INDIANAPOLIS – The news broke Wednesday from the Houston Chronicle, like a small leak through a massive dam followed by a flood that soon covered all of the college sports world. Texas and Oklahoma phoned the Southeastern Conference to inquire about the possibility of becoming members of the league, and their calls were not merely sent to voicemail.
Kevin Warren spoke at Big Ten football media days not even 24 hours after the initial report, so it was unreasonable to assume the conference already would have a definitive answer about what move or moves might be prudent in response. If any.
“I think what we have seen, we’re at an inflection point in college athletics,” Warren told reporters gathered at Lucas Oil Stadium. “Whether it’s name, image and likeness, whether it’s the Alston case, whether it’s potential College Football Playoff expansion, whether it’s schools from one conference joining another conference – these are the kind of issues that we all will be dealing with here, this year and for many years into the future. That’s the world that we live in right now.
“I know from where we sit, we are always constantly evaluating what’s in the best interest of the conference. It will be interesting to see how that story, how it evolves, where it lands.”
It was the politically astute response. His new special adviser on football matters, legendary Wisconsin coach Barry Alvarez, could afford a stronger dose of honesty.
“My first reaction was: Why?” he said. “The timing seems a little strange. Out of the blue.”
It is beyond strange, given the impending expansion of the College Football Playoff, in which the proposal calls for the six highest-rated conference champions to gain automatic entry. If ever there were a time to be the biggest fishes in a smallish pond, it would be in the 12-team playoff universe.
When the right rich guy conjures a bad idea, though, it can be hard to contain, because inevitably FOMO rules the decisions made in college sports. If Texas is interested because board of regents chair Kevin Elfite wants it, Oklahoma feels compelled to go along because of fear another conference member would gladly do it, and because of fear of what the Big 12 would become commercially and competitively without the Longhorns. If Texas is interested and has Oklahoma in tow, the SEC feels compelled to agree because of fear another league would embrace the Sooners and Horns.
That’s where maybe SEC commissioner Greg Sankey could begin to fill the leadership void he lamented during his comments at the league’s media day earlier this week. He assailed the NCAA for its bungling of several issues, from enforcement to running championships to sport governance. And it’s pretty close to impossible to be wrong when the subject one essentially criticizes is NCAA president Mark Emmert.
If Sankey wants to do what is best for college sports, though, and not merely for a bigger SEC getting a bigger check from its TV partners, he should just say no. College sports is not better with the remaining eight Big 12 members either searching for a new home or scrambling for some degree of relevance. There are serious athletic programs in that group, from Kansas and its basketball juggernaut to the Texas Tech football program that gave us Super Bowl champion Patrick Mahomes and a 2019 NCAA Tournament finalist in hoops.
College sports is not better with the SEC so overloaded with elite brands that such programs as Ole Miss and Mississippi State are consigned to perennial insignificance. It’ll be less fun for a lot of programs whose fans will have to adjust to programs that no longer win like they once did. It may not seem like much, but it’s a long way from 7-5 to 5-7.
Look back a decade, at the last conference realignment maelstrom that afflicted the college sports world. Forget about who’s getting bigger TV checks and such – whose football team has been empowered by a move? Whose basketball team? Anyone? Texas A&M likes to think so. It is slightly above .500 in SEC games, with an average league finish of seventh place.
Here’s one: Villanova basketball. The Wildcats were an excellent program in the 16-team Big East, made the Final Four in 2009. After that league fractured, though, and Nova wound up in a basketball-centric new Big East, it became a national power. Basically, though, they got better by standing still.
The SEC recently signed a $3 billion television deal with ESPN, a longterm contract that’s worth $300 million annually. There’ll be no shortage of revenue when that commences in 2024. A true leader would understand this, and that merely throwing money at the 14 current members will not truly improve their standings.
Would a bigger SEC be better? It would have more good football teams, of course. By definition, though, it also would have more bad ones. In a 16-team league, somebody finishes 16th. That’s not fun, not worthwhile, even if there’s more money in it.