The British fleet had the Spanish Armada. The United States had the Soviet Union. The Beatles had the Rolling Stones. Now the SEC has the Big Ten.
For others in the world of college sports, hearing that hurts. The truth always does.
Just as there were other navies, other nations and other rock bands, ultimately everyone else in the room, no matter who they are or what they’ve done or what they still might do, they all end up standing against the walls and watching who really matters do what really matters.
Because there are only two players in a chess match. And apologies for the cliché, but there are only two true chess masters in today’s collegiate athletics, two superpowers with the fanciest playing pieces, specifically Oklahoma and Texas and now UCLA and USC. The rest are playing checkers. They might have some nice pieces here and there, but they don’t have a whole set.
Only the Big Ten and SEC do.
Besides, we can’t use the example of Stratego or Risk. Those games use maps. If we’ve learned nothing else over the past 24 hours, it’s that maps no longer matter. The last place where it kinda sorta did was in the Pac-12. Even while making plenty of missteps over the years (see: a struggling TV network, a truly bad non-Rose Bowl lineup, repeatedly whiffing on College Football Playoff berths, a conference title game no one attended and a since-departed commissioner no one seemed to like outside of San Francisco landlords), the one aspect of being a Power 5 conference that the Pac-12 got right was geography.
It long ago locked down nearly every big brand name and TV market west of the Rockies. When the SEC was trying to convince us that Auburn was in the west and Missouri was in the east and the Big Ten was stretching itself like Mr. Fantastic to rope in the decidedly non-Midwestern Maryland Terrapins and Rutgers, and the Big 12 established an outpost in West Virginia — heck, even way back when the Big East was extending to Miami and the WAC’s struggle to survive pulled it from Hawaii to Louisiana — the Pac-12 was always the tidiest part of the atlas. So much so that when Texas and Oklahoma started sniffing around, the old school membership scoffed because the logistics of their membership felt laughable.
But that was 11 whole years ago. As former Cal Tech visiting professor Albert Einstein would remind us, time is a relative concept, and in this era of college sports, 11 years might as well be a century.
So it is that the games we used to have to wait for New Year’s Day to see — USC vs. Michigan, UCLA vs. Wisconsin — and the hoops clashes we used to see only in March — UCLA vs. Indiana — will happen every fall and winter. Hey, who cares if the vaunted UCLA volleyball team and USC tennis team have to travel a bazillion miles without charter planes? The schools say they have taken this into consideration and will have to provide concrete answers in the future.
Long bus rides and cartography concerns aside, these deals had to be done. Had to be. Had SEC commissioner Greg Sankey failed to return the phone calls of the Longhorns and Sooners one year ago, he would have lost his job. Conversely, had the administrators at Texas and Oklahoma not accepted Sankey’s invitation, they too would have rightfully been shown the door. In their defense, they waited patiently for the Big 12 bosses to make the moves that would ensure their league could keep up with the likes of the SEC and Big Ten. It did not. So, they left for much greener southeastern pastures.
Feel free to copy and paste USC, UCLA, Pac-12 and Big Ten into those sentences you just read. It works. Same situation. If they don’t ask and they don’t join or the Big Ten doesn’t agree and everyone finds out later that it could have gone down that way, they all get fired. Likewise, the flagship schools of the Pac-12, both sitting squarely in the center of America’s second-largest media market, waited for the conference to make the moves its leaders have always promised — namely, a giant media rights deal and a better seat at the expanded CFP table — and it never happened. They were losing ground, and it wasn’t getting any better. So, yes, they cut and ran.
And yes, I said flagships. USC and UCLA were not charter members of the Pac-12. When the Pacific Coast Conference was formed in 1912, the first in the fold were Cal, Washington, Oregon and Oregon State. Washington State and Stanford joined a few years later. USC didn’t come on board until 1922 and UCLA in ’28. But in the century since, they have been the flagships of the league that became the Pac-8, -10 and -12. One or the other has genuine best-of eras in multiple sports. All due respect to their colleagues on the West Coast, but when those of us who were raised east of Denver have ever thought about the Pac-12 or the Rose Bowl, it has always been the Trojans and Bruins who have immediately come to our mind’s eye. No different from how when those who were born in the Pacific time zone have been asked to play word association with terms like “Southeast” they have immediately thought of Alabama vs. Auburn, or “Southwest” led to Texas vs. Oklahoma, or “Big Ten” conjured up Michigan and Ohio State in The Game.
The Trojans and the Bruins are the biggest brands in the Pac-12. Check that, they were. Now they are taking those brands and going east, to Madison and Champaign and West Lafayette, marching Ray Bans-first into an acute case of frostbite.
It makes no sense. It hurts a lot of feelings. We might not ever get used to seeing their in-conference scores scrolling across the ESPN Bottom Line. But it’s happening. It wasn’t the first big move we didn’t see coming, and it won’t be the last. But it will always be the weirdest.
Now we wait to see what happens next. Not in the ACC, Big 12 or Pac-12, because like it or not, they’re the sparring partners relegated to standing around the wall of the gym watching as Rocky and Apollo put in their mouthpieces and climb between the ropes. Once again, they can’t do squat until the real heavyweight contenders are done doing whatever comes next.