What if the SEC built a league….and nobody came? Part 3

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey is building a super/mega/all-mighty conference. And there seems to be a sense that we – you know, the collective we of all football fans not in the SEC - need to do SOMETHING! But maybe it isn’t all of "us" that need to do something. Maybe it’s people who actually have power and a vested interest in their academic institutions. I talked about the "student-athlete" and academics in the first post. Yesterday, I asked at what point will university presidents and chancellors step forward and say, "Stop! This isn’t what we’re here for?" Will they? Can they? Or are they already saying it?

If you believe Washington State University president Kirk Schulz, the actions of the SEC are actually coalescing colleges to take a step back and more carefully evaluate what’s going on? While most people were scurrying around asking what will the other conferences do (including me), there were more than a few people who actually are in control, who were at least trying to take control. And Schulz, more than others, understands what effect these conference resets can do: he was president at Kansas State a decade ago when the Big XII lost Colorado to the Pac-12, Nebraska to the Big Ten and Missouri and Texas A&M to the SEC. He’s been on the inside as loyalties were abandoned, regional ties were ignored, and money talked very loudly. And he’s not saying that change won’t happen; new PAC 12 commissioner George Kliavkoff has already told the conference’s presidents that he has six options that he is prepared to implement if need be.

But, and hopefully other conferences feel this way, it isn’t just about the money. From that same article:

The Pac-12 isn’t interested in adding members simply as a response to the SEC’s move.

"All the conversations I’ve [Schulz] had are really focused on closing the revenue gap,’’ he said. "That still drives a lot of the decision-making. You could pick schools that make us a 16- or 18-team conference, but the next question is, ‘OK, how does that close the revenue gap?’"

Pac-12 schools receive far less in annual conference distributions — tens of millions less — than their peers in the SEC and Big Ten.

"The second thing I hear a lot about is institutional fit," Schulz added. "It’s not about a particular state. It’s more about similar styles institutionally. We have a major brand presence on the West Coast. If we add schools from different geographic regions, does that fit well?"

Institutional fit. There were those in the B1G who questioned Rutgers ten years ago: how is Rutgers a "fit" for the Big Ten? Athletically, a fair question. Academically, not so much. And if college presidents have a say in this process as it unfolds, then maybe things don’t change quite so dramatically or quite so fast. If the academic leaders of all these P5 schools start to push back – even a bit – then perhaps realignment will be less about raiding other conferences or picking up the pieces of broken ones, and more looking at how these conferences formed in the first place: a common bond in geography or academics or philosophy or all of the above.

And it isn’t just WSU’s Schulz or me. Michael T. Benson is president and professor of history at Coastal Carolina University. But prior to that, he was at the University of Utah working under President Bernie Machen, who insisted that two things could happen at Utah (and he believed they were very close at the time): A faculty member would win a Nobel Prize, and that Utah’s emerging research profile would someday land it within the ranks of the Association of American Universities. Both things happened.

Benson wrote an interesting piece talking about "power conferences", but perhaps not the way you’d think. He wrote:

Ask any athletic director, university president or conference commissioner — one of the most-uttered phrases in conference realignment talks is "institutional profile." Even in the money-crazed world of college sports, academic prestige is extremely important, especially for several Power Five conferences. Call it what you will: academic elitism, Ivory Tower egotism, scholarly snobbery. But a school’s institutional profile — what it can bring to a conference, in terms of its academic offerings, research profile, faculty awards and memberships, and reputation — is absolutely essential.

And these conferences are not running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Our old friend, former Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, has been advising both the ACC and the Pac 12, apparently in an unpaid capacity. And it appears, not necessarily because of Delany’s input, that the idea of conferences holding pat right now is the rule of the day:

About the only thing most conferences can seem to agree on right now — besides tapping into Delany’s expertise — is that the SEC’s poaching of the Sooners and Longhorns has created a galvanizing effect throughout the country. Just how long that type of harmony can exist, and how it rears its head, remains to be seen.

Maybe the true power in "power conference" is in fact money, but maybe – just maybe – it’s not football money. Look no further than the Big Ten Academic Alliance. Within that group of !4 schools, over $11 billion – yes, billion – is generated through research. And that’s one year. Think ESPN is giving a conference that kind of money?

To add to the intrigue, it now appears that the Big Ten, the ACC, and the Pac 12 are in "high level discussions". First reported by Max Olsen in The Athletic, this is a direct counter punch to the SEC in terms of squelching the power that the SEC might get from its move:

On Tuesday the NCAA announced the formation of a constitution committee, with the hopes of expediting a proposed governance model. It is there, in voting power, where an alliance among the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 would really show those three conferences’ power — 41 votes to the 16 votes of the expanded SEC.

[ACC Commissioner/former Northwestern AD Jim] Phillips, who was announced as one of 23 members of the constitution committee, has told ADs that strength comes in numbers, not in one conference stacking the deck. This is where the real difference could come for these three conferences.

Shut down the power of the SEC by creating a power bloc to control what the NCAA does with college football and the Autonomy 5. Fight fire with bigger numbers. NOTE: The Athletic is subscription based; this link also describes the alliance.

Will all this continue at a breakneck pace or will - as with the Big Ten/ACC/Pac 12 grouping - there be a pause, an opportunity for schools and conferences to think about what is happening? I hope it’s the latter. And some who are in a position to know agree. Gene Taylor, the AD at Kansas State, a school that might be on the outside looking in if the Big XII collapses, thinks that for right now, nobody is going to make a move. "Nothing is going to happen this year. I'd be shocked. I do have friends in other leagues and when I talk to those ADs that I'm close with, I'm hearing they're not doing anything." And maybe that’s a good thing….for now.

But what about Greg Sankey and the SEC? Maybe they stop – for now – at 16 schools. Maybe they take a short term TV deal in 2025 that allows them to make a bundle but hold open the door for a second expansion in ten years. Maybe by that time the other conferences will have had time to really think about where this is all going. And maybe more than a few will say that where the SEC is going isn’t necessarily where they want to go.

Maybe a real power conference will develop, and it won’t include the SEC.

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