LINCOLN — It started as a few phrases in an ever-gusting summer wind.
“You know that big change that's afoot — the sustainability of the NCAA.” That came from UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green on July 14, when he hired Trev Alberts to be NU’s new athletic director.
“We’ve got to have better outcomes from our governing structure,” SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said to Sports Illustrated on July 19.
“It's clear that we're at an inflection point in college athletics, so the future will demand innovation, collaboration and transformation.” That’s Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren on July 22, roughly 24 hours after Sankey’s SEC became hot news for its realignment romance with the Big 12’s Texas and Oklahoma.
Another round of conference realignment is here, and while the Big 12 has a fight on its hands with a whole bunch of letters — UT, OU, SEC, ESPN — it’s also possible the Big 12 is engaging in something closer to an immaterial fight.
The tectonic plates shifting underneath college football may lead to something far greater than a few teams finding new conference homes. It may lead to the ouster of the NCAA from governing any aspect of college football.
The organization — which only has power granted by its members — has long been booted from arranging postseason contests in the FBS. And almost 40 years ago, the NCAA lost a Supreme Court case that kept it from restricting the number of times a team appeared on TV, or conferences from negotiating their own media deals.
The tributary started in the quaint 1980s and has grown into a roaring, mileswide basin in 2021.
Athletes can transfer where they like and gain immediate eligibility. They can profit off their name, image and likeness. A recent — and rare — 9-0 Supreme Court ruling allows schools to provide unlimited education-related benefits to athletes.
The NCAA is on the ropes, hoping for federal intervention at a time when the pandemic is still raging, the economy is opening up and partisan politics — a sport all its own — leaves the NCAA’s desires for legal protection lower on the priority list.
This is like that scene in "The Matrix" where the kid tells Neo, "There is no spoon." The spoon is a construct given power by collective belief. The NCAA is that spoon. It can be bent, shaped, even dissolved into thin air. There is no spoon.
And soon enough, there may be no NCAA, at least not as we've long known it.
Given the speed with which money, speculation and revolution can move, perhaps conferences get obliterated, too. They're merely barriers to a sport operated out of universities but barely tethered to their educational missions. It's all organized by television giants into a Saturday super league somewhere between Friday Night Lights and NFL Sundays.
The future of college football could be as flat as a street in Grand Island. SEC, Big Ten, ACC — these affiliations become footnotes for any school that wants to join the larger movement.
“If there is a carousel that starts, I feel confident Nebraska will end up in a good place,” coach Scott Frost said.
Frost kept his thoughts close to the vest at Big Ten media days, but he and Alberts can see around the corner.
“A lot of things that are happening with the rules in college football are going to shake things up,” Frost said. “And I wouldn’t be surprised if many things change.”
Neither would we. Which is why we’re trying to see around the corner with two options.
The first is the College Football Cup, brought on by a great flattening of college football. The CFC could take on many forms, but Dirk Chatelain crafted a bigger, more ambitious plan that satisfies regional rivalries, money hunger and ultimately a desire for the coolest postseason possible.
The second option envisions a world where conferences survive — for now. Tom Shatel, who has covered the Big Eight, Big 12 and Big Ten, offers a plan for the Big Ten to become America’s first coast-to-coast conference, one that can stand toe-to-toe with the SEC in terms of media prestige and historical might.
Their proposals are bold and immodest with an eye toward 2025, 2030, 2050.
With each development, the present seems almost like the past.
The future could be flat. Or it could keep conferences. But either way, it will be full of change.
Below are Dirk Chatelain's and Tom Shatel's two solutions:
Dirk Chatelain has a plan that preserves the parts of college football we love while also giving the richest programs what they want — more money and prestige. Here’s the College Football Cup.
Tom Shatel has a plan to save the Big Ten at a time when the stakes have never been higher in college football. His plan? Combine the Big Ten and the Pac-12 into a superconference.