ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten commissioners push back against College Football Playoff expansion critics

ByHEATHER DINICH via via logo
February 25, 2022, 6:09 PM

The commissioners from the ACC, Pac-12 and Big Ten pushed back on Friday against any public misconception that their "Alliance" of conferences worked together to stop expansion of the College Football Playoff.

"I think that's a narrative that certain folks benefit from having out there even if it's not true," said Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff, who joined Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren and ACC commissioner Jim Phillips on Friday in an exclusive interview with ESPN reporters.

Last Friday, the CFP announced it will remain a four-team playoff for the next four years -- a decision that was made with an 8-3 vote of the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Mississippi State president Mark Keenum, the chair of the CFP's board of managers, publicized the vote, revealing the Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12 voted against the 12-team proposal.

On Aug. 24, those three leagues announced the formation of what they deemed a "historic alliance." It has aimed to form scheduling partnerships, bring together like-minded academic institutions and, at the time, stabilize a landscape that was again uncertain with another round of realignment -- none more drastic than Big 12 co-founders Oklahoma and Texas announcing their intent to eventually bolt to the SEC.

The past eight months, which have been filled with debates and discussions about expanding the playoff, pushed the relatively new commissioners into the spotlight again. The motion that was brought to the table for them to vote on last week didn't split playoff expansion into the current 12-year contract, which runs through 2025, and another vote for Year 13 and beyond. Instead, it was one yes-or-no vote on expanding the playoff under the originally proposed 12-team model with the six highest-ranked conference champions and the next six highest-ranked teams.

Keenum's decision to reveal the vote reignited a mistrust within the room that has been smoldering since this summer. Kliavkoff said the Pac-12 would have voted in favor of the 12-team proposal if the vote was specific to the final two seasons of the current contract.

"When we're talking about what should it look like, or when should we make the decision, we have real differences of opinion," Kliavkoff said. "And it just so happens that each of us came to our own conclusion about why we couldn't vote yes to the proposal that was on the table. And I think we've all been public now that others have decided for us that we're going to air our laundry as opposed to make a decision in the room and then announce the decision."

The ACC had made its position clear -- both publicly and privately -- long before the vote, which had to be unanimous in order for the format to change within the current contract. Phillips, the only Power 5 commissioner who served on both the NCAA's constitution committee and transformation committee -- both tasked with restructuring the organization's governance -- stated in mid-January that his conference was united in its stance that "this is not the right time for expansion."

Phillips pointed to three main reasons for the league's reluctance: too many unanswered questions as it relates to the health and safety of the athletes; the "overall disruption in college athletics," including the new NCAA constitution and a desperate plea for federal legislation as it relates to NIL; and a 365-day "holistic review" of policy as it relates to the sport.

"This isn't a voting bloc," Phillips said on Friday.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 felt there were lingering unanswered issues, particularly with the Rose Bowl and the unknown revenue distribution in Year 13. Without knowing the TV contract, the CFP could not answer how the revenue would be shared beyond the current term.

"There can't be, 'Well, we'll answer that after we agree that we're going to expand currently, we will answer that down the road,'" Warren said. "And so I know from where I sit, where the Big Ten sits, I said it very clearly: We are 100 percent supportive of expansion. We think it's the right thing to do. But it has to be at the right time, in the right format, for the right reasons.

Warren also rattled off other issues, like mental health, the academic calendar, the revenue share and making sure multiple media partners are assured an opportunity to participate. The Big Ten has also been steadfast in its position that the Power 5 conference champions and one more should have an automatic bid in an expanded playoff -- a proposal that hasn't received much support around the table.

The Big Ten and Pac-12 shared a concern about the future of the Rose Bowl. Traditionally, the Rose Bowl pits the Big Ten champion against the Pac-12 champion, but if those teams are in the CFP -- as they have been at times during the current playoff format -- the Rose Bowl takes the next highest-ranked teams from those leagues.

In an expanded playoff, a normal Rose Bowl would likely be getting the third-best team from the Pac-12 and maybe the fourth-best from the Big Ten, on average, as the top teams would almost assuredly be ranked in the top 12. The Pac-12 and the Rose Bowl don't want to have a semifinal competing against the bowl game in the same traditional New Year's Day three-hour TV window. The request would also be a protection for the other bowls that have contracts with Power 5 conferences, the Sugar and Orange Bowls.

"What we're asking for for the Rose Bowl is a tiny little ask," Kliavkoff said recently on The Paul Finebaum Show. "We've asked for three hours every three years to be protected against having to compete against a CFP quarterfinal. ... Not a big ask. It's difficult to expand the College Football Playoff and also hold onto the great traditions we have in the bowl games. We're trying to do that. It's a difficult balance."

Warren said a difference of opinion in the room shouldn't have to be so divisive.

"Anytime someone penalizes a person or a group for asking questions, or to say we need more information, we have to work through it," Warren said. "What we need to do is continually come together and stop being judgmental and put our heads together and continually work through these issues. If we do that, we'll land in a place that makes sense for everyone."

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