Last Friday, the Southeastern Conference took a wrong turn when it came to its new football and basketball schedule formats. The league yielded — in our view — to schools’ self-interests rather than pushing for what was best for the conference and its fans long-term.
You know the backstory:
* The SEC’s eight-game 6-1-1 football schedule does protect three of the league’s oldest rivalries (Alabama-Tennessee, Auburn-Georgia, and Ole Miss-Vanderbilt), one important television draw (Florida-LSU), and it should help to create a new border war (Arkansas-Missouri). That much we like. Unfortunately, the new plan also means that cross-divisional rotating foes will visit one another just once every three presidential terms. Think about that. Worse, it opens the door for all the legion of non-SEC fans out there — from conference commissioners to the media to the people who might wind up on a playoff selection committee — to point to the fact that the SEC as a whole schedules more FCS foes and fewer BCS-level foes than any of the other five major conferences.
* The 1-4-8 basketball format is a slap at any SEC fan who happens to care about the league’s history and tradition. (Judging from our emails, there aren’t many out there who do care about basketball and that’s darned disappointing.) Rather than protecting two, three, or even four permanent rivals per school, the league voted instead to protect only one per school as a yearly home-and-away foe. Games that have been played more than 180, 190 and even 200 times a piece will now be once-a-year affairs in some cases, including arguably the SEC’s best traditional rivalry: Kentucky versus Tennessee.
We made it clear last week that we believe the football issue will eventually be corrected. Either the league will have to go to a nine-game schedule to squeeze more money from television networks looking for better games or the league will learn the hard way that its “more creampuffs” policy hurts it when it comes to anti-SEC’ers who are looking for any angle — including strength of schedule shots — to take down the biggest bully on the block. Perhaps both.
And, yes, further expansion forced by a collapse of the ACC could lead to a nine-game schedule, as well.
As for basketball, well, it doesn’t appear there’s much hope for hoops. We pointed out in January that it would be possible to protect more rivalries. The league’s coaches and ADs and presidents cared not. Tradition? Hell with it.
Unfortunately this has only led to more people complaining about the SEC’s decision to expand in the first place. But that’s not entirely fair. As explained above and as we’ve written about for months, the conference could have added Missouri and Texas A&M and still done a better job with its schedules. It could have protected itself from outside attacks. It could have given TV networks better inventory. It could have protected more heritage games. The league’s power brokers chose not to.
So how did this come to pass?
First, Mike Slive is a consensus-builder. Those who’ve sat in meetings with the man say he’s a master at working a room, keeping a conversation focused, and finding common ground. Those are good traits. It’s no wonder his work in 2008 with CBS and ESPN changed the way conferences make their money.
As a consensus-builder, however, there are times — it appears — that he can give too much power to the people. Slive works for the SEC schools, but he’s been hired to lead them and steer them in sports-related issues. In the case of the new scheduling formats, he allowed people to lean too heavily on their own self-interests, in our opinion.
Slive and the league put together a “transition team” tasked with creating schedules that everyone could agree upon (at least to some degree). That unit was headed up by former Mississippi State athletic director Larry Templeton. Templeton was joined by three others from the SEC office — Mark Womack (executive associate commissioner), Greg Sankey (executive associate commissioner), and Mark Whitworth (associate commissioner).
According to the SEC’s chief PR man and associate commissioner for media relations, Charles Bloom, Templeton’s squad worked with and contacted the league’s athletic directors throughout the process “including taking proposals to them at scheduled AD’s meetings.” That included meetings in Nashville during the women’s basketball tournament and in New Orleans during the men’s basketball tournament.
So from the start, the league’s schedule-making group was getting feedback from the conference’s athletic directors. Those athletic directors — obviously — were talking to their own coaches. The ADs opinions were shaped by their coaches’ opinions. The transition team’s proposals, therefore, were shaped by the ADs opinions and to some extent by the coaches’ opinions.
Bloom also told MrSEC.com via email that the schools involved — specifically Missouri and Texas A&M — also had their own transition teams involved in the process.
All this looks to be where the breakdown occurred. Rather than creating two plans that made sense for the conference’s long-term good in football and basketball and then setting out to build support for those plans, the SEC office seems to have tried to let everyone have a say from the get-go. Instead of building a consensus behind its own scheduling formats, the SEC’s formats were built — to some degree — out of a consensus. There’s a big difference there.
One tactic involves leadership and strong-arm tactics at the end of the process. “This is what’s best for everyone and here’s why.” The other tactic is really more akin to steering a large group of people toward common ground. “Hey, let’s take part of Joe’s idea and mix it with a bit of Steve’s idea and see if Bob will agree to that.”
In a word: Groupthink.
Roy Kramer and the league’s decision-makers in 1992 acted boldly. SEC football coaches were against an eight-game schedule and they surely did not want a championship game tacked on at the end of every season. Tough. Kramer’s group did what was best for the league. Those bold actions set the table for much of the success Slive’s crew has enjoyed and built upon.
But it’s hard to imagine the SEC adding games and a title bout in ’92 if the league’s ADs and even coaches had had a strong say in the process from the beginning. Sadly, 20 years down the line, you’re going to hear different stories from different people regarding who did what and why. Everyone involved at this stage will want to claim that they played a leading role in shaping the league’s future. (Take for instance all the debate over the SEC’s approach to Florida State in the 1990s. Depending on who’s telling the story: the SEC offered FSU, the SEC never offered FSU, FSU spurned the SEC, or FSU never had an offer to officially turn down. You have to check the records and reports of the day to get a true picture of what happened.)
Slive is viewed by many as the strongest commissioner in college sports. It’s hard to argue that point when his league has won six national football crowns and three national basketball titles since 2006… all with truly national television coverage of both sports and record profits thrown in for good measure.
We simply believe he should have acted more strongly this time around regarding the league’s schedules. Rather than giving everyone a say along the way, he and the league would have been better off cooking up a pair of smart plans and then doing whatever it took to jam them down each school’s throat.
Slive, it must be noted, was trying to wrangle 14 cats this time around and there’s no question that’s a more difficult chore than getting 12 schools on the same page, as Kramer and his team did.
But Slive has shown that he’s capable of being a strong-arm type of guy. Just a year ago, with football coaches lined up unanimously against a cap on signing classes, the commissioner coaxed and cajoled the bosses of the league’s coaches and athletic directors to go their own way. The presidents did. And even though not every president really wanted signing caps, Slive had the power of personality to convince everyone to vote unanimously in favor of adding a 25-man cap.
That’s power. And we at MrSEC.com wish he would have used as much power on the scheduling front this year as he did on oversigning front last year.
The league would be better off today if he had.