A conference ‘alliance’ appears to be a firewall against the SEC

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According to reporting by The Athletic, the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 conferences are on the verge of announcing an “alliance.” That sounds terrifying to current Big 12 members, or the remaining eight, as I like to call them. And they should be terrified of their potential futures, but this may not be why.

It does look like they’re being left out on the fringes of college football; that they’re not wanted by anyone. But then you actually read the article, and you discover it isn’t quite the alliance that maybe you expect.

Maybe I’m going to be proven wrong. Maybe I will find out that this is indeed a move to destroy the remaining Big 12 and absorb their parts, or cast aside the ones nobody wants, which might be Kansas State. I don’t think that’s true, though.

I think this “alliance” is intriguing because it isn’t a shot at the Big 12. It’s a shot at the SEC. They are bolstering their defenses. They are looking for a firewall against what the SEC is attempting. The message is this: We have strength in our numbers. And we have a purpose that supersedes anything the SEC might be intending to accomplish.

What is the SEC posing as right now? It is posing as the Ultimate College Football Conference. And maybe it is. That’s their identity. We play football better than you. And we’ll make more TV money because of it.

Well, I have said since the very beginning of all of this realignment talk, and I mean going back 10-plus years, that always remember that the decision-makers in this aren’t the athletic departments. They are chancellors and presidents and boards of regents. Those are the decision-makers. And what motivates those people isn’t just the money that athletics can produce or that football revenue from TV monetization can offer their universities.

They endorse the front porch concept: That college athletics is the front porch to a grand mansion of learning that invites people inside to the rooms. And what are those rooms? The academic presence of the university.

Now, this is completely correct. The universities don’t exist for sports, the sports exist because of the universities. And the SEC seems to be morphing this into the other way around. That we’re going to break football off into something superior to the academic experience of our institutions. The players will be paid, they’ll be working, and maybe, in the grander plan of things if the SEC actually fulfills a dream of a much larger super league, getting an education might be an option, not a requirement.

After reading this article from The Athletic, I believe that the presidents and chancellors want to send three messages to the SEC, not the Big 12. And I know it feels like right now everything is about the Big 12 — and I recognize that all of this was set off by the SEC’s grab of Oklahoma and Texas — but this is about something larger. These chancellors and presidents, and I truly believe this is coming from the Big 10 which is always been an elitist “academic” athletics conference, want to send the message that sports are secondary to their universities’ academic missions. It’s all about academics and educating the student-athletes, and they now believe that is no longer the approach in the SEC.

The messages they are sending right now are:

— One, academics are important, and our members all value academics over everything else. The SEC doesn’t.

— Two, our athletics departments are diverse, and offer a great variety of sports, creating opportunities for people of all communities. We don’t just play football and the minimum number of sports. There’s so much more to us.

— And three, that together, we will schedule and improve our products, with more high-profile games against high-profile members of our conferences, to bolster against those members being poached into a super league by the SEC.

Big 12 fans of the remaining eight, hear this: You are never going to be included in this club, whether the Big 12 remained with Oklahoma or Texas or not. Now losing those two schools, which have pretty good academic standings, offer diverse athletic departments, and bring good TV ratings, does hurt the Big 12. Let’s not be naive.

Kansas State, as an example, offers the minimum number of sports required by the NCAA. The minimum. You may argue that they should offer more. Softball. Wrestling. Swimming? However, in reality, Kansas State is not a big institution. And in some ways, K-State fans must understand that. If you look at enrollment, endowments, and those types of things, K-State doesn’t fit the profile of the Big Ten, which currently requires America Association of Universities (AAU) accreditation. Even though Nebraska lost its AAU standing after joining, that seems to be a steadfast requirement of being a member of the Big Ten.

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Kansas State is never going to be in the Big Ten unless it is accepted into a dated and mostly meaningless academic country club designed to make members feel superior. The Pac-12 doesn’t require AAU accreditation, but it does want members to be classified as a level one research institution according to Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education, which thanks to the prior administrations at Kansas State has now been achieved by K-State.

So, K-State would be in good academic standing if they wanted to move to the Pac-12 if they were invited to move to the Pac-12. (Side note, the only remaining eight schools not holding this status are TCU and Baylor.) However, Pac-12 takes great pride in offering numerous sports and that was just reinforced at Stanford, Kansas State’s opening opponent in this football season, where the athletics department announced in June of 2020 that it was going to drop 11 athletic programs, and then this May the school was forced to reverse course because their academic and sports cultures pushed back against the downsizing. As previously noted, K-State doesn’t fit that profile.

This alliance isn’t about stifling the Big 12, it’s about pushing back against the SEC. But it does offer some stark realities for the remaining eight to understand that there are still places in college athletics where the academics count just as much. By propping themselves up as academic-first conferences, the other three power five collections all send a very clear and concise message: We are not the SEC. The leadership of the three conferences is pushing back against the model that the SEC seems to be promoting: Athletics trump academics, and we will do anything for ABC/ESPN’s money.

Now, Big 12 quit watching this all happen and get busy saving yourselves because as it looks right now everyone is preparing for the future except for one conference. It’s the one that always stands by and watches as it’s picked apart and at the end of the day. I will continue to repeat this: Evaluate and invite new members as soon as possible to ensure the Big 12 will include at least 12 members after OU and Texas depart.

If the Big 12 meets its demise, it won’t be because of betrayal, collusion, or questionable academic or athletic value. History will recognize timid leadership and inaction as what killed the Big 12.

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