Rob Oller | Big Ten can't sit on sidelines as SEC plays footsie with Texas and Oklahoma

Rob Oller
The Columbus Dispatch

INDIANAPOLIS — Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren comes off as a nice guy. And you know where nice guys finish. 

Behind the Southeastern Conference, that’s where. 

A shockwave rattled college football on the eve of Thursday’s Big Ten’s media days when multiple media outlets reported that Texas and Oklahoma were interested in joining the SEC. And the SEC is interested in being wooed by the two Big 12 headliners.

No invitation has been made, no deal struck and several obstacles stand in the way of the union happening. But just the idea of the SEC growing to 16 teams by adding Texas and Oklahoma was enough to turn the Big Ten’s two-day preseason kickoff into a Thursday showcase of what-if speculation.

Speculation, mind you, that Warren should take seriously. One way to do that would be for the commish to take advantage of his unlimited cell phone minutes by trying to convince the Longhorns and Sooners that the Big Ten would be a better landing spot. Maybe he’s already been on the phone with the two schools, wooing them with promises of cash, competitive advantage and academic cachet. But it sure didn’t sound like it during his hour-long soliloquy/Q & A inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

Former Wisconsin coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez has been hired as Big Ten special advisor to football.

Warren mostly dodged and juked on topics ranging from COVID-19 — still no word on whether teams will take forfeits if unable to play games in the fall — to playoff expansion to the NCAA scaling back its oversight of football.

“That’s what we have to put our heads together. We’ve got to figure it out,” Warren said of what he foresees as the Big Ten’s role in helping police college football in place of the NCAA. “Seriously, we’ve got to come up with a plan. He (NCAA president Mark Emmert) said it, so we have to be ready for it.”

That sounds more reactive than proactive. More alarming was the way Warren addressed the subject of Texas/OU possibly joining the SEC, and how it might impact the Big Ten.

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“We're always constantly evaluating what’s in the best interest of the conference,” he said. “It will be interesting to see how that story evolves and where it lands.”

Interesting to see? Warren sounds more like a bystander than a power broker. Maybe that’s who he is? Unlike his predecessor Jim Delany, who was a business-first cobra not interested in charming his audience, Warren is more about delivering motivational messages. There is a time and place for providing a softer touch, but perspiration works better than inspiration when trying to outflank the enemy. 

I suspect that is why Warren brought Barry Alvarez on as Big Ten special advisor to football. Alvarez coached Wisconsin football from 1990 to 2005 before becoming the Badgers’ athletic director. He retired earlier this year, but Warren lured him off the beach and back into the fray.

“I think I can bring a little something to the table,” Alvarez said. 

Alvarez is the bulldog the Big Ten needs at the bargaining table. His conference roots date to 1979 when he coached linebackers at Iowa, and he is not prone to inaction when sensing a threat.

Not that the Big Ten would be doomed by the SEC bringing  Texas and Oklahoma on board, but if the Longhorns and Sooners are going to switch conferences, why not make a play for them? The alternatives are less appealing: sit tight and watch the SEC cement its place as lead dog in college football. Or expand the Big Ten by inviting teams that don’t move the meter. Where would the conference turn next? Pittsburgh? West Virginia? TCU, to tap into the Dallas market? Yawn. No, the answer is to go hard after Texas and Oklahoma. Maybe you come up short, but at least you go down with a fight.   

Alvarez is always up for a fight. 

“My first reaction was ‘Why?’ The timing seems a little strange and out of the blue,” Alvarez said of the UT/OU-to-SEC report. “It caught everyone by surprise.” 

It’s now up to Warren and Alvarez to turn surprise into shocker by outbidding the SEC.

Texas is not hard up for money, so waving Benjamins at the Longhorns would not work as well as appealing to their competitive insecurities. Float the idea of playing in the relatively soft Big Ten West, instead of taking constant shrapnel in an SEC West that could include Oklahoma, LSU and Texas A&M.

The same goes for Oklahoma. But focus first on getting Texas, and the Sooners will follow. 

Has Warren thought it all through? Maybe. You better believe Alvarez has. Release the hound. And hope he’s not too late. 

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