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The 'Alliance' shows how college athletics is at war with itself

·Columnist
·6 min read
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They appeared on a three-screen video chat, the modern equivalent of an old-school mob meeting designed to run out the competition. And at its heart, that’s what this was trying to be.

An attempted act of aggression responding to a perceived act of aggression. This is where we are at in college athletics, this wonderful, beautiful, ridiculous American creation that is being done in by all sorts of classic American themes: greed, politics, money, tribalism and hurt feelings.

So there they were, George Kliavkoff representing the Pac-12 out in California, Kevin Warren representing the Big Ten from Chicago and Jim Phillips of the ACC down in the Carolinas. All they were missing was Vito Corleone to offer protection in the east via his judges and politicians.

Noticeably absent, and geographically and politically surrounded, was Greg Sankey of the mighty SEC, currently distrusted, if not despised, by his peers.

The three commissioners announced an “Alliance” that was designed to form a voting bloc, a future scheduling agreement of some sort and some tweaks to the playoff plan that could blunt the growing power of the SEC (and its broadcast partner, ESPN).

This was a show of unity and a show of strength, or at least the possibility of strength. It was in response to the SEC last month adding the Universities of Oklahoma and Texas.

That move made the SEC the even bigger, baddest league on the block while gutting the Big 12, a once member of the cool crowd that was now relegated to tuning in to watch like the Sun Belt and the others.

It also rattled these three leagues, who wondered if they could keep up or even keep their members. No one wanted to see the dominoes of expansion continue to fall. Give them credit for that.

So they formed a partnership to, if nothing else, tell the SEC just how mad they are and, at most, in about a decade or so limit the SEC’s non-conference scheduling possibilities.

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 31:   SEC Commissioner, Greg Sankey, talks with ESPN Analysy, Paul Finebaum, at the College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl between the Washington Huskies and the Alabama Crimson Tide on December 31, 2016.  Alabama defeated Washington by the score of 24-7 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey is persona non grata with the rest of college athletics. (Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This was about the least collegiate collegiate sports has ever looked — a house not just divided but at war with each other. Can you imagine the NFC North, East and West holding a teleconference to flex on the NFC South?

“It’s really been a pleasure to work with [Jim] and George and be able to discuss issues that are pertinent to college athletics and ... to have people in this industry, leaders at the ACC and Pac-12 that we have been able to communicate with,” Warren said.

Gee, wonder who that was directed at?

“What became clear in our conversations is that our institutions share values, interests and the genuine and dedicated commitment to the educational commitments of our world-class institutions,” Phillips said.

It just means more … or something.

You can understand why the three leagues feel threatened by the SEC’s rise, but this is misplaced anger. Yes, the league now has the Sooners and Longhorns in the fold, but it swears that it was those schools who approached them, not the other way around.

And even if you don’t believe that, even if you think it was the SEC who started the flirting, the fact that OU and UT were looking to leave the Big 12 meant they were going to go … somewhere.

Sankey would have been failing his league if he didn’t pounce.

These other commissioners would have crawled to Norman and Austin to do the same. Any suggestion otherwise is nonsense. The Big Ten once added Rutgers just so it could bilk some cash out of New Jersey cable subscribers each month. They can trot out words like honor and unity, but this is business. It’s ugly. It’s cutthroat. But it’s business. No one would have said no. No one.

Yet here we were, with this still-in-the-works alliance. The main details announced Tuesday include the three leagues will vote as a bloc (perhaps) on NCAA governance (which they tend to do anyway).

The leagues will also look to set up a scheduling plan — the most notable proposal calls for each team to play an opponent from each of the other conferences each season. However, the devil is in the details, including contracted games that stretch into the 2030s. So nothing is imminent.

If it ever gets to that point, the SEC would struggle to find many quality non-conference games. The SEC is already discussing playing 10 conference games each season, so the issue might be disappointing, but mostly moot.

And the leagues will put their fingerprints on the proposed 12-team playoff — including having conferences, rather than bowl games, potentially operate games to allow for neutral sites in the Midwest to be included.

The real goal is to force the playoff to go to market, and not simply scooped up in totality by ESPN. The Alliance wants Fox, and others, to be involved in broadcasting at least some of the sport's most profitable games because those networks can later share some of that profit in future conference deals.

Otherwise this was a lot of passive-aggressive vitriol and back-patting about how they are the good guys. It was a lot of talk about how this wasn’t about money, even if it’s always about money.

“We need to make sure we have shared values, we keep academics first, we keep our integrity, our honor and our collaboration together,” Warren said.

Does the alliance hold? Who knows? There is no signed contract. They claim it’s not needed.

“It’s about trust,” Phillips said. “It’s about, we’ve looked each other in the eye. We’ve made an agreement. If that’s what it takes to get something considerable done, then we’ve lost our way.”

This is college sports. It lost its way about a century ago. These are the same people who require field hockey and cross country recruits to sign binding letters of intent because they don’t trust them or any other school’s coaches. Will 41 schools stretching from coast to coast suddenly remain on the same page?

Maybe the hate — or fear — of the SEC is that powerful.

As for the eight remaining Big 12 schools, there doesn’t appear to be any safe harbors looking to take them in. If the gentlemen’s agreement holds, then expansion at the top level is over. That's the goal anyway. Everyone wishes Iowa State and TCU and the others the best, though.

“We want and need the Big 12 to do well,” Phillips said. “The Big 12 matters in college athletics.”

Just not enough to be included in the alliance.

Those schools don’t have enough to offer, apparently. They wouldn’t upset or scare or concern the SEC.

And in the end this was all about trying to upset the SEC, which is persona non grata after adding Oklahoma and Texas, which is what the other three leagues wish they could have done.

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