A football coach, of all people, has come up with a way to save college athletics. As his sport fueled the latest round of conference cannibalization, UCLA’s Chip Kelly offered a suggestion that many read as a solution.
“Notre Dame is an independent in football, but they’re in a conference for everything else. Why aren’t we all independent for football?” he said. “Take the 64 teams in Power Five and make that one division. Take the 64 teams in Group of Five, make that another division. We play for a championship, they play for a championship, and no one else gets affected.”
From their offices, August vacation homes and European team trips, college basketball coaches shouted: Amen!
Many have come to view endless football-driven conference realignment as a malignancy that is killing off healthy rivalries — perhaps even entire leagues — and apparently altering one’s ability to comprehend travel logistics. Faced with a prognosis that includes regular 2,000-mile road trips in a collection of malformed, bicoastal superconferences, basketball coaches are increasingly interested in an extreme treatment plan: amputating football.
Let that sport break away as its own thing, governed by the television overlords to which it is already beholden, and leave basketball and all the other NCAA sports out of this constant, geographically illogical redrawing of conference lines.
“I think it makes sense,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “Whether it makes sense or not, I think that’s where it’s heading at some point. You could align sports that are playing twice a week, align them with more regional competition.”
Another Big Ten coach, who was granted anonymity in exchange for candor, agreed. “Football is only a 12-game season. We’re playing 30 games,” he said. “It’s more feasible and more logistically sound to keep things a little bit regional.”
Logistically sound, for sure. Feasible? Former Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who also served as athletic director at Iowa and Stanford, is skeptical: “I consider it an easy answer to hard questions.” But non-football coaches think it’s time to think outside the box and find a sensible solution.
Soon, the Midwestern-born Big Ten will be an 18-team conference that stretches from Los Angeles to Piscataway, N.J., featuring four Pac-12 defectors and a founding member of the ACC. The Southeastern Conference will balloon to 16 teams, with Texas and Oklahoma joining in 2024. The Big 12 could now accurately be called the Scattered 16, having saved itself from extinction by adding a hodgepodge of BYU, Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston this season and dealing a death blow to the Pac-12 when it welcomes Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah next year.
And now comes word that the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has raided the Big East on multiple occasions over the last 20 years to steal Boston College, Miami, Virginia Tech, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville and Notre Dame (except football), is interested in expanding again if only to avoid being stripped for parts like the Pac-12. The ACC, whose logo used to be a simple map of the East Coast, is now considering invitations to Cal, Stanford and Dallas-based SMU.
“Oh, my God, these people,” said recently retired Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim. “A few years ago, someone said, ‘Let’s get the (university) presidents more involved.’ This is where we are. This is about money. We all know that. But they used to make $10 million, then 20, then 30. Every time, they spent it all. Now it’s 50, then 100. It doesn’t matter. We keep moving the line and they spend it anyway. Where does it stop? It makes no sense for intelligent people to be doing this. The logistics for football aren’t so bad, but basketball? The other sports? What are they doing about a conference tournament?
“They haven’t solved any of the problems of college athletics. If anything, they just keep making them worse.”
Missouri football Eli Drinkwitz wonders the same.
“Did we count the cost?” he asked after the Pac-12 implosion. “Football will be fine, (but) did we count the cost of collateral damage on everybody else?”
That, hoops coaches argue, is the crux of it.
What works — or at least works far more easily, like travel — for football is nearly untenable for every other sport. Olympic sports rarely travel on private charters, relying instead on the commercial airline industry and all that entails.
“Why are we making all the other sports suffer?” said St. John’s coach Rick Pitino. “The minor sports will travel commercially and 50-60 percent of flights are delayed, so kids are going to get stuck in airports, hanging around looking for bad food. Not only is it inconvenient, but we talk all the time about the mental health of people. This is not healthy for anybody.”
Even for basketball teams, which typically do charter, the travel is less than ideal. Teams ordinarily leave immediately after a game in an attempt to get back in time for class the next day. That’s not so difficult when, say, Clemson has to get home from North Carolina on a Tuesday night. It’s a far bigger ask for Cal to make the same return flight.
“The ACC is a basketball league — always has been, always will be,” said another high-major coach who was granted anonymity to discuss the moves candidly. “Do Cal or Stanford move the needle in football? It would be a shame to force their basketball programs to travel across the country to play midweek league games when the reason for trans-continental expansion is football, whose travel would not be affected because those games are played on the weekend. Football misses minimal, if any, class time and their practice time isn’t affected by travel. Basketball and the rest of the sports would suffer greatly. For what?”
Alabama coach Nate Oats also wonders about the scheduling component. “Are these cross-country leagues only going to play weekend games? How else does it work? It makes no sense at all,” he said. “Are all the UCLA and USC student-athletes going to miss every other week of class? Are you still a student at that point? To me, it’s nuts.”
