Now batting. . . for the Big Ten. . . Kevin Warren.
The news that the voracious SEC may annex restless Texas and Oklahoma to create the most mega college football conference on either side of the Pecos is rocking the college football world.
This raises a lot of questions about how a 16-team mega conference will operate. Because a 16-team conference is—unwieldy. And likely to be insatiable when it has as many super-powers as this SEC will have. . . So much for the thought that a 12-team playoff would be more inclusive.
The television dollars that Greg Sankey’s proposed colossus will command are boggling. That, of course, is a prime reason—well, the prime reason—for the marriage, of course. On the other hand, 16 slices of pie is a lot. If Texas didn't like sharing with Kansas, how long before it feels that way about Vanderbilt?
I won’t at this point ask if the Longhorns and Sooners joining Crimson Tide & Co., Inc., is good for college football. We’ve been asking if things are good for college football too often lately. And people have been spinning negatives into positives too often, too—even people who should be more circumspect.
What I do want to know is how the Big Ten responds to this.
And for the second time in two years, I wonder if Kevin Warren is the right guy to be at the helm of the Big Ten.
This does not mean he’s not smart, principled, educated and qualified. It just means that his skill set—which did not include a lot of college sports administration and, face it, college sports arm-twisting—was not well-suited to shepherding a major conference through the troubled waters of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Once again, we have to say it sure looks like the Big Ten outsmarted itself by letting Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips go. Phillips, who’s now bringing his experience and expertise to the ACC, would have been the perfect choice to steer the Big Ten.
The absence of leadership in the conference was painfully evident during the Covid crisis last summer.
First, the Big Ten was going full-speed ahead. Then it wasn’t going to play at all. Then it joined the party late. In Warren’s defense, it wasn’t always clear whether he was making some of these decisions, or following university presidents’ orders. But Phillips had the background to be on top of an unprecedented event—and to remind well-intentioned but headstrong presidents of consequences.
And now the SEC is throwing a fastball right at the Big Ten’s position as a major player in the world of college athletics?
Under Jim Delany, the Big Ten was the leader. It pioneered the conference television network. It brokered the deals that created the BCS and the College Football Playoff—the way college football crowned its national championship. It even led the charge for using replay to reverse questionable officiating calls.
And oh, yeah, it made the most money. It may still be doing that—for about 10 more minutes. Until the SEC lines up its television-contract ducks.
The comments coming out of Big Ten Media Days last week were not soothing to those who wonder if this is the end of an era for the Big Ten in terms of college-athletics leadership and revenue.
“It just kind of caught everyone by surprise,’’ said recently retired Wisconsin AD Barry Alvarez, who’s now serving as a special advisor to Warren, when asked about the Oklahoma-Texas bombshell.
Even if that’s true, it’s probably not a good idea to admit that.
“We’re at an inflection point in college athletics,” Warren said. “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 in the future. . . . that’s the world that we live in right now. . . . we’re always constantly evaluating what’s in the best interests of the conference.”
This sounds more like a passenger on the S.S. College Sports than a captain. Not reassuring to the Big Ten constituency.
As for Big Ten expansion, Alvarez said, “I don’t know anything about that. Our athletic directors, we’ve never even broached that. . . . I don’t want to get into talking about expansion because it’s too early and we’ve never even discussed it.”
Again, even if that’s true, that’s not the right message when the Southeastern Conference is close to adding Texas and Oklahoma. In Barry’s defense, he should be playing golf and watching his grandson, Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson—not caught up in a maelstrom of seismic conference realignment. Which, I am guessing, is not what he signed up for.
But this is the problem when a conference reaches for its commissioner.
Interestingly, one of the biggest gaffes a year ago was the Big Ten’s failure to make sure everyone—university presidents, athletic directors and coaches—was in the loop, if not on the same page, regarding a plan for football in a pandemic.
That kind of communication thing is a Phillips strength. From a recent piece at The Athletic by my friend Matt Fortuna: Phillips ``wasted no time in getting started once his ACC tenure began in February. He immediately formed a football subcommittee, aimed at elevating the sport’s voices and addressing their concerns head-on. This may sound like lip service from the new boss, but those on the subcommittee — which includes coaches Dave Clawson, Pat Narduzzi and Dabo Swinney, to go with six rotating ADs — swear it has been so much more than that.’’
So. . . what should the Big Ten do in response to a likely 16-team SEC that includes Texas and Oklahoma?
I don’t know, exactly. But I do know this. Jim Delany did not formulate responses to bold change outside the Big Ten. He initiated bold change before a response was required.
He secured the conference’s Eastern front with Penn State, which opened the door, in the era where television sets mattered most, for the addition of Maryland and Rutgers. On the Western front, he added Nebraska, which brought ``inventory,’’ to use a commissioner word, to the Big Ten Network as well as television viewers.
Let me say right here that I’m not a fan of college conferences annexing turf (and schools and TV eyeballs). If we could go back to the days when there were 10 teams in the Big Ten, I’d vote for that. Then again, I still miss the Original Six in the NHL. And I have always lamented that I was too young to ever see the Brooklyn Dodgers play in Ebbets Field.
But life is change.
So again. . . what should the Big Ten response be?
If Delany was still in charge, I believe that Barry Alvarez, who used to float the commissioner’s trial balloons, would be feeding off-the-record scenarios in which the Big Ten stole Texas out from under the SEC’s grip and finally convinced Notre Dame to join a Midwestern super-conference. Only Delany could have had the vision to lasso two of college football’s biggest prima donnas and make that work.
But yeah, that’s pie in the sky for the Warren administration.
Under the modern rules of engagement, the Big Ten should see if it can entice USC and Stanford to join with the Midwestern giants.
I know. That’s even more ridiculous than Oklahoma and Texas joining the SEC.
But first, Kevin Warren should knock hard on the door of his law-school alma mater, Notre Dame. Really hard. And worry about School Number 16 after that.
These things may sound far-fetched right now. And they are. But careful readers of our TMG blog will recall that years ago, I predicted that major-college sports would evolve into four 16-team leagues. The symmetry, power and television dollars make that inevitable.
It sure looks like the SEC is going to be the first league there. If the Big Ten wants to keep pace, it needs to act quickly and decisively.
I don’t really like where college sports is headed. I haven’t liked it for quite a while now. Not one bit. But it is what it is. And the Big Ten needs to raise its game. Or get left behind.