So, maybe, maybe not, probably, OK, probably, pretty likely, Oklahoma and Texas will join the SEC? Is it possible to have the Southwest in the Southeast? The long-awaited return of Texas vs. Texas A&M, but with the possibility of a never-to-be-forgotten burial of Bedlam? Between the hedges, the Sooners? The Crimson Tide is on its way to Austin? All the while, a Big 12 that wasn’t actually 12, and isn’t getting any bigger, is retreating and digging in its heels to fend off conference raiders from every direction and acronym.
Welcome to collegiate athletics’ Tomorrowland, er, Todayland, which is currently being steered like a limousine on a frozen lake by the power brokers of college football — OK, maybe just one power broker (singular) of college football — toward a here-and-now future where maps and calendars no longer seem to matter. A new frontier in which athletes can jump from one roster to another to improve their situation (but don’t call them free agents) and hire agents to help them find financial backers via name, image, and likeness (but don’t call it pay for play). All vying for a spot in the College Football Playoff, which is set to grow from four teams to a dozen, a bracket that promises to reward the highest-ranked teams with first-round byes and welcome previously denied outliers with postseason wild-card slots (but don’t dare to compare it to the NFL).
Oh, and all of the above is currently governed by a governing body that has recently joined others in admitting that it may not need to govern at all. To be fair, the CFP was never run by the NCAA. Now it appears that was merely a practise run, preparing for a future when it is unlikely to run anything else.
It would be a cliche to say that this isn’t going to be your grandfather’s college football in the college sports multiverse that has emerged since July 1. It will not even be your father’s. It’s not even the sport we knew a week ago, let alone three years ago. Nobody knows what will happen three years from now, no matter what they think. And, yes, that includes those who are making the moves that force the rest of us to follow.
“Unintended consequences are something that no one can predict, no matter how much they believe they can. Many of us have been doing this for a long time, and we can all make educated guesses about what will happen when we implement a plan or idea, but no one can honestly tell you what will happen until that plan or idea is implemented and we see what happens as a result of what we ultimately decided to do.”
Alabama head coach Nick Saban said those words on Wednesday, July 21, during his appearance at the SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama. He was responding to a question about the transfer portal, NIL (name, image, likeness), and the expanded CFP, the transformative trio that appears to have arrived at the same time. At the time, we assumed that those topics would bring about as much change as we could handle all at once. We were mistaken. A few hours later, at 3:38 p.m., a tsunami hit the college sports world, with the epicentre found right there in the Hoover press room, where a Houston Chronicle report revealed Oklahoma and Texas had inquired about joining the SEC. Looking back, Saban had to have known something that the rest of us didn’t. Even if he didn’t, the words of college football’s greatest coach seem prophetic on the highest level.
“Look, there’s no doubt about it, these changes benefit our programme at Alabama,” said the man who began his college football career as a player and graduate assistant at Kent State before taking over as head coach at Toledo. “But, in the end, we must ask whether they are good for college football as a whole, the game that we all love?”
Let’s be honest. No conference commissioner, university president, or athletic director makes a decision without first pondering, “Hey, is this good for the entire college athletics community?” No, their decisions have always been and will continue to be based on what is best for their conference, university, and athletic department. That is the job. This is a world full of people who are naturally competitive. Their goal is to always be number one, whether in terms of wins or dollars in the bank. And none of those people will be fired in such a way that they are escorted out of the building screaming, “I know it wasn’t best for us, but consider college sports as a whole!”
It is not SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s responsibility to be concerned about the Big 12’s future. His job is to fortify the SEC and improve the lives of its members. Everyone is aware of and comprehends this. Perhaps the most important aspect of that job is to look into a cloudy crystal ball (see: adding portal/NIL/CFP while subtracting NCAA) and try to predict the best path to survival while also retaining the SEC’s title as the undisputed most powerful alliance in college sports. Using as much horsepower as possible, any path can be bulldozed. Bevo and the Sooner Schooner have plenty of power. If it was later revealed that Sankey turned down the opportunity to add Oklahoma and Texas to his conference’s roster, he would have been that person being dragged toward the exit while no one was listening to him holler about principles. Whether a handful of 16-team “superconferences” or a 32-team mega-league emerge as the new post-NCAA Power 5 (or 4 or 3 or who knows?) society, everyone endowed with any level of decision-making authority must be open to any and all possibilities.
Hey, I co-host an SEC Network television show. Including Texas and Oklahoma would not be a bad thing for business. But just because a move had to be made doesn’t mean it was the best move. If those two do join the SEC, there will be consequences, both intended and, according to Coach Saban, unintended. We have no idea how many dominoes will fall, how long they will fall for, or how many people will be crushed as a result. It will be similar to watching the Daytona 500. We know the Big One, the crash that will take out half of the cars on the field, is on its way. It’s unavoidable. It’s just a matter of how many teams this potential move eliminates, how much money it costs, how many feelings are hurt, and how serious any real injuries are. We all know that someone will win the race, but we never know what they will have to do to get there.
Sankey will grasp the analogy. He is a huge fan of auto racing. Most SEC and Big 12 college football coaches and administrators are as well. I know because I’ve discussed it with them. They’ve all asked the same question over the years: “Hey, NASCAR used to be so popular. McGee, you used to work there. What transpired?”
The solution is a cautionary tale. A warning shot was fired. The past serves as a prologue.
I tell them about a sport that had such a steep growth curve for so long that its leadership fell asleep behind the wheel and didn’t realise it. There was so much money coming in from consistent ticket sales and rising TV revenue that it obscured years of bad decisions. At some point, the leadership came to believe that no matter what they did, their core fan base would always have their back. As a result, they abandoned their roots, abandoning traditional racetracks and decades-long annual race dates in favour of flashier new facilities in sexier new markets. Then, seemingly overnight, the economy tanked, and the cash flow dried up. When NASCAR looked up, the cool new fans and markets it had worked so hard to entice had moved on to the next cool thing. However, the sport had strayed so far from its roots that the old-school fans were nowhere to be found, having fled the less-than-pleasant present in search of nostalgia. They were furious. On Labor Day weekend, Darlington Raceway was deserted. Just as college sports fans in Oklahoma and Texas will be irritated if they don’t see “Cowboys” or “Jayhawks” on the football or basketball schedules.
That’s why, after explaining NASCAR to college sports administrators, I always suggest they assign their best sports management students to conduct a CSI on American auto racing. Neither, for that matter, does Major League Baseball. “Don’t worry, they’ll always need us,” no one is immune to. Not even Dale Earnhardt Jr. or the New York Yankees have a chance.
Whether you are a fan, sportswriter, player, coach, or even a conference commissioner, we all watch, cover, or work in collegiate athletics because we fell in love with it at some point in our lives. And we will always love it on some level. We want it to grow, evolve, and survive so that the next generation can love it alongside us as we wear our school colours and sing the alma mater as we beat our oldest, most despised rival.
Let’s just hope that after all of this growing, evolving, and surviving, we can still recognise whatever sport emerges on the other side of it all. And that we still have that old foe to despise.