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Rooney: Past time for big-time college football to separate from NCAA

CU Buffs, Pac-12 in limbo after USC, UCLA bolt for Big Ten

BOULDER, CO - Nov. 6, 2021: ...
University of Colorado Boulder’s Montana Lemonious-Criag scores a TD against the Oregon State Beavers on November 6, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Perhaps it might have been more insightful to listen to what George Kliavkoff didn’t say.

Last October, as the then-new commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference presided over his first men’s basketball preseason media day at the league’s plush San Francisco headquarters, I asked Kliavkoff how close the league was to finalizing some type of basketball showcase featuring teams from “The Alliance.”

To recap, that alliance, announced in August of 2021 between the Pac-12, ACC and Big Ten, was supposed to be those leagues’ answer to the SEC’s poaching of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12. It notably was announced without any sort of formal agreement or contract binding those involved to any sort of actual alliance. When asked about future men’s basketball scheduling agreements tied to the alliance — A showcase multi-team event? A scheme to include the Pac-12 in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge? — Kliavkoff’s response was telling.

The commissioner spent about 73 seconds (it felt longer) pontificating on the priorities of the alliance, which, supposedly, centered on the student-athlete experience, improving mental health care, addressing DEI shortcomings, and other meaningful matters unrelated to competition. Or economics. Kliavkoff then termed the scheduling portion as the “third priority” of the alliance before finally answering the original query by saying nothing was imminent.

Which, in retrospect, was perhaps understandable. It’s impossible to make scheduling agreements when you have no idea what teams will be in the conferences involved.

The final shards of that tenuous alliance fell to the floor on Thursday, as UCLA and USC made official their defection to the Big Ten beginning with the 2024-25 season. The survival of the Pac-12 hangs in the balance, as does the future of CU Buffs athletics.

Just 11 years after joining the Pac-12, the Buffs might soon find themselves in need of a new conference home. Back then, CU sought out the change. Now change might be forced upon the Buffs.

At this juncture, it’s far too soon to guess what the latest maneuvers will mean for CU. The dominoes surely have not yet stopped falling, and a world of options could be on the table. If Oregon and Washington aren’t also poached by the Big Ten, or someone else, the conference still would have a chance to survive. If not, it’s difficult to envision a viable Pac-12 Conference, particularly in the race for football dollars.

One option to stem the constant upheaval of the college athletics landscape that isn’t getting nearly enough attention is the idea of letting big-time college football break off into its own entity outside the umbrella of the NCAA. It’s football, and the network television partners, that drive these moves. Yet while campus presidents fill the coffers and swim in millions, those with the least say will feel the biggest impact.

Remember that alliance pledge to prioritize mental health concerns? That was a good one. Try explaining that to the basketball players and Olympic sports athletes at USC and UCLA who soon will have to travel east three time zones, play two competitions in three or four days, then fly west three time zones in order to attend class the next morning. Hopefully the added TV bucks brings a few more mental health counselors to campus.

Men’s and women’s basketball being tied to football financial decisions also has become almost criminal. Like the men’s side, Pac-12 women’s basketball takes a hit without the Los Angeles schools. But, again, if Oregon and Washington ultimately stay put, the basketball brands can survive. In the event of a complete Pac-12 collapse, however, some intriguing options for hoops won’t even be on the table thanks to the appeasing of the football god$. A new, restructured conference featuring, say, CU alongside Colorado State, Kansas, Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, Kansas State, New Mexico and Wichita State makes zero sense for football. Lump them together for hoops, though, and you have the start of an intriguing league.

(The  Pac-12 on Friday issued a release saying the Board of Directors authorized the conference to “explore all expansion options.”

CU, in turn, released a statement credited jointly to chancellor Phil DiStefano and athletic director Rick George that read: “The announcement of USC and UCLA joining the Big Ten came as a disappointment to all of us at CU Boulder. Despite this news, we remain resolute in our commitment to our student-athletes and will continue to provide them the resources for success both in the classroom and on the fields of competition.

“We have been in constant communication with our fellow universities as well as conference leadership and will continue to work closely as this dynamic situation continues to develop. CU Boulder is a world-class academic institution with elite athletic programs and will continue to be a leading voice in the changing college athletics landscape.”)

In April, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told Sports Illustrated a split between the NCAA and big-time college sports was “inevitable,” yet he put that timeline in the mid-2030s. That’s a generous timeline in the wake of this week’s news. Let schools chase football gold as they crave. But forcing entire athletic departments to remain tethered to football decisions will spur the demise of traditional collegiate athletics faster than any of the monumental changes implemented in recent years.

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