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Volume 23 No. 29
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College football: Fully powered?

Once in sync, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren’s surprise moves split college football’s top 5 leaders.
Scenes like this from pregame player introductions at South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium last year will likely be more muted this fall without stands packed with fans, but the SEC, as well as the ACC and Big 12, moved forward with plans to play despite the Big Ten and Pac-12 postponing their football seasons.
Photo: getty images

The commissioners from the ACC, Big 12 and SEC, like most everyone else, knew what was coming last Tuesday. That afternoon, their colleagues at the Big Ten and the Pac-12 were going to make historic announcements to shut down fall sports, including football, citing player health and safety concerns from the COVID-19 pandemic.

John Swofford, Bob Bowlsby and Greg Sankey, the leaders of the three leagues, weren’t ready to give up yet on the fall season, however, and they understood what that could mean. If the Big Ten’s Kevin Warren and Larry Scott of the Pac-12 were pushing the narrative that they were acting in the interest of player safety, would that suggest the other three conferences must not be as concerned with their athletes’ health? It’s not true, of course, but they knew it was a potential storyline that could be damaging to their hopes to play football in 2020, industry insiders said.

It was a high-level game of chess. The Big Ten and Pac-12 made the initial moves — the Big Ten went first, followed hours later by the Pac-12. The ACC, Big 12 and SEC needed to counter quickly, and they did. Within 24 hours each league announced it would still play, citing its own medical experts who had determined there was a safe path to playing football this fall.

And with that the three conferences, at the end of last week, were still on pace to start the football season in September. Each had released matchups, the ACC and Big 12 with scheduled dates, indicating that their strategic alliance was working — so far. By sticking together, they had provided each other cover. 

The sequence of events, divergent paths and formation of alliances reveal the often complicated inner workings of the Power Five at a most critical juncture. In the heat of decision-making time, insiders say, relationships and trust matter the most, especially within the framework of the Power Five, where your ally one day can be your adversary by the next.

From top to bottom: The ACC’s John Swofford, SEC’s Greg Sankey, Big Ten’s Kevin Warren, Big 12’s Bob Bowlbsy and Pac-12’s Larry Scott were touting their ability to lead major college football together until Warren’s surprise decisions and announcements started splintering the group.
Photo: getty images

“College sports aren’t designed to have a dictator or an overall commissioner that has the power and authority to make decisions all across the country,” said Dan Beebe, the Big 12 commissioner from 2007 to 2011. “I’m not sure it ever will be that way. So, it plays out the way you’d think it would, with people having different views and going in different directions with no unified voice. … Sometimes, it can be a mess.”

Photo: getty images

In the aftermath of its calculated move to postpone football, the Big Ten appears to be in a meltdown. The conference had coveted the role of being the first mover during the pandemic but offered mixed messaging throughout the monthlong public football decision process.

Photo: getty images

The first to announce a football scheduling strategy on July 9, the league said its teams would play conference games only. It was a surprise move that blindsided the other leagues and provided the first hint that Warren, a longtime NFL team executive who took over as commissioner in January, might be a little unpredictable, especially after the commissioners had touted their collaborative process and sharing of information. 

Photo: getty images

On Aug. 5, the league had pointed optimistically toward the coming season with a schedule reveal show on Big Ten Network. A few days later, that schedule was no longer necessary. Less than one week later, and with the planned Sept. 5 kickoff approaching, the season was called off.  

Photo: getty images

Nobody has explained what happened in those six days to turn the tide and change Warren’s mind, but the reaction to the decision by league members was uncharacteristically chaotic. Nebraska threatened to play games this season in another conference. The football coaches at Michigan and Ohio State, the two biggest brands in the conference, publicly disagreed with the timing of the decision. Athletic administrators privately said they still didn’t fully understand why the season’s postponement had to be done then instead of waiting a week or two longer. 

Alignment among the key stakeholders in the conference, rarely a problem under former Commissioner Jim Delany, crumbled in the lead-up to the Big Ten’s decision to not play football for the first time in 124 years.

COVID-19 and its fallout on all sports has laid bare the uniquely fragmented leadership structure in college football, where the P5 commissioners operate as joint owners-operators of the most valuable assets in intercollegiate athletics — football is responsible for roughly three-fourths of the revenue at most of the top schools. The College Football Playoff’s media contract with ESPN alone is worth $7.3 billion over 12 years. 

The NCAA is responsible for administrative tasks like rules and eligibility, but the five commissioners have all of the authority, especially on the commercial side. No one commissioner technically has more power than any of the others, but the commissioner who is winning the most in football typically wields the most influence. And any proposed alternate leadership model would surely have a hard time gaining traction given the influence those five people hold.

“I’ve been saying from the very beginning that the lack of coordination and communication in college sports is an embarrassment,” said ESPN analyst and NCAA antagonist Jay Bilas, who questioned why the NCAA would remain silent on one of the most historic days in college athletics when two major conferences opted out of football. “The ramifications of these decisions are profound because it’s a multibillion-dollar business. People are going to lose their jobs. You’re going to have fallout from this.”

For the past six years, the five commissioners have enjoyed relatively smooth sailing. Life was good as they celebrated record revenue hauls, distributed huge payouts that kept the members happy and gathered at their marquee event, the College Football Playoff, every January to toast their well-earned success.

They have occasionally faced major issues like implementing cost-of-attendance stipends or player likeness rights, but that was relatively minor compared to what they’ve encountered since mid-March. The pandemic has bounced the commissioners around like loose change in the dryer. And the collaboration that they bragged about six months ago has come apart thread by dangling thread.

The leadership-by-committee approach began to unravel rapidly after that surprise move in July by the Big Ten to announce its football strategy. Until that point, some of the commissioners said, it felt like the most collaborative process they had all worked on together. Then the Big Ten dropped a news release saying that it would play conference-only schedules in all its fall sports, including football.

No one saw it coming. The commissioners had talked together a few hours earlier and the fact that Warren said nothing about his upcoming announcement clearly miffed some of his peers — namely Sankey and Bowlsby, who remained diplomatic while letting everyone know that they were surprised by the news.

“The die was cast with that decision,” said veteran collegiate marketer Vince Thompson, whose Atlanta agency Melt works with some of the biggest sponsors in the college space. “I don’t think that was the end of the fissures in college athletics, I think it was the beginning. Any time you have billions of dollars on the line in any situation, you’re going to see self-interests rise to the top really, really quickly.”

Is there a better leadership model for college sports? Would major college football be better off going back under NCAA management for the first time since the mid-1980s? Should there be a singular figure — a decision-making football czar — who takes input from all Power Five conferences and makes decisions based on what is best for all? Or should they stick with the current structure, where five commissioners are trusted to act in the best interest of the game, even though history tells us that they’ll opt for what’s best for their conference in the end?

Roy Kramer, the SEC commissioner from 1990 to 2002, has had a unique seat from which to watch the evolution of college football’s power structure. He was the central figure in the development of the old Bowl Championship Series that for the first time ensured No. 1 would face No. 2 in a championship game. After being in the middle of several major debates over the future of college football, he doesn’t see a need to change it now. The pandemic has introduced the Power Five commissioners to a series of events that have presented challenges unlike any they’ve ever encountered.

“Sometimes they agree, sometimes they don’t,” Kramer said. “That’s what you’re seeing play out. That happens with various issues. There have always been issues that different conferences want to address in different ways. It’s just a lot more prominent nationally because you’re talking about the loss of an entire season.

“In the long run, college football will be just fine. You’ll see it take some hits for a year or two, but it will be back.” 

Staff writer Eric Prisbell contributed to this story.

Editor’s note: This story is updated from the print edition.