The 2022 college football Most Intriguing Lists continue. Last week’s installment: the Most Intriguing Coaches. This week: Most Intriguing People In Suits—that is, the people away from the field who are helping shape the future of the sport.
1. Kevin Warren, Big Ten commissioner. In one bold move out West, Warren’s reputation was radically transformed. With the league’s acquisition of USC and UCLA, the Big Ten emphatically answered the SEC’s acquisitions last year and will be the nation’s first coast-to-coast conference in 2024. Warren, brutally criticized in ’20 for his leadership through the pandemic and caught flat-footed by the Texas and Oklahoma move in ’21, scored his biggest win to date and gained the trust of his constituency. He’s a confident commish going forward.
2. Greg Sankey, SEC commissioner. His league is the leader on the football field, and he is the leading policy wonk away from it. Sankey is co-chair of the NCAA transformation committee, which has been tasked with revamping the manifold inconsistencies and shortcomings in the college sports bureaucracy. If there is one person who can effectively interact with TV execs and campus leaders, Sankey is it. His value to college sports has never been greater, but the SEC’s actions have done damage to the enterprise as a whole.
3. Mark Silverman, Fox Sports president. His presence standing near midfield at Lucas Oil Stadium during Big Ten media days in late July was a snapshot of the influence Fox has with that league, and in terms of shaping the future of college sports. What once was largely ESPN’s playground now is being split more evenly—and more acrimoniously—between the Worldwide Leader and its aggressive competitor. Fox has reverse-engineered the typical college football Saturday, establishing noon as a key viewing window and giving fans an alternative to ESPN’s College GameDay as a morning table setter.
4. Burke Magnus, ESPN president of programming and original content. Just as much as the college sports world is becoming a Big Ten vs. SEC power struggle, it’s also Fox vs. ESPN. Magnus, the longtime spearhead of ESPN’s monolithic college sports coverage, figures to be integrally involved in the company’s next major conference media negotiations with the Pac-12. After stepping out of Big Ten negotiations—reportedly as a preemptive move to being shut out—ESPN’s level of interest in paying the Pac-12 could materially affect the viability of that league and thus the entire national landscape.
5. Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame athletic director. If one man can send the realignment carousel spinning again, it’s Swarbrick. But don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, and quite possibly not at all. The interest shown by the Big Ten/Fox in adding the Fighting Irish reinforced what Swarbrick said this week: “All the commentary was, were we relevant anymore? And this year, no one’s asking that question.” Notre Dame’s relevance remains strong—but there is pressure on Swarbrick’s chosen successor to Brian Kelly, 36-year-old Marcus Freeman, to validate that hire.
6. George Kliavkoff, Pac-12 commissioner. Owner of the most recently gored ox in realignment, Kliavkoff has been in damage control mode for six weeks since USC and UCLA made their bombshell departure announcement. So far, so good. While Kliavkoff might have underestimated the dissatisfaction level of the Trojans and Bruins in his first year on the job, he’s gotten strong reviews from the remaining Pac-12 members in responding to this crisis. As of today, he has a fighting chance to keep his league together as its media-rights negotiations unfold. But he and everyone outside the SEC and Big Ten must think strategically and creatively to avoid a complete loss of relevance.
7. Brett Yormark, Big 12 commissioner. Credit the newest Power 5 commissioner with blunt honesty in his first media appearance in July. “The Big 12 is open for business,” he said, skipping the bromides that tend to come from career college administrators. With a background in pro sports and entertainment, Yormark is focused on finding ways to create revenue. However, an early gambit to potentially poach from the Pac-12 appears to have stalled, and the league’s ceiling will be difficult to raise. What kind of options can Yormark come up with for a conference long on B-list brands and short on A-listers?
8. Jim Phillips, ACC commissioner. It’s a challenge presiding over a league with externally enforced stability and plenty of internal drama. The golden handcuffs applied by ESPN should keep the membership intact for many years to come—but how happy are some of those members? Phillips is least interested of all the commissioners in throwing his hands and simply welcoming the continued creep toward professionalization of college sports. He might be principled, or he might just be a single voice shouting into the winds of change. Regardless, he also is tasked with trying to find new revenue that will enhance the ACC’s standing.
9. John Ruiz, Miami booster. If you want someone to serve as the poster boy for the new era of public booster involvement in recruiting, Ruiz will happily strike the pose. He’s been brazen enough about striking deals with prospective Hurricanes that he’s tweeted the details of at least one of them, and that brazenness has drawn the attention of NCAA enforcement representatives. When college administrators talk about wanting “guardrails” on player compensation, they just might have Ruiz in mind.
10. James Clawson, Spyre Sports Group. While Ruiz is a one-man band, most of the work being done in the NIL/player payment space is coming from collectives. Enter Clawson, who is one of the principals of the group doing major work at Tennessee. Spyre Sports is the collective that stepped up to sign five-star quarterback recruit Nico Iamaleava to an $8 million deal, which rocked the sport when it was revealed in the spring. Spyre Sports is the example that combining a desperate fan base with an organized collective can lead to game-changing results in recruiting.
11. Jim Cavale, INFLCR founder and CEO. This could also be Blake Lawrence of Opendorse, or one of the other experts in the NIL space. When the courts began handing the NCAA losses and opened the doors for NIL opportunities, Cavale and others were ready. Cavale has had a five-year (and counting) run working with athletic departments to build individual athletes’ brands via their own content and social media.
