The 2021 college football Most Intriguing Lists wrap with this one: the Most Intriguing People in Suits. In other words: the people away from the playing field who are of greatest interest this season, and likely for multiple years to come.
1. Bob Bowlsby, Big 12 commissioner. What about Bob? After Texas and Oklahoma made a devastating end run on him, Bowlsby has the task of trying to salvage the Big 12 as a Power 5 Conference entity—or any kind of entity at all. Bowlsby has to keep the Jilted Eight schools together and help guide decision-making on potential expansion. For a 69-year-old who has had a distinguished run in college athletics, he was handed an immense late-career challenge.
2. Greg Sankey, Southeastern Conference commissioner. He’s transforming from wonkish intellectual to the sport’s biggest power broker before our eyes. Sankey oversaw the landscape-shifting decision to accept the membership overture from Texas and Oklahoma. And while it’s almost assuredly true that any other commissioner would have done the same thing, it was a massive destabilizer for college athletics as a whole. It also established Sankey beyond question as the alpha male of Power 5 commissioners, now overseeing what will be the most powerful and lucrative conference in history.
3. Blake Lawrence, Opendorse CEO. Consider Lawrence a composite character of sorts, representing all the name, image and likeness (NIL) third parties who have exploded on the athlete compensation scene since the NCAA’s amateurism walls came crumbling down. Lawrence, a former player at Nebraska, heads arguably the most prominent NIL company currently operating in college sports. There are many others, and this space figures to be highly fluid as both universities and athletes gain a better understanding of what the new world order will look like.
4. Chris Del Conte, Texas athletic director. Everything is bigger in Texas, including the gambles, and Del Conte made a couple of huge ones since the calendar flipped to 2021. The biggest, of course, was Texas’s stealth move to the SEC. The other was firing Tom Herman at great expense and replacing him with Steve Sarkisian, a guy who hasn’t been a head coach since ’15 and who has a meh record by Texas’s aspirational standards (46–35, zero divisional or conference championships). All that’s at stake here is everything.
5. Joe Castiglione, Oklahoma athletic director. Del Conte’s realignment running buddy in this game-changing gambit is Castiglione, who is taking one of the most stable athletic departments in the nation (thanks to his own leadership) in a bold new direction. All Castiglione has to do is convince his star coach, Lincoln Riley, that giving up hegemony of the Big 12 for the meat grinder of Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU and Florida is worth sticking around for. But more immediate, we have to see whether this is the year Oklahoma can look eye-to-eye with the SEC’s best and win a national championship.
6. George Kliavkoff, Pac-12 commissioner. The newest Power 5 commish and freshest set of eyes in that circle of influence, having arrived from outside the college athletics echo chamber. Kliavkoff has quickly won admirers by being: A) not Larry Scott; B) a quick study; C) a plain-spoken voice in the press conference announcing the Alliance between the Pac-12, Atlantic Coast Conference and Big Ten. Kliavkoff led the league in wisely declining to merge with the Jilted Eight of the Big 12, and declining expansion at all (for now). But major challenges remain in revitalizing a league that had fallen behind on the gridiron and at the revenue trough in recent years.
7. Jim Phillips, ACC commissioner. Phillips’s considerable smarts and savvy will be called upon as he transitions from an on-campus athletic director (Northwestern) into a league leadership role in a region where he had no prior experience. He’s probably the new administrative blood the ACC needs, but now the challenge of repositioning the league is amplified by the SEC’s aggression. Specifically, the ACC’s media-rights situation is a sensitive one: The league is all-in with ESPN, but its contract is bad and the three-league Alliance has voiced a desire for diversified College Football Playoff broadcast rights—which currently are solely the property of ESPN. Phillips has some interesting diplomacy work ahead.
