At some point sooner or later, Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey is going to have to decide on his own what his league must do with regard to more expansion and scheduling.
Oklahoma and Texas will join for a 16-team SEC on July 1, 2025, at the latest, or they could enter sooner, depending on what their soon-to-be-former Big 12 Conference decides to do amid their lame-duck status. The SEC could add two or four for 18 or 20 teams in the coming months or years as well.
Hopefully within a year or two, some sanity will return to college football with major changes to the ridiculously off the rails Name, Image & Likeness and Transfer Portal rules.
And the new SEC football schedule, whether it is for 16, 18 or 20 SEC teams, will feature the most dramatic changes heading into the 2024 or 2025 football season.
“What is needed now is collaboration, deep thinking about real world solutions, and everyone participating in the conversation,” Sankey said in his opening remarks last week to open the SEC Media Days in Atlanta.
Actually, there has been plenty of that already. There was enough of it at the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Florida. And if and when the SEC does add more teams, more conversation will obviously be needed, but not over months and years. At some point, one has to stop talking and act.
In the end, Sankey has to do as previous SEC commissioners did – be a dictator.
When Roy Kramer changed the landscape of college football by ushering in the playoff era in 1990 with the additions of Arkansas and South Carolina to the SEC by 1992 and splitting the league into two, six-team divisions with an SEC Championship Game, he acted with some imperialism. He spoke with experts, the league presidents and athletic directors and listened, yes. But it’s not like “everyone” participated. He would never have gotten it done. In the end, HE did it.
The coaches were largely not involved.
“After meeting with the athletic directors and presidents, the conference will be expanding by two schools to 12, and we’ll go to divisions with a championship game,” Kramer said at the SEC Spring Meetings in 1990.
It was a bombshell. Most of the coaches didn’t know it was coming.
Kramer also expertly and virtually unilaterally divided the conference into six haves and six have nots for the division breakdown and for scheduling purposes while maintaining the best of the rivalries with geography involved. There was no vote on that by the way.
Alabama, Auburn and LSU were deemed the haves for the West with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee designated as the haves for the East. The haves would play the haves annually across division lines – Alabama vs. Tennessee, Auburn vs. Georgia and LSU vs. Florida.
This worked geographically and kept two of the the oldest rivalries in the SEC – Auburn versus Georgia and Alabama versus Tennessee – intact. The LSU-Florida series was not nearly as old as the other two and was not seen as a treasured rivalry, but the two were natural geographic opponents with only small strips of Alabama and Mississippi separating them. And they had played every year since 1971. So it made sense.
There was some talk of putting Auburn in the East and Vanderbilt in the West as Nashville, Tennessee, is west of Auburn, Alabama, but Kramer wanted Auburn and Alabama in the same division for obvious reasons. They’re in the same state, and Kramer realized the annual importance of the Iron Bowl, though he is a Maryville, Tennessee, native.
“We were very cognizant of keeping our great rivalries across division lines and wanted to guard against replaying regular season games in the SEC Championship Game,” Kramer told me years ago for a USA TODAY Louisiana story. “We didn’t want Alabama and Auburn playing to end the regular season, and then again in the SEC title game. And we didn’t want to change the date of their game. That’s one of the greatest rivalries in college football.”
But there was not a lot of “collaboration” before these decisions were made.
The accurately labeled have nots were Mississippi State and Ole Miss in the West and Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the East. Newbies Arkansas and South Carolina were put in the West and East, respectively, as neither was expected to come in and dominate. And they still have not. The have nots would play annually across division lines.
“One of the first things Roy did was decide who were the haves and have nots based on history of winning on the field,” former Tennessee athletic director Doug Dickey (1985-2002) said at the time Kramer was interviewed. “And we put three in each division. The haves played the haves in the other division, and the have nots played the have nots. It made sense. We thought it was fair.”
And they didn’t need votes or conversation after conversation to decide it. That would have been too emotional, Kramer said.
“That’s the problem,” he said. “Everybody looks at it as the teams stand right this minute. Times change.”
Sankey, on the other hand, will waste his time if he continues to listen to how coaches and athletic directors feel about future schedules. Coaches and athletic directors tend to only look at schedules as how they impact their self-preservation. They don’t look at the big picture of the conference. Plus, who knows how many coaches Sankey “collaborates” with now will still be SEC coaches in the near future?
Mike Slive, who followed Kramer, let coaches vote on key issues, but that didn’t always mean anything.
At the 2011 SEC Spring Meetings, the football coaches voted 12-0 to keep the scholarship limit at 28, and Slive went with what he wanted anyway, which was 25 scholarships, after a 12-0 vote by the league presidents and chancellors, whom he expertly lobbied. Alabama coach Nick Saban was very upset.
“I don’t fully understand the purpose of some of these things,” Saban said. “And some of these things we’ve never discussed.”
Well, it’s not a democracy. It’s a league.
“We give our opinions. That doesn’t mean they’re going to agree,” then-South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said.
“I’m not a dictator,” Slive said. “I talked to other commissioners around the country about these things.”
And then he dictated.
Sooner or later, Sankey will hve to dictate how the schedule will change. He will also have to basically unilaterally rule on those additions.
Sankey is an extremely intelligent person. He talked to many experts before deciding to go slow with the SEC’s reaction to COVID-19 in 2020. Other leagues overreacted and made huge mistakes. The SEC handled it best because of Sankey, and in the end he alone decided what to do.That will be a better strategy than what he said last week – “We’ll watch what happens around us and be thoughtful but be nimble.”
Studying until a point, acting and dictating will work better. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of talk. Sankey will know what he has to do – if he doesn’t already.