In SEC commissioner Greg Sankey’s current view, being a conference champion doesn’t equate to “earning your way in.” That should worry schools at the low end of Division I.
It is important to listen carefully to what Greg Sankey says, not just because he is measured to the point of appearing dull but because he is the one person with the power to change college sports forever almost with a wave of his hand.
So when the SEC commissioner states what he believes a national championship event should be about, the rest of the NCAA should probably take notice. And Monday, as SEC Media Days began with his annual speech and news conference, Sankey dropped a bombshell so subtle that it barely registered as the very big deal it is.
Asked how his views have evolved on expanding the College Football Playoff now after even more conference realignment has shaken up the map, Sankey suggested that going back to square one in negotiations means the SEC is no longer interested in a playoff where conferences get automatic bids regardless of how big the bracket is.
“We’re going to take a step back from the model introduced and rethink the approach, number of teams, whether there should be any guarantee for conference champions at all,” Sankey said. “Just earn your way in. There’s something that’s healthy competitively about that and creates expectations and support around programs.”
It’s no secret that the SEC is in favor of at-large bids instead of automatic bids, and that the original 12-team proposal Sankey worked on — which included the six highest-ranked conference champions and six at-large teams — was a compromise that made sense for the other leagues while also giving the SEC an opportunity to get multiple playoff spots every year.
It’s also common knowledge that Sankey has been fuming about how those negotiations fell apart close to the finish line earlier this year and won’t be in such a magnanimous mood if and when they ever get started again, given that the balance of power has only tilted more toward the SEC after grabbing Texas and Oklahoma last year.
But the way Sankey presented that position shift was interesting — and potentially chilling for the rest of college sports — because of how nonsensical it actually is.
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Again, pay close attention to what he said. In Sankey’s current view, being a conference champion does not equate to “earning your way in,” but that the task instead should be in the hands of a committee to pick the best teams.
This is, of course, a ridiculous notion.
In every sport besides college football, you get a postseason berth by winning a division or finishing in a certain place in the standings. It doesn’t matter whether the AFC South is better than the NFC North in a particular year; every team understands where the bar is set for getting into the playoffs. If you cleared that bar, you earned it. If you didn’t, too bad.
From a purely philosophical standpoint, Sankey may be correct that a playoff with more SEC teams will provide a better product than a playoff built to distribute the bids more evenly among the conferences.
There are certain years, for example, where the NBA would have had more competitive playoff series if commissioner Adam Silver could have simply snapped his fingers and replaced the seventh- or eighth-place teams from the East who had losing records with teams from the West who were above .500 but didn’t make the playoffs because the two conferences were unbalanced.
But it doesn’t work that way because every sport besides college football has embraced a pretty simple concept: You achieve something specific, like a conference championship, you get rewarded. Everyone knows what the bar is, and if you fall short because you played a tougher schedule or were in a stacked division or had too many injuries, that’s just how the cookie crumbles.
It’s obvious why Sankey would advocate for a more SEC-favorable College Football Playoff setup, and why that might even make for a better Playoff, but why would he equate that with “earning your way in” when there’s no possible way to link those two concepts intellectually? Is it because Sankey wants to apply it to other sports?
Automatic bids in danger?
When you talk to folks around college sports — people who are privy to some of the discussions around the ongoing efforts to reform NCAA governance — there is an undeniable reality that the big conferences will emerge with more power to do what they want. That’s how it always works whenever the schools with a lot of money get into a mess that the NCAA rule book doesn’t adequately address.
A little more than a decade ago, it was cost of attendance stipends leading to so-called “autonomy” for the power conferences. Now, it’s name, image and likeness, transfer rules and enforcement at the head of the list to be addressed by the NCAA’s relatively new “transformation committee.”
Sankey — surprise, surprise — has taken a lead role on that committee, which is both frightening to schools at the low end of Division I but also reassuring in the sense that the SEC isn’t ready to pack up and leave the NCAA quite yet.
“We cannot go on as we are,” Sankey said repeatedly in his address Monday while noting that the financial disparities between the high and low end of the 350-plus Division I schools “makes it difficult to ensure the presence of shared values and common purpose around supporting athletics programs.”
That sounds undeniably like a pretext to do some dramatic things, including potentially breaking Division I into sub-groups, shrinking the size of Division I or — circling back to the concept of “earning your way in” — changing the way NCAA championships select their participants.
Automatic bids — or AQs in NCAA parlance — are ingrained into the culture of college sports. Most people experience it through the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, where nearly every year you get a UMBC or Oral Roberts or Saint Peter’s coming out of a small conference and upsetting one of the big boys. In nearly every one of those Cinderella runs, they wouldn’t have been in the tournament at all without an automatic bid for winning their conference.
Imagine officials at those schools listening to Sankey on Monday — the man who will play arguably the biggest role in how the NCAA Division I functions going forward — equating his idealized version of the College Football Playoff with “earning your way in.” It would be difficult to draw any other conclusion than automatic bids for the sports the smaller schools care about being used as leverage, if not outright being put on the chopping block.
There is already a faction of college administrators that believes the power conferences, led by the SEC, wouldn’t bat an eye at squeezing the little guy out from the NCAA basketball tournament and other championships and taking more, more, more.
If that’s the new definition of earning it, as Sankey described it Monday, their fears may well be justified.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken.