PACing It In

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“Hey guys, we were wondering if we can join your lucrative conference. Our conference sucks and we want to bring ourselves to your conference because we are a name brand. Besides all the money we can all reap; we can share access to the bases we recruit from. You can’t deny our great histories in sports and once you forget about all our lawsuits we have settled, our academics are pretty good too. Besides, if our football teams are going to lose eight games a year, we’d rather they be to the likes of The Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State, and Wisconsin than to those of Oregon State, Cal, ASU, and those fucking ducks up north. So, what do you think? Should we all make more money together and keep pace with the SEC? Afterall, isn’t that what Woody Hayes and John McKay would have wanted?”

It’s not all that far-fetched to think that this was the pitch made in a conference call by some suit representing USC and UCLA to the Big Ten elders when they met to decide their conference’s future. Something big needed to be done if the Big Ten was going to remain the only real threat to the SEC. Football is king and its queen is basketball and by adding USC and UCLA to the Big Ten, the NCAA essentially went from five power conferences to two.

If something good has come from this merger it may be the end of the NCAA as an entity. Who needs it anymore? The Big Ten can play by its rules and negotiate its own television contracts while the SEC does the same. Surely, the two conferences can agree on dates and times for their conference winners to square off for a real championship that no one can argue against.

Maybe Clemson, Notre Dame, Miami, and Florida State might want in on the action. Big deal. Put Notre Dame in the Big Ten and the other three in the SEC and move on. Maybe add those effing Ducks and Washington to the Big Ten. Stanford can join them too. When the dust settles, we will have two conferences with twenty teams and the rest can consider dropping their football programs.

If there is a sad thing to this, and this is only for old farts like me, it is seeing what was once two distinctly different conferences merge as one. However, since all schools pretty much employ the same football systems and chase the same hoop stars from AAU leagues, it no longer matters. Just as when football did the unthinkable and moved beyond three yards and a cloud of dust, or basketball switched from Chuck Taylors to Nikes, nothing stays the same.

Today’s two super conferences are no different than what goes on in the real world of business. Look at how few choices we have when it comes to major brand retailers. All the smaller retailers and struggling larger ones have been gobbled up by a few giants. They in turn are going to be eaten up by Amazon. At some point, there will be just one Super Conference in college sports. It is inevitable in a society hellbent on cannibalizing itself. Does anyone really think Rutgers will be able to keep pace with their Big Ten counterparts? It’s just a matter of time before they are eaten up.

USC without students having parties
(Claudia Gestro)

The smart people are those who will make the decision not to try and keep up with the likes of OSU, Alabama, or USC. They will not chase the money and end up losing their shirts and their souls in the process and instead, they will roll up their sleeves and rethink their approach to what we like to call higher education. Maybe they will find ways to cater more to the student and less to the athlete. Maybe they will return to a pay scale that rewards great professors more than mediocre coaches. Maybe they will find the average student and their parents do not mind taking out student loans to attend colleges that place their resources toward academics before  athletics.

I am old enough to remember the PAC 8 and watching Gary Beban take on OJ on the gridiron. I can remember when the only way John Wooden could win all those NCAA titles was to first win his conference because no one rewarded you for coming in second or third place. However, those days faded away in the name of expansion and money just as the Summer of Love turned into the generation of greed.

In a bottom-line world, the only thing that matters are profits. How you earned them, who you jump into bed with, and who you leave in the ruins of your quest are irrelevant. In the world of college sports, “Greed is good,” just as it has been the mantra in big business for decades.

If an 18-year-old athlete loves the stress and pressure that was once found with Wall Street life, this merger of talent is the best thing to ever happen. However, if universities actually examined data as much as they do their profits, they would see this comes with a huge cost in mental illness, abusive coaches, and looking the other way because when you sell your souls to the Devil, you give up any sense of a conscience and replace it with a mindset of “This is the cost of doing business.”

If you think I am making too much of this, you do not follow what goes on at the high school level where the same schools chase the same national titles every year in every sport. They recruit kids to come play for them under the guise of offering them a better academic future. This is code for having a better shot at earning a college scholarship to throw a ball, run fast, or knock others flat on their backs. They don’t do the same for kids whose talents lie outside of athletics.

Try getting your ace student kid into a better school district and they will tell you that you have to move to inside their boundary area. I finished my teaching career where an assistant freshman football coach picked up a crop of future varsity players with his van and drove them to our school every day because they lived outside the boundary and should have been attending another high school. Too bad he did not monitor their class work as much as their athletic progress. Maybe then they might have remained academically eligible.

USC plays its games in the L.A. Coliseum
(Claudia Gestro)

In 30 years of teaching, I never had someone ask me to change a student’s grade so they could remain in the band, or on the student council. I lost track of how many coaches asked me to give a kid a break because the team needed him to win. Winning seems to be all that matters. If USC and UCLA want to be a mediocre presence in the new Big Ten, they are fine with that decision because in the end, they will be richer. Nothing else says winning better than your profit margin and for now, the two universities are betting they will swim in more money for the next few years even if it means taking it on the chin to the mighty Buckeyes.

There was once a time when the annual meeting between the UCLA and USC football teams was the battle of Los Angeles. Two great schools that featured great players, legendary coaches, and teams playing for a shot at a Rose Bowl matchup with the best from the Big Ten. In 2024, their season ending game will most likely have the feel of a scrimmage after a season of do or die battles against a schedule that won’t offer up any cupcake teams. No one will care if they are fielding second and third team players after a season of injuries inflicted from taking on teams every bit as deep and physical as them. All that will matter is it will bring to a conclusion what chancellors and athletic directors see as the first of many lucrative seasons. Besides, there will be another batch of kids to recruit for next year’s games and with more money, there will be more kids available to sign.

The saddest thing to all of this it is we are led to think we are getting what we want with all these changes. The reality is, we are getting what the super conferences want. Just remember, while the profits are increasing for these schools, don’t expect to see the cost of attending them to drop. You see, we are not players in this scheme nearly as much as we are the ones being played.