside of Clemson, and an occasional pretender or two, no one took the ACC seriously on Saturdays during the fall.
A year ago, college football was coming off a decade dominated by independents. Miami had won three national championships during the 1980s. Penn State had won two. Notre Dame had won one. And Florida State was in contention nearly every year.
"A year ago, it was a different ballgame," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese said last spring.
On the face of it, college football in 1991 doesn't appear to be much different from the way it was last season. But the changes on the field -- the most significant of which was narrowing the goal posts nearly 5 feet -- are merely incidental compared with what has transpired off it in recent months.
The New Age, and new order, of college football has arrived.
With the inaugural season of Big East football spotlighted by the arrival of the full-force Hurricanes, with the addition of Florida State to the ACC in 1992 and new-found respectability for some of its other teams, and with Penn State preparing for its journey into the Big Ten in 1993, the power has started to shift dramatically.
The battle for independents might be over, but its impact is just beginning to be felt.
"If we're sitting here five years from now and, among our teams, only Miami is competing for a national championship, then we have failed miserably," said Tranghese, who in his second year as Big East commissioner is starting to make a major impact. "But I don't think that's going to happen."
What's going to happen in college football this season will be played out over the next four months. It begins Wednesday night when Georgia Tech, which won the ACC championship and was voted the national title last season by The Associated Press (the coaches' poll selected Colorado), meets Penn State in the Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
But this season is simply a prologue for the new order, which includes the expansion of the Southeastern Conference with Arkansas and South Carolina joining next year and with the Fighting Irish, buoyed by its new, $38 million contract with NBC to televise all home games, remaining as the lone non-aligned star in the ever-widening galaxy.
Is college football headed in the right direction, or is it merely following a necessary path to financial solvency? Is big time becoming bigger time, with more schools trying to join the fight for No. 1? Will the alliance among five conferences, Notre Dame and four New Year's Day games be the final step to a national playoff system?
These are some of the questions athletic directors and college presidents are trying to wrestle with, while many coaches are left scratching their heads. With the talk revolving around reform movements that will cut practice time to 20 hours a week this year, and measures to control the spiraling costs of athletics, contradictions abound.
"There are so many people sending out different signals," said Joab Thomas, president of Penn State. "The Presidents' Commission is sending a fairly simple and clear signal. The Presidents' Commission is committed to reform by evolution, not revolution."
"It's people in search of finding the happy medium," said Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, whose top-ranked Seminoles begin their season Thursday night against Brigham Young in the Pigskin Classic at Anaheim (Calif.) Stadium. "Some of the changes are good, and some aren't. They haven't moved the pressure thing down. They still want you to win."
"I think it's headed in a direction of Division I-A becoming a tiny bit smaller, a little bit more elite and a little tougher," said Maryland athletic director Andy Geiger. "I don't know if that's good, but it's certainly the direction we're heading in, and it's certainly economically driven."
It was the motivation behind Penn State's decision to join the Big Ten, beginning in 1993. That announcement, which took place almost two years ago, made others take a long, hard look at themselves. "Penn State was the domino that tipped everything else," said Geiger.
The face of college football wasn't the only body part to be restructured; this was a complete overhaul. When the SEC began talking about expanding to twice its size, others got into the act. The ACC brought in the powerful Seminoles to improve its football image. The Big East added Miami, then worked a deal with three other schools for a football-only setup.
Just when it seemed as if these choppy waters were calming down, the ACC and Big East got together with Notre Dame, as well as indirectly the Big Eight, Southwest Conference and SEC, to form a consortium with the Orange, Sugar, Cotton and Fiesta bowls.
Though conference and bowl officials say that this arrangement, which begins next season, won't be the steppingstone for a national playoff system, some seem skeptical.
"I don't know if it's a step toward a national playoff or not," said Geiger, who along with Duke athletic director Tom Butters, voted against ACC expansion when it was first proposed last fall. "My tTC view is that if it's a step toward the playoff, it's a mistake. If it's a postponement of a national playoff, I'm all for it."
The reform movement has been trying to enrich the academic experiences of Division I athletes, while the expansion is designed bring athletic budgets from the red into the black. Most coaches don't believe that limiting a player's practice time will affect his performance on the field, but they question whether 18- to 22-year-olds will use their new-found freedom wisely.
At a gathering of ACC coaches last month in Wintergreen, Va., Bowden said bluntly, "These kids aren't going to say to each other, 'I'll race you to the library.' "
Thomas, who has been at Penn State for a little more than a year, knows all about the pressures of big-time college football. As president at Alabama from 1981 through 1988, Thomas received death threats after hiring Bill Curry as head coach and later was forced to step down when he didn't acquiesce to boosters' demands to fire Curry.
Thomas isn't naive enough to think that kind of situation couldn't happen again -- there were similar rumblings last year with new Alabama coach Gene Stallings -- and understands that the harsh financial realities could increase the pressure on coaches and players. But he also is hopeful that the reform movement will be successful despite all the changes.
"We are still committed to to the tenet that intercollegiate sports produces sound educational opportunities for a lot of people," he said. "I think the changes are for the good."
Changes for 1991
Big East: Miami joins as a full-time member; Rutgers Virginia Tech, Temple and West Virginia will play football only. No official league games until next season, but the highest-ranked team in USA-Today-CNN coaches' poll will be declared champion in 1991 and 1992.
ACC: Florida State joins the league as full-time member, but will play only basketball this season. ACC will fulfill the final year of its contract with Citrus Bowl before starting alliance with Big East and Notre Dame with Orange, Cotton, Sugar and Fiesta bowls.
Rules changes for 1991
* Goal posts narrowed from 23 feet, 4 inches to 18-6.
* Microphones on referees recommended.
* On kickoffs, if the ball goes out of bounds, receiving team has option of taking possession 30 yards from where the ball was kicked, having kicking team rekick from 5 yards back or taking the ball where it went out of bounds.
* Offensive linemen or any other player on the line of scrimmage may not advance a planned fumble, unless the referee is notified before the snap. If run without notification, it would result in a 5-yard penalty and loss of down. No penalty for failing to run it after notification.
* Clipping, holding or illegal use of hands will be penalized from the spot of infraction rather than from the line of scrimmage.
* Unsportsmanlike conduct will include "acts that are demeaning to the game." It will result in a 15-yard penalty or, if deemed flagrant, disqualification of a player.