Give Kevin Warren credit. He just pulled off the greatest rope-a-dope since the Rumble in the Jungle.
The Big Ten, and Warren, have bumbled and stumbled through most of his two-plus years as commissioner. There have been foibles big and small. Many were attributable to the coronavirus pandemic, most notably the league’s civil war over the on, then off, then on again 2020 football season. But the main concern over the last 11 months has been its head-scratching approach to conference expansion.
The SEC changed everything last summer when it poached Oklahoma and Texas from the Big 12. And Warren and the Big Ten seemed completely unprepared. The moment was calling for bold actions and the realization a superpower-versus-superpower era had dawned in college sports — and that they are one of the superpowers. Instead, they wasted their time throwing life rafts to the inferior ACC and Pac-12 as part of some pointless Alliance. As if a bunch of buzz words were going to chasten the jackals in Birmingham.
Well, perception was not reality in this case. Because Thursday’s earthquake — that UCLA and USC are working to join the Big Ten as soon as 2024, as first reported by The San Jose Mercury News — leaves no doubt. Warren and the Big Ten indeed do have what it takes. Because they just destroyed the Pac-12 and the considerable shared tradition between the leagues. They likely indirectly destroyed the ACC, too. They’re going to become richer than their wildest dreams when they finish their next television deal. And they undoubtedly transformed college sports forever.
Name, image and likeness reforms, SEC expansion, potential athlete unionization, the potential end of the NCAA — those were all major shifts, realized or projected. But the world was going to keep spinning on its axis no matter what. This move will take college sports to a new galaxy.
Some other thoughts:
This could be a (futile) attempt at sabotage. When The Houston Chronicle first reported Oklahoma and Texas were joining the SEC last year, it was pretty clear what had happened: Texas A&M leaked the news in a last-ditch effort to keep the Longhorns out. The timing of the news (at SEC media days) and the vigor with which every Aggie of importance seemed to find a microphone to talk into in the wake of the report was a tell.
It’s quite possible whoever spilled on this story is trying to blow up the process and keep UCLA and USC where they are. It won’t work, of course. But desperate actors are going to try. What else do they have to lose?
UCLA and USC are unlikely to come alone. Yes, football drives the bus here. But Olympic sports are entirely too important at those schools to ignore the obvious geographic challenges at play. It’s hard to imagine UCLA and USC make the jump without bringing other travel partners. Arizona, Cal, Colorado, Oregon, Stanford, Utah and Washington are all Association of American Universities members, which is considered an unofficial prerequisite for Big Ten membership.
Once the Big Ten decides on preferred size, the question becomes what it wants to emphasize when it makes its picks. Oregon, Utah and Washington are the best on-field brands. Arizona, Cal, Colorado and Stanford make the most sense if contiguous states, demographics, politics and rivalries are emphasized.
The Pac-12 is done. There is no surviving this. They will either merge with the Big 12 or become the Mountain West with a better name. It’s a death blow.
The ACC is on the clock. And it could be fighting a two-front war. It’s unlikely the Big Ten will try to poach ACC members. But it could have interest in Duke and North Carolina (and maybe Georgia Tech and/or Virginia). The SEC will definitely have interest in Clemson and Florida State (and maybe Miami and/or Louisville) whenever it decides to respond.
As for Notre Dame … I still believe the Fighting Irish can make independence work in an expanded playoff era (which is obviously coming). The Big Ten and SEC schools will still find value in playing non-conference games against Notre Dame. And the Fighting Irish can make a small fortune themselves if they demand a true market rate for their standalone television deal (not that they need the money). But if the Irish do decide to join a league, let’s not be silly. They’re joining the Big Ten. Not the ACC.
These are the schools fighting for the last few Big Ten and SEC spots, however many there may be. I have 21 schools vying for eight (?) slots.
Brand names: Clemson, Florida State, Miami, Oregon, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Washington.
Secondary names for myriad reasons: Arizona, Cal, Colorado, Duke, Georgia Tech, Kansas, Louisville, Stanford and Utah.
Long shots if things get crazy: Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh, Virginia, Virginia Tech and West Virginia.
James Kratch can be reached at [email protected]