So, maybe, possibly, probably, OK, pretty likely, Oklahoma and Texas will move to the SEC? The Southwest in the Southeast? The long-desired return of Texas versus Texas A&M, but with perhaps a trade-off of a never-desired burial of Bedlam? The Sooners between the hedges? The Crimson Tide rolling into Austin? All while a Big 12 that was not actually 12, and increasingly not all that Big, now finds itself falling back and digging in its boots to ward off conference raiders hailing from every direction and acronym.
Welcome to the Tomorrowland, er, Todayland, of collegiate athletics, currently being driven like a limousine on a frozen lake by the power brokers of college football — OK, maybe just one power broker (singular) of college football — steered toward a here-and-now future where maps and calendars no longer seem to matter. A new frontier where athletes can jump from one roster to another to improve their situation (but don’t you dare call them free agents) and hire agents to help them find financial backers through name, image and likeness (but don’t you dare call it pay for play). All ultimately vying for a spot in a College Football Playoff poised to expand 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 you dare say it looks like the NFL).
Oh, and all the above is currently governed by a governing body that, over the past month, has joined others in admitting perhaps it doesn’t need to be governing at all. To be fair, the NCAA never ran the CFP. Now it would appear that was merely a training exercise, preparing for a future when it likely won’t run anything else, either.
In the college sports multiverse that has emerged since July 1, it would be cliché to say this isn’t going to be your grandfather’s college football. It won’t even be your father’s, either. Hell, it isn’t the sport any of us knew a week ago, let alone three years ago. No one, no matter what they might think, has any idea what it will be three years from now. And yeah, that includes the people who are making the moves that are forcing the rest of us to move with them.
“What no one can predict, no matter how much they think they can, are the unintended consequences. A lot of us have been doing this a long time and we can all take our best educated guess at what we think will happen when we implement a plan or idea, but until that plan or idea actually happens and we see what happens because of what we ultimately decided to do, no one can honestly tell you what is going to happen.”
Alabama head coach Nick Saban spoke those words on the morning of Wednesday, July 21, during his stint at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama. He was answering a question about the transfer portal, NIL (name, image, likeness) and the expanded CFP, the transformative trio that has seemingly arrived all at once. At the time, we thought those topics would bring as much change as we would have to handle all at once. We were wrong. A few hours later, at precisely 3:38 p.m., a tsunami was unleashed over the entire college sports world, its epicenter found right there in the Hoover press room, where a Houston Chronicle report revealed Oklahoma and Texas had been asking about the possibility of joining the SEC. Looking back, Saban had to have known about what so many of the rest of us did not. Even if he didn’t, the words of college football’s greatest coach feel prescient at the greatest of levels.
“Look, these changes, they benefit our program at Alabama, there’s no question about it,” said the man who started his college football life as a player and graduate assistant at Kent State and held his first head-coaching gig at Toledo. “But ultimately, we have to ask, are they good for college football as a whole, the game that we all love?”
Let’s be real here. No conference commissioner, university president or athletic director makes any decision after a philosophical pause to ponder, “Hey, is this good for the entirety of college athletics?” No, their moves have been and will always be based on what is best for their conference, their university and their athletic department. That’s the gig. This is a world of people who are competitive by nature. Their goal is to always be No. 1, whether it be wins earned or dollars in the bank. And none of those people are going to lose their jobs in a manner that leaves them screaming as they are escorted out of the building, “I know it wasn’t best for us, but consider college sports as a whole!”
It is not SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s job to worry about the future of the Big 12. His job is to strengthen the SEC and create a better life for its members. Everyone knows this and understands it. Perhaps the biggest part of that job is to stare into a crystal ball that is cloudy at best (see: adding portal/NIL/CFP while subtracting NCAA) and try to foresee the ideal path to survival while also retaining the SEC’s title as the undisputed most powerful alliance in college sports. Any path is most easily bulldozed by applying as much horsepower as possible. Bevo and the Sooner Schooner provide a lot of horsepower. Had it been revealed at a later date that Sankey passed on the possibility of adding Oklahoma and Texas to his conference’s roster, he one day in the not-so-distant future 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 possibly becomes the new post-NCAA Power 5 (or 4 or 3 or who knows?) society, everyone bestowed with any degree of decision-making abilities must be open to any and every possible idea.
Hey, I co-host a television show on the SEC Network. Adding Texas and Oklahoma wouldn’t exactly be bad for business. But just because a move must be made doesn’t mean it was the right move to make. If those two do indeed join the SEC, there will indeed be consequences, both intended and, yes, Coach Saban, unintended. We have no idea how many dominoes will fall, how long they will keep falling or how many people they will crush as they do. It’ll be like watching the Daytona 500. We know the Big One, the crash that will collect half the cars in the field, is coming. It’s inevitable. It’s only a question of how many teams this potential move takes out, how much money it will cost, how many feelings get hurt and how bad any real injuries might be. We know someone will always win the race, but we never know what they might have to do to get to Victory Lane.
Sankey will understand the analogy. He is a huge auto racing fan. So are most of the college football coaches and administrators of the SEC and Big 12. I know because I’ve talked to them about it. Over the years, they have all asked the same question: “Hey, NASCAR used to be so big. McGee, you worked there. What happened?”
The answer is a cautionary tale. A warning shot. Past as prologue.
I tell them about a sport that was on such a steep growth curve for so long, its leadership went to sleep at the wheel and didn’t realize it. There was so much money coming in via unwavering ticket sales and always-rising TV revenue, it masked years of bad decisions. At some point, the leadership bought into the assumption that their core fan base would always have their backs no matter what they did. So, they abandoned their roots, leaving traditional racetracks and ditching decades-long annual race dates for flashier new facilities in sexier new markets. Then, literally overnight, the economy tanked, and the cash flow stopped. When NASCAR looked up, the cool new fans and cool new markets it worked so hard to woo had moved on to the next cool thing. But the sport had also wandered so far from its base that the old-school fans were nowhere to be found, having departed the less-charming present in search of nostalgia. They were angry Darlington Raceway was empty on Labor Day weekend. Just as college sports fans in Oklahoma and Texas will be angry when they don’t see “Cowboys” on the football schedule or “Jayhawks” on the basketball calendar.
It’s why I have always followed up my NASCAR explanation to the people who run college sports by suggesting they assign their best sports management students to perform a CSI on American auto racing. Or, for that matter, Major League Baseball. No one is immune to the trappings of “Don’t worry, they’ll always need us.” Not even Dale Earnhardt Jr. or the New York Yankees.
Whether you are a fan, sportswriter, player, coach, or even a conference commissioner, we all watch, cover or work in collegiate athletics because, at some point in our lives, at some level, we fell in love with it. And, at some level, we will always love it. Because of that affection, we want it to grow, evolve and survive well into the future so the next generation will love it, too, alongside us as we wear our school colors and sing the alma mater as we beat our oldest, most hated rival.
After all that growing, evolving and surviving, let’s just make sure we can still recognize whatever sport comes out on the other side of it all. And that we still have that old rival to hate.