It’s also expensive. When West Virginia left the crumbling Big East in 2011, joining the Big 12, its closest conference neighbor became Iowa State — 862 miles away. Per the school’s NCAA fiscal year reports, WVU spent $4.3 million in travel in its last year as a Big East member; this year it cost $8.2 million to shuttle the Mountaineer athletes around. And that number will only go up after the league’s Westward expansion.
More than 25 years ago, college football essentially operated on its own, governed by the College Football Association. The ACC, Big East, SEC, Southwest and WAC, plus independents Notre Dame, Penn State, Pittsburgh, West Virginia and the service academies, joined forces and negotiated their own TV deal (the Big Ten and Pac 10 operated separately).
Why can’t it work now?
“We’ve all heard that could happen — it’s going to be just like the AFC and NFC, or there’s going to be no conferences and football can almost schedule as independents, and the (other) sports would be more tied to conferences,” Clemson basketball coach Brad Brownell said. “I think that would be good. The leagues are just not as intimate as they were. It doesn’t feel quite as regional and close-knit.”
For all those reasons, the football breakaway option “would be nice,” Boeheim said, “but you can’t.” And here come the many reasons why it’s not so simple.
The biggest barrier: Football money funds athletic departments, and for this to work, it would have to agree to exist separately but somehow underwrite everyone else’s expenses.
“Football would say, ‘If we’re a separate entity, why the hell should we have to pony up to keep everybody else alive?’ You’d devastate sports as we know it around the country,’’ Bowlsby said.
Instead the former commissioner envisions a scenario where Olympic sports, many of which are not revenue-producing, disappear. Men’s first, because of Title IX, women’s to follow.
“The only way for any of that to be funded on campuses is by football revenue, television and (College Football) Playoff money,” said Bowlsby. “It’s socialism in capital letters and always has been.”
Gulp. The threat of getting nothing in the divorce has kept far more dysfunctional marriages than this one together. But even if you could separate football and keep those other sports getting a liveable alimony, there is still the matter of untangling TV contracts.
The arrival of league-sponsored networks means TV needs inventory beyond the football season. Years ago, football and basketball negotiated separate TV deals but with the arrival of the Big Ten Network, followed by the SEC and ACC networks, rights were sold as package deals, including Olympic sports. In all but the rarest of circumstances — hello, Notre Dame — schools join as full-conference members, and thereby are beholden to the league deals. Separating football would be a contractual fiasco.
“I think that train has left the station,” said Carol Stiff, former VP of programming at ESPN, who is credited with helping launch the Tennessee-UConn women’s basketball rivalry for that network. “What you’re outlining here has a lot of logic and, simply stated, common sense, but unraveling all of those existing conference TV agreements and then getting those conferences to agree on a separate college football structure or media arrangement, boy, it sounds like a long battle and uphill hardship. It is very complicated to go back and redo all those deals, and who would demand ESPN or CBS to do that?”
Who indeed, because if college football breaks away, who would be in charge of its new superleague? Though its championship is not governed by the NCAA, football is still bound by NCAA rules, governance and enforcement. The Athletic explored the complexities and challenges of that last summer, when Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith suggested FBS football create its own governance system while keeping other sports under the NCAA umbrella.
“Is there a governing board? Is there a football czar? What are our goals?” then-Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren wondered at the time. “The more we can get to the point where we have a centralized governance structure where it’s clear who’s in charge, I think the better we’ll be able to serve our various constituents.”
Good luck with that, said Bowlsby, because “ADs and football coaches and presidents are not going to cede authority to one person.”
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey raised another concern last summer: “How do we take football, put it off by itself, a different decision-making structure, and leave men’s basketball in the old decision-making structure that we didn’t like? I don’t know how you tell a football player, ‘We could do A, B, C for you. But I’m sorry, men’s basketball or women’s basketball player, or future Olympian, or future Major League All-Star, we can’t do that for you because we’re still in disorganization.’ That’s a really disconnected view of our athletic programs on our campuses, in my opinion.”
But if basketball and the rest are stuck reshuffling affiliations based on the whims of football and its TV partners, to revisit Drinkwitz’s question: What will be the cost, not just in dollars but in sense?
“What’s going to happen to Oregon State and Washington State? Apparently no major conference wants them, so now they’re essentially mid-major schools,” Oats said. “Is that what’s going to happen to the worst couple schools in all these leagues?”
One former network executive said “the TV money is like the gasoline that feeds the engine here” and, ominously, “the gas is getting very scarce.”
“The problem is not everybody’s going to get paid, and this is what we saw with the Pac-12,” the executive said. “That’s the next thing everybody’s going to have to face, whether it’s football or basketball or whatever: If you’ve got a bunch of weaklings you’ve been dragging along in your conference, at what point do you start eating your young?”
— The Athletic’s Brendan Marks and Brian Hamilton contributed to this report.
(Photo: Mitchell Layton / Getty Images)