8. Kevin Warren, Big Ten commissioner. You can’t blame the former NFL exec for wistfully wondering what normal looks like in college sports, after he’s bounced from a pandemic in Year 1 to a realignment crisis in Year 2. There were some missteps handling his member schools during the COVID-19 play/don’t play controversy, but Warren got through it. Thus far he seems well aligned with Kliavkoff and Phillips in the Alliance, at least in terms of unity of purpose to keep their leagues strong and keep an SEC/ESPN colossus from forcing what could be a ruinous restructuring of the national landscape.
9. Burke Magnus, ESPN president of programming and content. ESPN’s involvement in the Texas/Oklahoma breakaway move has been hotly debated, to the point that Magnus fired off a letter stabbing back at Bowlsby for his assertion that the network was working behind the scenes to destabilize the Big 12. Regardless of what is true in that squabble, Magnus swings the biggest college sports stick at the Worldwide Leader—sometimes wielding it like a club. He’s now faced with trying to maintain “corporate partner” levels of cooperation with several schools that distrust ESPN’s motives.
10. Mark Silverman, Fox Sports president. Is Silverman the savior that the Alliance (and others) are hoping for, a leader who will step up to bid Fox into a portion of the CFP media rights? Fox certainly is the most invested non-ESPN entity in college football, but it remains to be seen whether the network wants to spend significantly more money than it already does to diversify CFP broadcasting (and, by extension, help stabilize the conference landscape). There are big decisions ahead for the network in terms of defining (or redefining) its broadcast priorities.
11. Oliver Luck, Big 12 consultant. Luck’s latest role appears to be helping the Big 12 assess how best to move forward after being kneecapped by the SEC. Luck, the respected and connected former athletic director at West Virginia and No. 2 person at the NCAA, could be the stealth adviser on whether to expand and who to invite. If he does the job well enough, he could be in line to succeed Bowlsby whenever that time may come—and by whatever means.
12. Robert Gates, chair of the NCAA constitutional convention. The former secretary of defense and former president of Texas A&M is the titular leader of what could be the NCAA’s last Hail Mary attempt at regaining both credibility and authority as the governing body of college athletics. Given the staggering pace of change and the NCAA’s inability to keep up with it, the organization has called this convention for November with the intent of forging a new path that more ably responds to the shifting landscape. It’s a big job and an urgent job for a massive bureaucratic entity that doesn’t respond well to urgency. Good luck to all involved.
13. William Tate IV, LSU president. In late August, Tate made a decision that currently stands alone in the SEC: Fans over the age of 12 attending home football games must present proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of kickoff. It’s a prudent response to a pandemic that has ravaged the state of Louisiana—but it’s also an invitation for massive blowback in a state and a region that views COVID-19 vaccination with great skepticism, regardless of the positive results backing it. Tate isn’t afraid to be first in the SEC—the first Black president of one of its 14 universities, and now the first to pin football attendance on vaccination. It would be nice if some of his SEC brethren joined him in this decision.
14. Mike Aresco, American Athletic Conference commissioner. He’s been an underappreciated leader of college football’s ’tweener league, first in stabilizing it and then tirelessly advocating for the AAC to be viewed on the same footing as the Power 5. It hasn’t worked, of course, but the AAC has annually earned Best of the Rest recognition. Now Aresco has to see whether his league can stay together if the Big 12 targets its marquee football schools for expansion. Maybe he and Bowlsby could get together somewhere in the DFW Metroplex—where both are headquartered—and hammer out a merger.
15. Jon Duncan, NCAA vice president of enforcement. In the new NIL world, nobody is totally sure what rules Duncan and his staff are still enforcing. Which rules still matter? Which are obsolete? This much we can surmise: The days of tracking down Dodge Chargers being driven by SEC running backs seem quaint. Duncan is a diligent professional who believes in the NCAA’s mission, but his department has been hamstrung by its own procedures and undercut by the bungled foray into the Independent Accountability Review Process. This is a tough job.
16. Trev Alberts, Nebraska athletic director. He’s got the toughest first-year gig of any AD. Freshly hired at his alma mater, Alberts inherits a dumpster fire of a football program—under investigation and continuing to underperform, after opening the season with a dismal loss at Illinois. Alberts has to decide whether Nebraska can afford a $20 million buyout of Scott Frost—and if so, who he can lure to revive a diminished former blueblood.
