The move heard ’round the college football world last week inspired more than 200 questions for this week’s Dear Andy mailbag. But in trying to answer two in particular, I had a thought that I’d be fascinated to see put into action.
With USC and UCLA gone from the Pac-12 and headed to the Big Ten, Oregon and Washington are in peril and empowered at the same time. They don’t want to lose their stature, so naturally, they’d love to go to the Big Ten. But what if that’s not an option? They become some of the best options remaining on the board, and what they do could determine the futures of the Pac-12 and the Big 12. Joe and Jesse each came at their questions from a different direction, but they both lead to a potentially cutthroat scenario depending on how the dominoes fall.
Should Oregon pursue independence if Big Ten membership is off the table? —Joe in Albany, Ore.
One thing I’ve found interesting this past week has been the idea that the Pac-12 will try and steal from the Big 12. At this point, what Big 12 team would want to leave? Especially without USC and UCLA, is the Pac-12 really a more enviable destination? —Jesse
Notre Dame may hold the keys for everyone, but it feels as if Oregon and Washington hold the keys in the Big 12/Pac-12 situation. Obviously, Oregon and Washington would like to join USC and UCLA in the Big Ten. They would make sense in that league, too. They are big brands with passionate fan bases, and the schools are members of the prestigious Association of American Universities. They also would provide some travel partners for their fellow Pac-12 defects.
But they clearly haven’t gotten an answer as to whether joining the Big Ten is a possibility. How do we know this? Because as soon as the Big Ten said it wanted them, Oregon and Washington would be gone. And if the Big Ten offered a definitive no, then Oregon and Washington would be moving to lock down their respective futures.
Presumably, the Big Ten’s next move depends on Notre Dame’s choice. If the Fighting Irish want to join, they’re in and the rest of the league decides if it wants to admit anyone else. But if Notre Dame isn’t ready to make that decision, it doesn’t have to. It is the one school that has an open invitation from every league whenever it wants. And the Big Ten could just hang out at 16 schools while it waits for the puff of white smoke or whatever signal the Domers choose to announce their choice.
If Notre Dame doesn’t choose soon, it could put Oregon and Washington in an awkward position. If the Big Ten isn’t sure it’s done expanding, the Ducks and Huskies shouldn’t lock themselves into any long-term deal. But the remaining Pac-12 members might be keen on making a long-term pact that ensures no one else leaves.
Sorry, Joe, but I don’t think independence is a viable option. I’m one of the people who always said Notre Dame should never join a conference in football if it didn’t want to, and after last week I think Notre Dame may have no choice but to join a conference in football. If Notre Dame can’t be independent anymore, there is no way Oregon could pull it off. But that doesn’t mean the Ducks don’t wield any power. Quite the contrary. If the Big Ten doesn’t shut the door, they and the Huskies have some options.
They could hold the Pac-12 together, providing two tentpole programs for that league — which presumably would expand. Jesse asks which Big 12 schools would leave for the Pac-12. All of them would as long as Oregon and Washington are still there. So the Pac-12 schools could select which ones they feel fit best.
There also is the possibility that the Pac-12 and ACC could come to some sort of rights-pooling agreement that could provide the remaining Pac-12 schools with some stability and the ACC schools with a few new revenue streams that might help soothe the members who feel they carry all the weight and deserve an unequal share of the pie. But that feels highly theoretical, and it also feels a little like a more fleshed-out version of The Alliance, the partnership formed last year by the ACC, the Big Ten and the Pac-12. “It’s about trust,” ACC commissioner Jim Phillips said at the time. “We’ve looked at each other in the eye. We’ve made an agreement.” The Alliance essentially imploded last week when one of the leagues gutted another like a fish. And that tends to happen with these things. In 2010, the Pac-10 held informal meetings with the Big 12 about pooling television rights. A few months later, the Pac-10 tried to steal half the Big 12’s members.
Realignment is a dirty business, so perhaps it’s time the Big 12 tried to fight to win instead of merely to survive. What if the Big 12 could get Oregon and Washington? That may sound silly on its face, but we’re talking about a league with a new commissioner (former Roc Nation COO Brett Yormark) who doesn’t come from the college sports industry. Unlike a former athletic director, he doesn’t have to worry about shanking his friends to keep his conference ahead. He didn’t know these people before, so he can shank away.
Here’s the pitch. Tell Oregon and Washington they can join the Big 12, but just as a coach might get an out clause for his alma mater in his contract, let them have a clause that says they can leave with no financial penalty if the Big Ten wants them. (Maybe protect the league a little by forcing them to give something reasonable like 18 months notice.) Then use their defection to also grab Colorado, Utah, Arizona and Arizona State. If you must take Oregon State and Washington State to get Oregon and Washington because of political pressure in those states, take them and either just get really big or lop off two from the rest of the incoming group. Since the Pac-12’s media rights deal ends in 2024, go to partners Fox and ESPN and ask to begin negotiating a new deal that would begin in 2024 instead of 2025, when the next Big 12 deal is supposed to start. Write in the contract that you understand the payout will go down if Oregon and Washington leave.
If Oregon and Washington wind up staying, that 18-team league probably would be No. 3 behind the Big Ten and SEC in per-school revenue. The Big 12’s current deal (which includes Oklahoma and Texas) already pays more than the ACC and Pac-12’s deals. Oklahoma and Texas will be gone — and in this scenario, they’d be in the SEC in 2024 — but that lineup would be every bit as strong as the ACC’s. More importantly, that lineup can be on the market now.
Every league wants conference affiliation to be a 100-year decision, but if the last 100 years have taught us anything, it just isn’t. If anyone should understand that, it’s the presidents and athletic directors of the Big 12. Their league has been through every conceivable realignment scenario.
It has been clinically dead for a few minutes (2010). It has been minutes from implosion (2011). It has held a dog-and-pony show for potential members that resulted in nothing (2016). It has taken an epic gut punch and then grabbed four new members (2021). So while the presidents of the Pac-12 schools — who are new at this sort of thing — ask for blood oaths to ensure no one ever leaves their league again, the Big 12 should try to offer some flexibility to create the strongest lineup it can right now.
If that lineup stays together, great. If it doesn’t, well, the Big 12 has been through this sort of thing before.
But the conference that always seems to find a way to survive might soon have an opening to buy itself a little more time.
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