The SEC Logo on the chains at the game between the Mississippi State Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide on October 16, 2021, at Davis Wade Stadium in Starkville, MS. (Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire) (Icon Sportswire via AP Images)

Last week’s news that Southern Cal and UCLA are joining the Big Ten Conference caused jaws to drop and alarm bells to ring across college athletics. 

But not here.

Rick Cleveland

My reaction? Of course USC and UCLA are joining the Big Ten. Makes as much sense as most anything else that is happening these days in the college sports world. Think about it: USC and UCLA are joining the Big Ten, which is actually the Big Fourteen and hasn’t been the Big Ten since 1990 when Penn State became the 11th team in the Big Ten. Now, the Big Ten will actually be the Big Sixteen until the next shoes (probably Oregon and Washington) drop.

This is a college sports world gone mad. Geography doesn’t matter. Dollars do. Actually, dollars are all that do.

Southern Cal and UCLA are traveling across the continent to join the Big Ten because it means more money. TV pays the bills and the Big Ten TV package becomes millions upon millions more lucrative when the California market is added.

Never mind that UCLA and Southern Cal athletes will now spend about as much time in airplanes as they do classrooms. College athletics long ago quit have anything to do with education. It’s about the dollar. Period.

At least the NFL, the money-making-est sports organization in the world, keeps geography in mind. That’s why we have in north, south, east and west divisions in both the NFC and the AFC. 

Only in college sports would you have Missouri in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division, flying over Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama to play a division game in Florida.

Tradition used to matter in college sports. It doesn’t matter much now. Think about this: Southern Cal might soon be the visiting team in the Rose Bowl.

Or think about this: The UCLA gymnastics team could now be competing in a conference match against Rutgers 2,750 miles from home in Piscataway, N.J. The match could be on a Sunday at noon in New Jersey, which would be like 9 a.m. California time for the Bruins. Win or lose, it will be a long, long ride home. That Monday morning kinesiology class will require two alarm clocks.

And I wonder how the baseball and softball coaches at Southern Cal and UCLA feel about all this. That March road series at Michigan or Northwestern will require bigger suitcases and considerably more layering. Jet lag will be the least of the worries. It could be an even bigger problem for Michigan and Northwestern coaches when their teams play February or March conference games in L.A. Michigan and Northwestern players might not want to board the jet to take them back to their still frigid homes.

I do not want to sound like an old fogey about all this. But the Biblical verse — “For the Love of money is the root of all evil” — rarely has rung more true. I am not sure where college athletics is heading, but I don’t like the looks of much of any of it. That includes NIL and the one-time transfer rule.

We are fast reaching the point — or maybe we have reached it — where college coaches are going to recruit talent from other college teams as much as they do from high schools and junior colleges. And it is changing the way coaches coach. It used to be “my way or the highway.” Now, given that choice, the athlete likely will choose the highway — or, just as likely, a jet. The school just down the road or across the country might offer a better NIL deal.

Where does all this leave the Mississippi schools? Good question. Ole Miss and Mississippi State are grandfathered in to the SEC. That’s not going to change. But with the NIL and one-time transfer rule, winning in the SEC will not get any easier, especially not with Texas and Oklahoma presumably joining the SEC Western Division. Money may well be the root of all evil, but it does buy better players. And now that “buying” players is legal, the rich will only get richer.

Southern Miss has found a new home in the Sun Belt Conference, a league of like-minded schools that is more like a throwback in today’s world of college athletics. It is a regional league where buses will far outnumber airplanes. Yes, its talent pool will be raided from time to time by bigger conferences with bigger NIL deals. So it goes.

From time to time, Jackson State has entertained the thought of leaving the SWAC to move “up” in the college athletic world. Be careful, I say. I am not so sure whether up is up any more.

My question for the day: Could it be that the Ivy League had it right all along?

Seems to me, the answer is all too obvious.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Take our 2023 reader survey

Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.