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Jim Polzin: 41 schools, 3 conferences, 1 loosely formed alliance. What could go wrong?

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Ducks 28, Badgers 27

Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert runs for a touchdown past UW linebacker Jack Sanborn during second half of the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 2020. The Badgers and Ducks could meet as part of a scheduling component of an alliance formed by the Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC.

The commissioners of the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12 spent about 45 minutes Tuesday afternoon trying to explain what was branded in a joint news release as a “historic alliance” between the three conferences.

There were a lot of words spoken by Kevin Warren (Big Ten), Jim Phillips (ACC) and George Kliavkoff (Pac-12) during that news conference and nearly as many virtual pats on the back given to each other.

The call ended and I was still confused by what it all meant. Worse yet, I’m not convinced Warren, Phillips and Kliavkoff really know, either.

“The beautiful thing about this is we have some of the brightest minds in all of college athletics in our athletic departments, with our athletic directors and also our leaders on campus,” Warren said. “To be able to get in the room now over these next couple weeks and months and start rolling up our sleeves and going to work to figure out how this will come together is exciting.”

So the alliance at this point is … an idea?

What it seems like from afar is three kids joining forces on the playground to stand up to a bully — in this case the SEC — with no specific plan on how to win that fight beyond strength in numbers.

It’s no coincidence discussions between Warren, Phillips and Kliavkoff started about a month ago. What else happened about a month ago? The SEC raided the Big 12 to poach Oklahoma and Texas, a move that almost certainly will trigger the next round of conference realignment musical chairs.

One thing Warren, Phillips and Kliavkoff made clear Tuesday was they were a united front. So united, in fact, there’s nothing formal to seal this union between the conferences.

“There’s no signed contract,” Kliavkoff said. “There’s an agreement among three gentlemen and there’s a commitment from 41 presidents and chancellors and 41 athletic directors to do what we say we’re going to do.

“If there’s any lack of specificity in the press release, it’s because we want to make sure we can deliver 100% of what we promised. So we’re aligned in how we want to approach this, but there’s no contract, there’s no signed document and there doesn’t need to be.”

Think about that for a minute: That’s 41 presidents and chancellors. Forty-one athletic directors. Forty-one football coaches. Hundreds of other coaches. And, assuming their voices are heard, “over 27,000 student-athletes competing on 863 teams in 31 sports,” according to a news release.

And no signatures on the dotted line. Nothing official to keep one of the conferences from poaching schools from another in the alliance.

What could possibly go wrong?

“It’s about trust,” Phillips said. “It’s about, we’ve looked each other in the eye, we’ve made an agreement. We have great confidence and faith (in one another). Our board chairs have looked each other in the eye and committed to the same level of support and connection to one another. Our athletic directors have done that.”

The most appealing part about this alliance from the outside looking in is the promise the conferences will work together on a scheduling component. According to reports, the Big Ten and Pac-12 are considering dropping to eight conference games for football in order to add two nonconference games within the alliance.

Yahoo! Sports used UW as an example, outlining a scenario in which the Badgers would play Virginia and Oregon one year followed by Florida State and UCLA the next season.

The Badgers already have future series scheduled with Washington State (2022, ’23) and Utah (2028, 2033) from the Pac-12 and Pittsburgh (2026, ’27) and Virginia Tech (2031, ’32) from the ACC.

There was mention of nonconference games in men’s and women’s basketball – early season and mid-season, maybe even some tournaments — along with Olympic sports matchups among the conferences in the alliance.

“One thing to keep in mind is that we’ve promised each other that we’re not going to interfere with any existing contracts that exist,” Warren said. “This is not about getting out of contracts or blowing anything up. This is about honoring those existing contracts but also building relationships between these three like-minded conferences as we look forward from a scheduling standpoint.”

Maybe that’s all this has to be, some creative scheduling mixed in as three conferences symbolically join arms to make sure their voices are heard when decisions are made on an expanded College Football Playoff and the reorganization of the NCAA structure.

And, hey, if great ideas are exchanged when it comes to the other complicated issues hovering over college athletics — diversity, equity and inclusion; social justice; gender equity; name, image and likeness and federal legislative efforts; free transfers — that’s terrific as well.

“We’re better together,” Phillips said, “than we are separate.”

Perhaps, but 41 institutions over four time zones with different agendas sounds like something that could go off the rails in a hurry. Leadership in college athletics — commissioners, presidents/chancellors, athletic directors — changes all the time. The idea that this will be a long-term unified front seems far-fetched.

Phillips said near the end of the news conference the three commissioners have spent more time talking to each other than their own spouses over the past month.

The result is an alliance between three powerful conferences who have said “I do.” As with any marriage, now comes the hard part.

Contact Jim Polzin at jpolzin@madison.com.

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