Barry Alvarez lived through the tidal wave of conference realignment that swept over college sports in the early 2010s as Wisconsin’s athletic director, watching the Big Ten grow to 14 teams from the Midwest to the East Coast.
Another round of shuffling could be on the horizon, with Texas and Oklahoma initiating discussions with the Southeastern Conference about leaving the Big 12 and joining what is already college football’s strongest league.
Alvarez’s reaction when he heard the news: “Why?”
One day after word of the discussions surfaced, the ripple effects across the sport were clear as schools far from the Big 12 and SEC tried to sort out where this is going.
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The Big 12 had a meeting planned for late Thursday with athletic directors and university presidents and chancellors to be briefed on what’s going on with Texas and Oklahoma, a person familiar with the meeting told The Associated Press.
It was not clear if Texas and Oklahoma officials would participate, said the person who spoke on condition of anonymity because the Big 12 was not making its actions public.
Leaders from other conferences leaders were hesitant to speculate on what’s next, but some observers were concerned about the potential consequences.
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“College football is filled with people operating in silos and what they fail to realize is that if they only look at and try to build their silo as big and as shiny as possible than the entirety of the sport is not going to be as strong as it needs to be,” said former Colorado quarterback Joel Klatt, the lead college football analyst for Fox, which hold television rights with the Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12.
“I think a move like this would be to the detriment of the sport overall.”
Former Oklahoma quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield put it more starkly: “It would ruin the Big 12. It would be done,” Mayfield said during a break in shooting TV commercials in Cleveland.
The Big 12 was thought to be on life support about a decade ago after losing Nebraska, Colorado, Texas A&M, and Missouri. Managing to hold on to Texas and Oklahoma allowed the Big 12 to survive as a Power Five conference after it added TCU and West Virginia.
Back when that was playing out, conferences were reacting to one another. The Big Ten pushed over the first domino when it announced in 2009 it was going to explore expansion. Eventually, it lured Nebraska away from the Big 12.
“We often talk about how uncomfortable this time is,” new Nebraska AD Trev Alberts said. “It is. It’s a changing environment. There’s a lot of stress. Now’s the time you want to be part of some stability.”
That Big Ten expansion sparked a frenzy, with conferences and schools fending for themselves. Could a Texas/Oklahoma move to the SEC be the next fire starter?
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren was asked about the talks and whether they could prompt the conference to look at expansion —- maybe even reaching out to the two Big 12 schools —- as he opened football media days at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Warren stayed away from speculating, calling the news just another example of the volatility sweeping through college sports at the moment.
“That’s the world that we live in right now,” he said. “From where we sit, we’re always constantly evaluating what’s in the best interest of the conference.”
Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Jim Phillips, who took over earlier this year after being the athletic director at Northwestern, took a similarly cautious approach.
“I think it’s critically important for all of us to always be paying attention to what’s happening in the landscape and understanding what’s happening across the country, whether you’re a conference commissioner, whether you’re an athletic director, whether you’re a president,” he said. “It’s just part of all of our responsibility. And this is the latest maybe conversation that we’re hearing about.”
Under former Commissioner John Swofford, the ACC added Syracuse, Pittsburgh, and Louisville.
Alvarez was at Lucas Oil Stadium because the Big Ten announced he would be taking a new role at the conference: special advisor for football. He retired after 18 years as Wisconsin AD earlier this year.
Alvarez, 74, is not one to shy away from giving his thoughts on a topic. But news of realignment ramping up again caught him off guard.
“It’s something you certainly have your antenna up for,” Alvarez said.