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As the Divisions in College Sports Grow, Can the Alliance Calm the Expansion Storm?

As the NCAA remains rudderless, time will tell if the allegiance between the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 quells the drums of expansion or benefits college athletics;
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The Alliance has been formed. In the vague future, we might find out what it will actually do. But if it achieves one thing—stopping a new realignment chain reaction that further erodes college sports as we know it—that’s a victory.

On Tuesday the Big Ten, Atlantic Coast Conference and Pacific-12 formally pledged allegiance to each other, and perhaps to the best overall interests of college athletics, although all of that is on a Trust Us basis. If there is one thing college sports has been a quart low on for years now, it’s trust, so take that as you may. Quite frankly, this alliance only came about because of a shattered trust, when Texas and Oklahoma—and, by extension, the Southeastern Conference—stuck a shiv in the ribs of the Big 12 and left it bleeding in an alley.

Thus we have embarked on a fuzzily defined leap of faith by 60% of the Power 5 conferences. They will schedule each other with greater frequency in football and men's and women's basketball (when exactly, nobody knows). They will likely vote together on matters such as College Football Playoff expansion, where a 12-team model currently is up for discussion. They will very likely do their best to break ESPN’s monopoly on playoff broadcast rights, given the network’s stake in SEC success.

And from the sound of it, they are willing to hold firm with their present membership numbers: 14 in the ACC (plus Notre Dame in other sports), 14 in the Big Ten and 12 in the Pac-12. At the very least, they sound more interested in enhancing each other rather than raiding each other.

“Expansion doesn’t mean you change membership across multiple conferences in a shortened period of time,” said ACC commissioner Jim Phillips.

Pac-12 boss George Kliavkoff said his league will announce its expansion plans this week—and given the lack of any discernible buzz about imminent Pac-12 expansion, the likely decision appears to be standing pat. Especially given this comment from Kliavkoff to Sports Illustrated Tuesday afternoon: “A lot of the things you can achieve by expanding are things we can achieve by the relationships we announced this morning.”

Big Ten commish Kevin Warren, for his part, couched his comment about expansion by saying that his league is “constantly evaluating” the terrain, but indicated that the Big Ten also could gain what it wanted from this alliance without changing membership.

Still: it only takes one move to throw everything into chaos again, and there are no signed contracts between these leagues. It’s just three commissioners locking arms to talk in high-minded generalities within a backbiting landscape. “We’ve looked each other in the eye,” Phillips said. “Our board chairs have looked each other in the eye. … If [a signed contract] is what it takes to get something considerable done, we’ve lost our way.”

Oh, we’ve lost our way, all right. College sports has never been more Balkanized, never been more rudderless, never been less collegial than it is right now. And that’s while careening into gale-force winds of change: name, image and likeness; other legal challenges to amateurism; transfer rules; playoff expansion; and now the latest round of realignment.

The confluence of events is overwhelming and occurring within a leadership vacuum. The senior Power 5 commissioner (Bob Bowlsby of the Big 12) just had his league gutted by the second-most experienced P5 commish (Greg Sankey of the SEC). The other three heads of the most important football fiefdoms are early in their tenures and trying to appear proactive while running well ahead of any detailed plan. And the overall governing body of college athletics in Indianapolis is rearranging the deck chairs on its own Titanic, scheduling a “Constitutional Convention” in an 11th-hour attempt to regain some credibility and control.

Long (sad) story short, there hasn’t been anybody looking out for the good of the entire enterprise. Maybe these three newcomers to the commissioner ranks bring the “fresh eyes” (Warren’s term) that the industry needs to interrupt business as usual. But for now, they don’t have the power—and Mark Emmert is a nonstarter as a change agent.

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“Who pulls this together?” asked one Power 5 administrator. “The NCAA has given up the ship altogether.”

I talked to Kirk Herbstreit before the alliance announcement Tuesday. The ESPN analyst is arguably the most visible single person in college football, and he’s as unsure as the rest of us about where the sport is going—and where it should be going. But he is sure that centralized leadership would help.

“We need one voice,” Herbstreit said. “How are we as a group going to move forward when nobody trusts each other? If all these commissioners want to report to the Roger Goodell of college football, I’d be fine with that. We have five Roger Goodells. We’ve reached the point where we need one leader to get through all this. We’re going to be too divided to move forward.”

The Alliance (really, they need a better name) was an attempt at partial unity. But it clearly was a reaction to the destabilizing action by the SEC, and it aligns those three leagues at cross purposes with the king of college football—not a declaration of war, per se, but a declaration of opposition in some key areas. And it is noteworthy that the Big 12 wasn’t invited to join said Alliance, although some platitudes were offered to the floundering league.

“We want and need the Big 12 to be well,” Phillips said. “The Big 12 matters in college athletics. The Big 12 matters in Power 5 athletics.” But Phillips and Warren later noted that the league tumult kept it from being an attractive alliance partner at present.

The Big 12 clearly is the massive loser here. The ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 are looking to one another to build cache, not for castoffs from the Abandoned Eight. A Big 12 merger of sports (“Alliance” is taken as a catch phrase) with the American Athletic Conference may be the best of their unappetizing options.

Fact is, college sports is such a nonsensical place that this entire situation was triggered by a single football program that hasn’t been relevant in a dozen years. Texas is 78–60 since 2009 and hasn’t won anything of substance, but its desire to move on sucked up Oklahoma in its jet wash and left eight conference colleagues gasping. The creation of a 16-team SEC doesn’t seem like a good idea in any form except as a revenue enhancer, with at least 10 holdover members of the conference now finding it more difficult than ever to compete.

And that triggered nationwide wondering if we’re careening toward the long-prophesied, four-conference superpower structure that eventually breaks away from the NCAA. We could still be heading that direction in the long (or short) run. But if the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 did one thing Tuesday, it was to send seemingly sincere signals that they want to stop the latest realignment earthquake before it starts.

Trust them. They’re working on it.

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