Chris Del Conte has long been the ringleader of a tight-knit circle of athletic director friends, if in volume of voice only. At one point, they were all upwardly mobile career climbers with ideas of how to reshape college athletics.
They’re aging into their 50s now having only enhanced their influence. Back in the day, the think tank of emerging thinkers consisted of seven current ADs and power brokers: Del Conte (Texas), Greg Byrne (Alabama), Scott Stricklin (Florida), Ross Bjork (Texas A&M), Whit Babcock (Virginia Tech), John Currie (Wake Forest) and Greg McGarity (Gator Bowl CEO). Others circulated in and out, but that only added to their vision of the future.
“Does the group have a name? I think Currie called it, ‘The Next Gen,'” Del Conte said this week as Texas prepares to face No. 1 Alabama. “Now, we’re the ‘middle-aged gen.’ Now, we’re getting close to the ‘older gen.’ Now, we’re damn near on the tail end of old bastards. But we started out as young bastards.”
If Del Conte wasn’t the most personable of the group, he certainly stands as its unofficial historian.
“Our group has come up with a lot of crazy ideas that have come to fruition right now,” Del Conte added. “We were a group of dudes. We just became pals.”
A few years ago, those “bastards” began to see the future. It included College Football Playoff expansion, realignment, guerilla marketing and mega-games, the shining example of which (Alabama vs. Texas) is in our midst this week.
It’s a direct extension of Texas and Oklahoma migrating out of the Big 12 and into the SEC in 2025 (at the latest). It is a tangential reaction to playoff expansion. It is a reason why we’ll see a lot more of these high-profile games. That was assured last week when the CFP Board of Managers (university presidents) approved a 12-team playoff as soon as 2024.
“Movements and playoffs and where we were going all came out of those same conversations,” Del Conte said. “Nobody knew exactly what would happen, but we were just trying to project what could happen and put ourselves in the very best position to be successful.”
Del Conte, 54, arrived at Texas from TCU in 2017. It occurred to him the Longhorns were either playing their traditional rivals at neutral sites or not at all. The Oklahoma game is in Dallas. Nebraska was long gone to the Big Ten (actually because of Texas). Texas A&M left for the SEC for the same reason, if you ask the Aggies.
The old Southwest Conference rivalry with Arkansas — last played in Austin, Texas, in 2008 — was renewed for 2014 in Houston and last year in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
All of it directly impacted Del Conte, in charge of one of the two largest athletic budgets in the country. He had to find a way to consistently fill his stadium. In turn, that would help fund his other sports.
Not without perhaps changing conferences. Not without adding a Woodstock atmosphere before games.
Not without a tax break. In 2017, a tax reform bill removed deductions ticket buyers had enjoyed for years.
“I think we were all worried that people were not going to [donate as boosters] because of the tax situation,” said McGarity, previously the Georgia AD from 2010-20.
There was a convergence, then, of Congress, playoff expansion and willing scheduling partners that went with realignment. The Next Gen saw that, one day, the four-team bracket would expand. They saw ahead that a 10-2 record — even 9-3 — would be good enough to get in. (The likes of Utah would have gotten into a 12-team field last season at 10-3.)
Schedule strength was only becoming more important, making it a huge consideration in alignment. It’s not only about playing better teams but also playing them more frequently. The SEC is growing to 16 teams. In 2021, Alabama played at Florida for the first time in a decade. Georgia still hasn’t visited Texas A&M despite the Aggies joining the league in 2012.
With its 16 teams, SEC officials are trying their best to come up with a scheduling model that allows teams to play each other home and away within a four-year period. If not, what’s the point of adding two of the biggest sports brands in the country?
Three times in the last decade, the SEC has been guaranteed a national championship before the title game was played: 2011, 2017 and 2021.
Between 2020-33, Georgia made the conscious decision in its scheduling to play 13 nonconference games against Power Fives and Notre Dame.
The likes of Florida, Georgia, Texas and Alabama from that Next Gen group could not only afford to schedule up, the future mandated it. Stricklin, 52, came up in media relations before becoming Mississippi State AD in 2010 and joining Florida in 2016. Byrne, 50, preceded Stricklin at Mississippi State and has been at Alabama since 2017. Bjork, 49, was at Ole Miss prior to Texas A&M. Currie, 49, was at Kansas State and Tennessee before Wake Forest.
They all know, in the expanded playoff, a 10-2 team stepping up in nonconference play looked a hell of a lot better than a 10-2 team playing three or four punching bags surrounding a conference schedule.
Del Conte says that, three or four years ago, a group of his Next Gen peers got together to weaponize their schedules. Texas added Florida, Alabama, LSU and Georgia in schedules through 2030.
In the space of four months from February 2019 to May 2019, eight national nonconference games were announced. All but one of them was scheduled after 2025. Feel free to connect the dots. The CFP’s current contract with ESPN ends after that season.
“I talked to Coach [Nick] Saban,” Byrne said. “He and I were on the same page about trying to create some of these [games]. Texas [in 2022-23] and Notre Dame [in 2029-30] were the first two that we announced.”
Alabama also has home and away games through 2035 with Wisconsin, Florida State, West Virginia, Ohio State, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Boston College.
Combine that with the presumed schedule-strength advantage the SEC already enjoys playing its league slate. That’s not competitive imbalance in realignment, that’s one league orbiting the moon and others catching a public bus.
When the SEC opportunity came along for Texas, there really wasn’t a decision to make. The school traded that angst over the home schedule for regular games against Bama, LSU, Florida, Tennessee, and yes, rival Texas A&M. The previously scheduled nonconference games against SEC opponents will be folded into future conference schedules.
Don’t shed a tear for Texas this week. It has the best of everything, including a place to land when the realignment musical chairs once again started being played. It must own its perceived influence on Nebraska and Texas A&M (at least) leaving the Big 12 in the first place.
But it was also Texas that decided to stay in the Big 12 when the Pac-12 came calling with an offer to make it the Pac-16 in 2010.
Realignment has once again become a competitive sport. The Big Ten snagged USC and UCLA this summer as an answer to the SEC getting Texas and OU. Is it all done?
“USC, UCLA, did I see it coming? No.” Del Conte said. “But I do think things were shaking up. … You could sense things just by conversations I was having, things were going in different directions.”