Finally, they opened the floor for questions.
“I’m glad this is so historic,” I said. “And I’m really glad that you all love and respect one another so much. But exactly what are you going to do?”
Silence. Finally Stern said, “We’ll have more on that in the future.”
I thought about that day last week when the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 announced their grand alliance.
There were lots of words from the three commissioners — the ACC’s Jim Phillips, the Big Ten’s Kevin Warren and the Pac-12’s George Kliavkoff — about how important this all was, how it would change the world of college athletics and, of course, the usual blather about doing this for “the student-athletes.”
What, then, will the new alliance do? It might — might — give each team one more reasonably good nonconference game in football and one, perhaps two, better basketball games.
No guarantees though. A lot of coaches aren’t going to give up their annual football games against Football Championship Series opponents or their guarantee games in basketball. But let’s hope for the best.
In truth, the alliance exists for one reason: to keep the SEC from swallowing college football whole. All the rhetoric about scheduling and bettering the lives of “student-athletes” is nothing but hyperbole, with about as many specifics as I was given that day in San Antonio.
As it is, the SEC is pretty close to becoming Audrey II, the all-consuming plant from “The Little Shop of Horrors.” The conference was already the sport’s bully before it raided the Big 12 for Texas and Oklahoma to become a 16-team monolith. When a 12-team College Football Playoff becomes reality — a virtual certainty — the SEC will have something like four teams in that playoff every year. The only thing that will alter that number: if the CFP doesn’t limit how many teams from a conference can qualify. In that case, the SEC might have six teams in the playoff. Or seven.
You can bet the “alliance” will fight against that possibility until doomsday — or beyond.
Imagine a league in which Oklahoma and Texas are the fifth- and sixth-best teams. Or LSU and Florida. Or Georgia and Auburn. There’s no sense mentioning Alabama because it will never be fifth- or sixth-best as long as Nick Saban is the coach, and he apparently plans to coach until football becomes an Olympic sport.
What the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 cannot afford is for the SEC to swoop in and swallow Ohio State and Michigan or USC and UCLA or Clemson and Florida State, still the ACC’s second-most important program despite its recent struggles.
That prospect may sound far-fetched, but it’s not. Geography has become irrelevant in college athletics, especially in football, where everyone travels by charter and, if a team is flying coast-to-coast, it almost always travels on Thursday.
Ohio State and Michigan leaving the Big Ten? If the TV money’s there, anything can happen. Why would the SEC want UCLA and USC, neither of whom have been powers recently? Same reason: Adding the Los Angeles TV market would give a huge boost to the value of its TV deals. Clemson and Florida State would fit geographically and, as schools with great football traditions, have massive followings and huge stadiums.
It is worth noting that almost every conference realignment has come in the name of one of two things: TV money or survival. It began with the Big Ten adding Penn State and, later, Nebraska — both football royalty. When then-ACC commissioner John Swofford realized that the SEC might go after Clemson or Florida State, he began collecting Big East schools like jelly beans at Easter, eventually killing it off as a football conference. For the record, the last time someone other than Clemson or Florida State won the ACC in football was 2010.
Unfortunately for Swofford, Virginia Tech and (especially) Miami sank after joining the ACC rather than inspiring improvement from the ACC’s mediocre football schools. The Big 12 could survive only as long as it hung on to Texas and Oklahoma. It is now deader than men’s tennis in the United States, although it would be kind of quaint if it went back to calling itself the Big Eight — or, more accurately, the Desperate Eight.
The three commissioners can talk all they want about scheduling improvements or “opportunities for student-athletes” (hold on to your wallets when you hear that one), but the alliance was formed to try to stave off the SEC. It is meant to give the commissioners some leverage when they negotiate their next TV contracts. “Yes, (fill in the blank) will be part of our conference for the duration of this deal.”
That’s until one of the presidents gets greedy and becomes best pals with SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.
As for Notre Dame, it is technically part of the alliance because it is a full-fledged ACC member in every sport but the one that matters most — football. Instead, the Irish have a sweetheart arrangement that allows them to play five games against ACC opponents while not having to bother with a championship game. That means the Irish can keep their NBC TV deal and regularly play Duke and Wake Forest while only occasionally having time for Michigan and Michigan State.
Phillips does not have to worry about the SEC stealing Notre Dame from his league. The Irish have the perfect setup. Do you think they would want to play five SEC teams a year? Or, for that matter, eight or nine? You can’t play Vanderbilt home-and-home.
Bottom line? This alliance is a lot like that 2008 news conference. Everybody loves and respects one another. And everyone’s going to make the future better!
Check back with me when the first president jumps the alliance’s ship to dive on the SEC’s billions.