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17. Warde Manuel, Michigan athletic director. Like Alberts, Manuel could be tasked with parting ways with a former hero alum quarterback whose coaching tenure just hasn’t worked out as envisioned. Manuel already helped himself by negotiating a more manageable contract with Jim Harbaugh, which would make a buyout easier. He might also have to keep in mind that Iowa State’s Matt Campbell, mentioned for years as a potential Harbaugh successor, might be more willing to move on from Ames with the Cyclones’ Power 5 status in jeopardy.
18. Dan Shapiro, Caesars Entertainment chief development officer. Like Lawrence above, Shapiro is a composite character representing the gambling interests that have gone from shunned to embraced by the college sports establishment within the last year-plus. Shapiro was the point man for Caesars on the recently announced partnership with the Fiesta Bowl. Other gambling companies have partnered with individual schools, and with media outlets that cover college sports. Nobody is scared to talk about point spreads, over/unders or prop bets in college football anymore.
19. Candice Storey Lee and Desiree Reed-Francois, SEC athletic directors. Vanderbilt’s Lee became the first female athletic director in the SEC in May 2020, and didn’t need long to make an impact—she fired coach Derek Mason and hired Notre Dame assistant Clark Lea, while organizing a major fundraising and facilities project to improve Vandy’s athletic standing. Now Reed-Francois is the second female AD in the league, hired in August at Missouri after a stint at UNLV.
20. Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports vice president. He’s the brains behind Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff concept, which has given the network some dedicated tentpole college football programming to compete with ESPN. The marquee 12 p.m. game has revitalized the broadcast window, which had lagged in recent years as quality games were increasingly slated for prime time. And the studio show leading into the game has provided an alternative to the behemoth College GameDay.
21. Lee Fitting, ESPN vice president of production. Fitting is the guy who made College GameDay into ritual viewing for football fans—with the capable help of the on-air talent, of course. In recent years he’s expanded his duties to cover all college football programming, which means he is vital in terms of setting the agenda for how ESPN will cover the sport. In 2021, will that include a pivot to less of a week-to-week fixation with the network’s crown jewel, the CFP? Many prominent coaches and administrators have lamented the emphasis on the playoff, which narrows the scope of coverage as the season progresses.
22. Jimmy Sexton, agent. Just when you think the man who reps most of the SEC coaches can’t flex any harder, he reportedly gets Jimbo Fisher an even sweeter deal than the one he signed at Texas A&M three seasons ago. Fisher’s original contract was a whopper: 10 years, $75 million, fully guaranteed. With seven years remaining on the deal and one big season in the books, Sexton and A&M went back to the bargaining table and reportedly have agreed on a new 10-year deal with an average of $9 million a year. Sexton will be shaking down several other schools between now and 2022; count on it.
23. Gary Barta, Iowa athletic director and chair of the College Football Playoff selection committee. Barta is the designated piñata for the committee on the absurd Tuesday night ranking shows on ESPN. He certainly gave everyone plenty to swing at last year, offering poor explanations to infuriating decisions the committee was making. The only thing better than one year of Barta boiling your blood is two years of it.
24. Tom Holmoe, BYU athletic director. The veteran AD could finally have the goods to get his school back into a conference that is beneficial to the Cougars. Reservations about BYU have been voiced by various leagues for years due to some of the complications that arise from the school’s religious affiliation and beliefs, but the Big 12 Remainder Group may no longer be in a position to let that be a deal-breaker. BYU provides an audience—and after last year’s return to prominence on the field, a potential competitive enhancement. After years of making independent status work (barely), this could be time to grab onto conference stability.
25. Greg Burks, Big 12 Conference coordinator of officials. Every questionable call that goes against Texas and Oklahoma this season is going to result in a torrent of reaction from conspiratorial fans alleging payback for jilting the league. Burks is the guy that will have to answer for some, most or all of that. Enjoy!
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