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Sunday's Word: Friends

This weekend, we had some close "friends" and their kids visit our family for some Pennsylvania fun.  It's was a perfect time to have them stay and visit, while school is still out and right before the football season starts, when everything starts to get crazy for us.

Their visiting, getting caught up with their lives, and even playing Hearts for the first time in years with them made me think afresh about the meaning of "friendship", a word whose value has clearly been cheapened since the rise of the "social network".

And, surprisingly, in the word "friend" there's also a lesson to be learned about college football expansion, too.  While folks go on about revenue, regionality or even interesting football games, sometimes "friendships" are more important. (more)

I hate penning pieces that sound like "boy, things were better back in my day." Not only does it make me look (and feel) old, I tend to believe it's almost certainly not true. No, I don't happen to believe smartphones are terrible for society, and no, Virginia, it was not the "Greatest Generation", either.

But where me and the geezer set intersect is in the new, cheapened meaning of the word "friend".

Back in the day, a "friend" is someone with whom you might presumably share a meal, or stay at their house if things went bad for you. It was more than just an "acquaintance" - the type of person you knew, and maybe talked to, but certainly not a person on whom you'd impose.

But today, a "friend", thanks to the folks at Facebook, is anyone you accept an interaction with, no matter how minor.

For example, I made a couple Facebook "friends" simply because they were playing Madden NFL Superstars, and I wanted the free cash bonuses they gave me.

The "friendship" was simply an exchange of goods - I'd give him free tokens, he'd give me free tokens, and that was it. I wasn't going to be having them for coffee - I just wanted to do better in Madden NFL Superstars.

Here's another example.

One of my Facebook "friendships" of which I'm most proud is that of former NFL head football coach Jim "Playoffs?" Mora. I'm proud of it because Mr. Mora made the New Orleans Saints into a serious NFL franchise, and was indirectly one of the key reasons I'm writing about football today.

But it's not a real "friendship". I've had more personal interactions with Jerry Glanville (really) than Mr. Mora. Do I have a right to call him a "friend", even on Facebook?

If you look at your social network "friends", and think about the word "friend", it's likely you start to see how little they resemble actual "friends". How many of those high school or college buddies you once knew do you actually meet with? Would you invite them over and play a game of Monopoly with them? Would you join families and bowl together? Would you invite them to a county fair to walk around?

Additionally, I think it's important that people know this. Too many people equate Facebook freindships, Twitter follows, or even just email interactions as true "friendships". They're not necessarily a bad thing - they can even be fun. But a distant, acquaintance-like relationship to a former NFL coach is no substitute for having your kids play with one another together.

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It's also the people's tenuous grasp of "friendships" that clouds people's judgement when it comes to college football expansion and mega-conferences, too.

For example, take Memphis and the Big East.

If you remove personal relationships from the equation, it might make perfect sense for the Big East to invite Memphis to join their conference. Proponents would look at elements like Memphis' basketball success, their rising football team, their overall athletic competitiveness, and even their location.

Fans who advocate this position - and, in the past, I've been in this camp - are assessing Memphis' inclusion in the Big East on pure dollars, athletics, and location.

But conferences, too, are like cliques of cheerleaders in high school. Just because a candidate's pretty (but not too pretty), she's got blonde hair or she likes the right music isn't enough for membership in the clique. There is a personal element - call it a "friend" element - that has to be met by the schools' president in order to be included.

Most people assume college presidents vote completely on a pragmatic basis. But no member of a conference will vote to allow a member to join with which they have a personal, visceral dislike.

For example, if West Virginia president James P. Clements can't stand Memphis president Shirley C. Raines, they'll never vote for their inclusion in the Big East no matter what sensible reasons exist for their sharing of a conference.

These personal relationships - hard to quantify, and difficult to gauge - are probably a better judge as to whether conference alignment will happen than any sober, sensible, pros-and-cons analysis.

It's also reasonable to assume that the same, tortured discourse in politics that exists today - that every disagreement in philosophy is a battle to the death, us vs. them - must also exist at the presidential level, too.

For example, it could be hypothetically true that South Florida president Judy Genshaft is a Democrat, and Central Florida president John C. Hitt admires the Tea Party, so they'll never vote to be together no matter how much it makes sense for Central Florida and South Florida to play each other every year in all sports.

It's also worth noting that social, high-school cliques tend to be small because once they get too big, the personal issues between all the members of the clique become too much to bear.

Incidentally, this is why 16-team football-based megaconferences are such a challenge to implement, if they indeed can be implemented at all.

Some BCS conferences generate boatloads of money for their constituents. (Money which, I've argued, may be fictitious.) While that ties those presidents together, it also is another source of contention with expansion candidates; they're unlikely to give up a share of those riches unless there's a guarantee for further riches by expanding with other teams.

Pragmatically, a school might make its other members money if they're included. But nobody wants a college president like Rufus T. Firefly coming to their presidential retreats. To presidents - already in the top 1 of top 1% of the richest Americans - this matters a lot more than people believe.

It also explains why Texas A&M, once seen as tied to the hip to the University of Texas-Austin thanks to their long-running Thanksgiving rivalry, might want to leave their clique to join another in a move that seems almost completely devoid of common sense.

Maybe their close relationship with Texas didn't seem like a "friendship" anymore. They didn't want to have to rub elbows with them, watch their Longhorn network make gobs of money for themselves and only themselves, watch Texas A&M be a mere afterthought in the state. Seen in the prism of "friendship", their interest in the SEC makes sense.

Certainly a move to the SEC makes the Aggies money. A whole lot.

But with TAMU, it feels like it's about a lot more than money. It's about a "friendship" that turned sour and became a battle to the death between two mortal enemies. And if it is, conventional rules might not apply when it comes to pros-and-cons for moving conferences. (It's also the biggest reason why Nebraska left the Big XII as well - not the revenue. Bank on it.)

Even inter-conference moves from FCS to FBS football seem like they're also influenced by good old-fashioned "friend" factors, not pragmatic considerations.

If Villanova becomes an BCS football school within the Big East, which non-Big East football "friends" do they lose within their all-sports conference? Georgetown president John J. DeGioia? Seton Hall president Dr. Amado Gabriel Esteban?

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It feels like so many Facebook jockeys are making the same old mistakes about conference speculation. They can pull up Google Maps, to see their closest geographic rivals. They can pull up Windows Calculator, to figure out the potential riches the school and conference get. They can check the latest tweets from fans, getting their "vibe" as to what's happening. They can even talk with Facebook "friends" about it, too, getting other opinions.

But when it comes to conference expansion, it's only real "friendships" that matter. As a matter of fact, it not only explains the moves of the last two years - it also explains the way forward in college football. There will be no mega-conferences - just "friendships", as it always has been.

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