"What if" is always a fascinating topic, no matter the subject. The alternate history genre seems to grow with each passing year -- reminding me to implore you to start watching "The Man in the High Castle" on Amazon if you don't already.
In sports "what ifs," the stakes are obviously a bit lower than something like alt-endings to World War II or other various, time-altering shifts. But because of that, they're also a lot of fun to quickly get lost in. And that's how we end up with a lengthy conversation around the "Airline Conference."
Over on SB Nation's Podcast Ain't Played Nobody, Bill Connelly and Steven Godfrey dive into the repercussions of a short-lived idea back in 1959:
"It's a time of upheaval and social change. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper just died in a plane crash, The Coasters' "Charlie Brown" is a hit, Rio Bravo is a hit at the box office, and USC, UCLA, Cal, Stanford, Washington, Notre Dame, Penn State, Pitt, and some combination of Syracuse, Duke, Georgia Tech, and the service academies are thinking about forming a super-conference."
Bill and Steven go into what all of that means for a lot of those teams (as does this post from Bill in 2012), but not as much with Syracuse -- which is where we come in. What would've happened to the then-Orangemen had they joined a conference seemingly spanning from coast to coast?
The Big East Never Happens (for us), Because Syracuse Wouldn't Need It
... And if you believe that Syracuse and Georgetown were what made the Big East to begin with, perhaps the league struggles to get off the ground altogether.
An Airline Conference like the one proposed surely transforms into an all-sports conference sooner rather than later, meaning SU basketball is safe and sound jetsetting around the country when the Big East comes calling.
Syracuse Football Never Loses Itself
As football came further into the forefront of college sports, though, SU's gridiron rivalries began to fluctuate. A rotating cast of characters like Boston College, Virginia Tech, Penn State, West Virginia and others could be considered our main rival, and to this day, there are still some questions from fans about who we should be focused on. This proposed super conference (before the insane realignment days of 2010) would've set those in stone and affirmed Syracuse's identity and the identity of its rivals.
In the proposed league, you end up with divisions and conference title games 30 years before they appeared in reality. And each one, the West and East, respectively develop their own unique styles of play. Syracuse and the other "East" schools like Penn State, Pitt and Notre Dame stick with power running. USC, UCLA and the other "West" schools develop high-flying offenses. When you look at Syracuse, win or lose, you know what you're getting.
The University's Growth Accelerates
The 2010-15 realignment era got us all used to hearing about the conference academic consortiums of varying validity, and claims of large-scale research and financial value across the board. The caliber of institutions in the Big East (especially for basketball) was quality, and the ACC's even better. But the Syracuse University (not athletic) gains from those affiliations take time. Linked up with world-class institutions like USC, UCLA, Notre Dame and more for decades probably does well to elevate SU's status, funding, academic partnerships, etc. No, we wouldn't be top-10 in the country. But things like the recent move to a tier-1 research school classification probably happens earlier, along with other education-based accolades.
... Or The Whole Thing Could've Already Fallen in on Itself
All of the above ignores the true peril of the Airline Conference proposal, of course. We panicked when the "superconferences' almost happened this last realignment scare, but that's with a history of college athletics and big football revenues and markets in mind. This move, on the other hand, would not made with that hindsight. Scores of smaller schools could've been stopped dead in their progress on the football field. The Florida schools may have taken even longer to develop quality football teams. Texas schools would've been even more emboldened to develop the identity of the Southwest Conference. Non-Airline Northeast schools would've died by the 90s, and the non-Airline West Coast schools would've found themselves in something similar to the MWC. The ACC is... TBD.
There's no guarantee Syracuse survives that either, even in the Airline Conference. But at least they stand a better chance than so many others with the assumed financial boon that Airline membership would surely bring.
Obviously none of this is reality -- right now, anyway. And unfortunately, if it ever occurs, Syracuse (who at that time was a national power) won't find an invite in the mail. Still, it's fun to think about what could've been, no?