Jul 22, 2021; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Big 10 commissioner Kevin Warren speaks to the media during Big 10 media days at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports
One year ago today, Kevin Warren, Jim Phillips and George Kliavkoff logged onto a Zoom call.
They were there to make a historic announcement. The commissioners of the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 were there to introduce “The Alliance,” an agreement between the three leagues to align on matters of the future of college athletics.
My, oh my, so much can change in one year.
The “gentlemen’s agreement,” as it was called at the time, was created with the idea of future scheduling agreements and involved absolutely no signed legal documents that bound the three conferences.
It was also billed as an agreement not to raid each other’s conferences in future realignment.
It turns out, as I wrote at the time, a man’s word doesn’t mean a whole heckuva lot in college athletics boardrooms or on Zoom calls between commissioners.
Instead of aligning to help the future of college athletics as a whole and prevent the SEC from seizing the power of the entire enterprise, the group aligned to stop the long-discussed expansion of the College Football Playoff as soon as 2024.
The group did not schedule any future games on the gridiron or basketball court as part of this alliance.
It simply became a punchline.
That was especially true once the Big Ten turned heel and swiped longtime Pac-12 members USC and UCLA faster than a Californian can prepare their avocado toast.
The Big Ten decided “The Alliance” was dead, and they had little care for what happened to those left in the wake of the destruction.
As it turns out, “The Alliance” was mostly an opportunity for the Big Ten to fake the other leagues into a false feeling of security. The Big Ten was the only other league with the power (and allure of money) needed to draw schools away from the Pac-12 or ACC.
They let the Pac-12 get comfortable, then cut them off at the knees by grabbing two of their most valuable assets.
Meanwhile, the ACC remains more or less a complete and total non-threat to the Big Ten or Pac-12. Their long-term media rights deal with ESPN leaves them well behind the emerging super conferences, and will continue to do so well into the next decade.
Now the Pac-12 is left working on picking up the pieces of its league. Kliavkoff has suddenly changed his tune on the expansion of the College Football Playoff and was quoted last month as saying he sees a path to get it done before 2025.
If only there’d been a perfect time to do that with a widely accepted format already prepared to be voted on and put into action for the 2023-24 season.
That prior format would have continued to guarantee access to the playoff for schools in the Big 12. It could have been a life raft for the league as they navigated the period after Texas and Oklahoma announced they were bouncing to join the SEC.
Still, the Big 12 persevered through the turmoil and came out stronger on the other side with four new schools that each bring their own unique flavor to an increasingly unique league with schools of all shapes and sizes.
Nobody threw the Big 12 a life raft during its tumultuous summer of 2021, but, a year later, the league appears as strong and as unified as it ever has despite the loss of its two flagship brands.
They’re now in a position of power in conference realignment talks. The league can be the hunter rather than the hunted for the first time in its existence.
For the Big 12, “The Alliance” might not have been such a bad thing. It forced the schools in the league to come together and stay together through a difficult period to navigate largely without the help of the other major leagues.
Meanwhile, for its members, “The Alliance” proved to be what it was all along — a joke.
The three leagues thought they were aligned in shaping the future of college athletics and did their best to delay the sport’s future growth as long as possible for what turned out to be no helpful reason at all.
The Pac-12 didn’t realize at the time it was throwing away a life raft it would need in the not-so-distant future, and has left the league grasping for straws in order to stay together.
Straws are unfortunately all that’s left of the strawman gentlemen’s agreement that did nothing but further destabilize the sport three men thought they were going to save.
If you think you’re forming an alliance in the future, it might be best to get something in writing.
A man’s word doesn’t seem to mean much these days, especially in a college athletics board room.