By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – An alliance is defined as a union or association formed for mutual benefits, especially between countries and organizations.
This column is about three organizations forming an alliance, and why it might not necessarily be an act of desperation, it seems pretty obvious that the Big Ten Conference, the Pacific-12 Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference are in full scramble mode, trying to keep pace with the Southeastern Conference’s burgeoning power and influence in college athletics.
The Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12 announced their “historic” alliance Tuesday afternoon, sharing a vision in which they plan to work together on multiple fronts, namely College Football Playoff expansion, NCAA governance issues and annual football scheduling.
But for now, that vision is hard to see because Tuesday’s press conference had very few details and was mostly a case in which the commissioners from the three conferences just rambled on for an hour about nothing really. It was way more style than substance.
The alliance is being formed, according to the three commissioners, to bring stability to the ever-changing landscape of college athletics. But how it’ll function remains a mystery because details are scarce, and because it’s hard to know where the NCAA will be in two or three now that Name, Image and Likeness has changed the world it has ruled for decades.
The Athletic was the first to report about the alliance and now the story is dominating the news cycle with the start of the 2021 college football season just a few days away.
So the timing is hardly a coincidence.
The Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12, obviously, feel threatened by Oklahoma and Texas both bolting from the Big 12 to join the SEC, and this is their response, forming an alliance under the narrative of trying to save the integrity and traditions of college athletics.
“The Big Ten really prides itself on being more than just an athletics conference,” Penn State Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Sandy Barbour said to the Athletic. “If you look at the footprint of Pac 12, ACC and the Big Ten, I think the number of is 40 percent of the AAU Association of American Universities, membership lies in those three conferences.”
The Association of American Universities is an organization of American research universities devoted to maintaining a strong system of academic research and education. Founded in 1900, it consists of 64 universities in the United States and two universities in Canada.
Texas A&M, Florida, Vanderbilt and Missouri are the only SEC schools that are currently in the AAU, while every Big Ten school except Nebraska is a member, although, Nebraska was a member when it joined the Big Ten in 2012.
There have been reports that Oklahoma was interested in joining the Big Ten, and that it reached out to gauge interest, but the Big Ten was non-receptive because Oklahoma isn’t an AAU member.
If that is true, then the Big Ten only has itself to blame for letting the SEC land one of college football’s true giants.
On the flipside, though, one could argue that turning down Oklahoma is the Big Ten’s way of being true to its word and sticking to its core values. But first you would half to believe that the Big Ten truly did turn down Oklahoma to make that argument.
It’s hard to know what is fact or fiction because every side of this story is trying to control the narrative.
What is certain is that the SEC is the dominant force in college football, and by adding Oklahoma and Texas as members, the gap has widened even more.
The move has created a daunting 16-team super-conference that shifts the balance of power away from the other four Power Five conferences.
And with the Big 12 showing signs of unraveling, the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 have joined forces to help counter the SEC’s growing thirst for power and influence, especially as talks about expanding the college football playoff intensify.
At least, that seems to be the message from this alliance despite Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren saying otherwise during Tuesday’s press conference that was televised by the Big Ten Network.
“I wouldn’t say this is reaction to Texas and Oklahoma joining the SEC, but you have to evaluate what’s going on in the landscape of college athletics,” Warren said.
No disrespect to Warren, but this alliance wouldn’t be happening without Texas and Oklahoma having joined the SEC. The forming of an alliance, especially this quickly, and without sharing any details, is a reaction, plain and simple. It’s a way to gain more leverage and to prevent the SEC from controlling the college playoff discussions.
And it’s okay that the three conferences feel they need to act swiftly to compete with the SEC, and to keep it from perhaps poaching more schools.
It’s just how they’re conveying their message that leaves something to be desired.
The SEC is being made out to be the villain because it supposedly values money and power more than supporting a broad-based college experience in which integrity and traditional values still mean something.
The problem with that message is that it could be perceived as petty, disingenuous and self-righteous.
The comment from Barbour that the Big Ten prides itself on being more than just an athletics conference was almost certainly meant as veiled criticism of the SEC.
The Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 all seem determined from a perception standpoint to make this a case of good versus evil.
They want us to think that the SEC is so obsessed with money and power that it’ll sacrifice core values and its integrity to achieve both, and will use football as a way to make it happen.
Maybe there is some truth to the SEC’s quest for power at all costs, but the Big Ten hardly is in position to speak from a pedestal, considering its recent track record.
Barbour runs a Penn State athletic program that isn’t quite a decade removed from one of the most disturbing and disgusting scandals in the history of college athletics.
Former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky was arrested on Nov. 5, 2011 on 52 counts of child sexual abuse occurring between 1994 and 2009, including allegations of incidents on the Penn State campus.
On June 22, 2012, Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of the 48 remaining charges
Sandusky was ultimately sentenced to 60 years in prison and will not be eligible for parole for at least 30 years.
Joe Paterno’s once-proud legacy was destroyed by the Sandusky scandal as Paterno was fired shortly after Sandusky was arrested.
It was widely believed that Penn State officials didn’t do enough to protect the children from Sandusky and some paid a heavy price.
Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan also have had sexual abuse scandals in the past few years that were either covered up or ignored.
So the Big Ten is hardly in a position to judge the SEC with a holier than thou attitude
The narrative surrounding the forming of this alliance is not only hypocritical in some ways, but also makes you sympathize with the SEC because it’s being criticized and judged for being successful, and for having what the other three conferences would love to have, which is power and influence.
If you can’t beat them on your own, you join forces as a three-conference alliance and then try to shift the narrative.
That’s what is happening in this case.
A while it’s still too early to know how this alliance would impact scheduling, the annual showdown between Iowa and Iowa State in football could be in jeopardy if Iowa now has to start playing a team from the ACC and a team from Pac-12 every year.
Even if the Big Ten switched from playing nine conference games to eight games that still would only leave two open spots for nonconference opponents, and just one if Iowa State remained on the schedule.
It might please some Iowa fans to discontinue the series with Iowa State, but also be careful what you wish for because having to play at Washington State at 10 p.m. on a Friday in October hardly seems like a step up for Iowa.
The Big Ten, ACC and the Pac-12 all have to do what they feel is in their best interest, and if forming an alliance is their solution, then more power to them.
But to act as if you’re doing it in order to sustain a level of integrity, and to counter a conference that you believe is tarnishing the image and the true mission of college athletics in its never-ending pursuit of money and power seems insincere, overly dramatic, self-serving and hypocritical.
So it’s not the decision to form the alliance that is problematic, it’s how it’s being framed that warrants scrutiny.