It’s the sort of productivity discrepancy that can easily stir professional jealousy within any collegiate athletic department. Yet it’s also the stark reality behind every shift, past or present, in conference realignment.
Pick the cliché, but football pays for the gas, moves the needle and, most importantly, funds the hopes and dreams of every other athlete in every other sport at most major universities. Never mind how football funds the gaudy paychecks of coaches and administrators.
At most big-time athletic programs, there are exactly two programs that don’t lose money: Football and men’s basketball. And as fans once again have been reminded in the past week, the football impact far outweighs even the lucrative frenzy of March Madness.
UCLA (along with USC) isn’t headed to the Big Ten because it is the most prestigious men’s basketball program in the west, with 11 national championships and 19 Final Four appearances. Those two schools are leaving the Pac-12 because networks like Fox want the Los Angeles television market beneath the Big Ten football umbrella. The USC football brand was the key component, even if the Trojans football program moving to the Big Ten is currently further removed from its glory years than the present state of UCLA men’s basketball.
The chasm between the clout of football and the programs that should be throwing the most weight around in many athletic departments is glaring. Kansas won the Jayhawks’ sixth men’s basketball national championship on April 4 and recently posted a run of 14 consecutive regular-season conference championships in the Big 12. Yet coach Bill Self’s future league opponents will be dependent on what’s best for a KU football program that hasn’t won more than three games in a season since 2009.
It’s a similar dynamic at Arizona. Wildcats basketball returned to national prominence this past year under first-year coach Tommy Lloyd, sweeping the Pac-12 postseason honors while earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Arizona may have reached the Sweet 16, but any change in conference affiliation, or alteration to what is slated to be a 10-team Pac-12 beginning in 2024, will be spurred by gleaning as much money as possible out of a UA football program that has gone 1-23 in its past 24 games and 10-31 over the past four seasons.
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a little frustration with that,” CU men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle said. “But I’m a realist. That’s the reality. The discussions and decisions that are made on these kinds of things are way above my head. I try to just concentrate on the things that I can control. And right now, that doesn’t feel like it’s a lot.
“I don’t lose sleep over it in terms of being frustrated. It’s just the way it is. It’s reality. Sometimes you’ve just got to resign yourself to reality. That’s what I’ve done.”
On a smaller scale, Boyle’s situation at CU is similar to those of Self and Lloyd. In 12 seasons at CU, Boyle has averaged 21.2 wins per season, reached the Pac-12 title game twice (winning it in 2012), and has earned five NCAA Tournament bids (that total would be six if the 2020 tournament hadn’t been canceled at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic).
In the 12 football seasons during that span, 2011-2022, CU football has posted one and a half winning seasons — winning the 2016 Pac-12 South title with a 10-4 final mark and going 4-2 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. In the other 10 seasons, CU football has gone 33-77. However, whatever comes next for CU athletics—whether it’s a move to the Big 12, staying put amid Pac-12 expansion, an alliance with the ACC or any of the myriad scenarios in play — the decision will be driven by the financial whims of a football program that has enjoyed only floating moments of national relevance since Gary Barnett coached his final season in Boulder in 2005.
“This thing is evolving and I don’t think anybody has the answers,” Boyle said. “I’ve given it a lot of thought. Certainly football drives the bus, there’s no doubt about that. The men’s basketball tournament lays a billion dollar egg for the NCAA every year, and the money from football goes to the Power 5 conferences.
“I believe 100 percent in the brand of Colorado. And quite frankly, I’ve got a lot of confidence in (athletic director) Rick George that he’s going to position our program and our department well as we move forward.”