Rabalais: Time to sing praises of tradition is over

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva speaks at a news conference in November 2012. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU Athletic Director Joe Alleva speaks at a news conference in November 2012.

Things aren’t the same as they were when (the Southeastern Conference) was a 10- or 12-team league. Things change.” Joe Alleva, LSU athletic director

And how do we keep our balance?

I can tell you in one word: tradition.

Fiddler on the Roof

At the Southeastern Conference office in Birmingham, Ala., Mike Slive fiddles.

In his office on the sixth floor of the LSU athletic administration building, Joe Alleva burns.

Slive has taken the SEC to unimaginable heights and brought the league unbelievable riches during his tenure. Seven straight BCS national championships, and the prospect of even more millions flowing each year into SEC coffers when its TV network flips on in 2014, speak for themselves.

All that new money will, as has always been the case in the SEC, be split equally between its member schools with a slice going to the conference office. Render unto Caesar, Emperor Mike I, that which is Caesar’s in terms of tribute for making the SEC the most desirable athletic address in the nation.

But not everything is golden in the empire. There is imbalance in the SEC’s underpinnings, and imbalance always finds a way to topple regimes.

In “Fiddler on the Roof,” the people of a small village cling passionately to their traditions while the world changes around them in the early 20th Century Russia.

It’s much the same way in the SEC, just in a better neighborhood than quaint old Anatevka (though we hear it never rains on Saturday nights there, either, just so you know).

College athletics is nothing without its traditions. But there is such a thing as clinging to your traditions too hard.

What would anyone say about a conference that for the sake of keeping a couple of football rivalries going (really one) gerrymanders its divisions and sets up a scheduling plan that keeps schools from playing each other for years and forces competitive imbalances on most of its members? Any logical person would be hard-pressed to think that conference would be as successful and proactive as the SEC.

But that is exactly what the SEC has become. For the sake of Alabama-Tennessee and Auburn-Georgia (but really just Alabama-Tennessee) the conference has forced permanent opponents down everyone else’s throats.

The results have been tougher roads to division titles for some — like LSU and Florida for having to play each other — and easier roads for others.

Let’s ignore Alabama, the big red elephant in the room, for a moment and consider Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have Kentucky permanently grafted onto their schedule, a school that since the days Bear Bryant coached there 60 years ago has had nothing but occasionally fleeting success in football.

The Bear is long gone, folks. So is Gen. Neyland at Tennessee, and Pat Dye and Herschel Walker, for that matter. The rest of the SEC shouldn’t be held hostage to unfair football schedules so Alabama and Tennessee and Georgia and Auburn can play each other. At the same time, Texas A&M and South Carolina are about to become permanent partners, two schools that operate in different hemispheres, much less divisions.

The SEC has in so many respects changed appropriately with the times. It was the first to expand and create its own championship game in 1992. It expanded again in 2012, not out of desperation but because it was advantageous to tap into fertile new markets like Texas and Missouri. It waited to see what mistakes the Big Ten made in launching its TV network before leaping into its own, the result being the SEC is getting ESPN to pick up almost all of the startup and production costs.

But there is still apparently a fear that the world would stop turning on its axis or some such calamity if Alabama and Tennessee didn’t play the third Saturday in October. It’s a theory that shares a common thread with the one that preached the world was flat.

“Things aren’t the same as they were when it was a 10- or 12-team league,” said Alleva, the most vocal proponent of football schedule reform in the SEC.

“Things change.”

Alleva wants the SEC to think round, think globally. Discard the trappings of the past that don’t work and move forward with a model that is more equitable for everyone in the conference.

He goes back to Destin, Fla., and this week’s SEC Spring Meeting armed with arguments he is convinced are right while knowing he is fighting eight decades of inertia, a formidable foe.

“My personal opinion is people agree with me in their hearts but are voting in the best interests of their institutions,” Alleva said. “They’re not voting in the best interests of the league.”

Alleva isn’t betting on it, but maybe this time the vote will be different, though he believes that will probably take an endorsement from Slive that so far hasn’t come.

Maybe this time the SEC members will realize tradition doesn’t always produce balance.