12. Martin Jarmond, UCLA athletic director. He’s got a trickier path to walk than USC counterpart Mike Bohn. As one of the leaders who helped plot the Bruins’ bold new course toward the Big Ten, Jarmond had to weigh the revenue needed to keep his debt-ridden department broad-based and competitive vs. challenges created by cross-country travel and the untethering from UCLA’s peers in the UC system—most notably California-Berkeley. Next week, UCLA brass has to explain/defend the seismic move to the UC regents in what could be a juicy on-campus meeting in Westwood.
13. Gavin Newsom, California governor. He’s an ex officio UC regent, and let’s just say that he’s made his feelings clear on the secrecy UCLA employed in plotting its Pac-12 exit strategy. We’ll see how difficult (or easy) Newsom makes it for the Bruins to finish what they started on June 30.
14. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey. You could plug in about a dozen Congressional leaders who have tried to come up with national legislation regarding NIL compensation for college athletes. They’re responding to the pathetic cries of help from college sports leaders who can’t seem to figure it out on their own, or don’t want to. Booker was among five U.S. Senators who put his name on a reintroduced College Athlete Bill of Rights last week, but nobody is expecting any legislation to be fast-tracked into existence before midterm elections in November.
15. Boo Corrigan, North Carolina State athletic director and chair of the College Football Playoff selection committee. Corrigan is next up on the ESPN Tuesday night hot seat, tasked with explaining the CFP’s incremental, weekly rankings. It’s a thankless task that mostly serves to put the chair in the awkward position of speaking for an entire group and rationalizing rankings that are essentially useless. The good news for Corrigan is that he shouldn’t have to be overly cogent to come across better than his predecessor, Iowa’s Gary Barta. A potential added plot twist could be Corrigan’s own football team; the Wolfpack are projected to have their best year in a long time and could be a dark horse playoff contender.
16. Trace Armstrong, coaches agent. He had a Promethean spin on the coaching carousel last year, moving clients Lincoln Riley and Brian Kelly from one blueblood job to another—with maximum shock value in both cases. Next up? If Matt Rhule has another rough year in Carolina, he could be a very attractive commodity back on the college market.
17. Jimmy Sexton, coaches agent. Fresh off brokering the deal that made Georgia’s Kirby Smart the richest coach in the sport, Sexton will have plenty more to do in 2022. Keep this in mind: Sexton represents a majority of the SEC’s coaches, and only one of those 14 jobs changed hands last year. That isn’t a league known for coaching stability, so if things get wild you know Sexton will be in the middle of the action.
18. Allen Greene, Auburn athletic director. Speaking of SEC instability: Greene’s coach, Bryan Harsin, is on the hottest seat in the league and arguably the hottest in the nation. Greene won a battle with the school’s infamously involved boosters for control of the coaching search that brought Harsin to The Loveliest Little Village on the Plains; can he maintain that power if the Tigers struggle this season? There could be more turnover than just in the coaching ranks at Auburn this year.
19. Trev Alberts, Nebraska athletic director. Opted to keep Scott Frost after a fourth straight losing season, which says everything about the wretched state of a once-proud program. The record will have to improve significantly for Alberts to keep Frost this time, and everyone knows it. That could make for a quick hook if the first month of the season goes poorly. Discontent is sufficiently prevalent in Lincoln that the fans even jumped on Alberts for his decision in May to discontinue the tradition of floating a sea of red balloons out of the stadium due to a helium shortage.
20. Urban Meyer, presumptive Fox Sports analyst. Nothing has been officially announced, but it has been reported that the three-time national championship coach at Florida and Ohio State will return to Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff” pregame show. Meyer is excellent on TV but brings some additional baggage with him on this comeback, after flopping badly in 2021 as an NFL coach and having a very bad night out in Columbus during that failed season. The Fox crew is going to be stressed to the limit to keep the insulting signs aimed at Urban off the air during “Big Noon Kickoff.”
21. Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN analyst. He remains the face of college football and re-upped with ESPN in the offseason, adding three more years to a deal that reportedly had two remaining. But Herbie also is taking on Thursday NFL analyst duties on Amazon, spreading the hardest-working broadcaster in football a little thinner. ESPN has other talented analysts—admittedly none with Herbstreit’s living-room appeal and recognition—but it might be wise to take a little off his plate and spread it around.
22. Chad Chatlos, TurnkeyZRG Executive Search. This firm has risen to the forefront in a competitive field, as evidenced by landing the contract to conduct the search for the next NCAA president. From coaches to administrators, Chatlos and TurnkeyZRG are heavily involved in all the below-radar work that goes into major hires in college sports.
23. Julie Cromer, Ohio University athletic director. She’s the co-chair of the NCAA transformation committee alongside Sankey, which means she has one of the biggest jobs in the history of college sports: trying to fix a broken bureaucracy. Marrying big-picture common sense with in-the-weeds bylaws and procedure is a daunting task. Doing it in your spare time while also running Ohio athletics seems overwhelming, but Cromer has drawn positive reviews for her transformation work thus far.
24. Peter Vaas, SEC assistant coordinator for football replay. Vaas takes over one of the most scrutinized and criticized roles in the sport, with millions of fans ready to pounce on any replay review they deem faulty. Vaas took the job at the SEC in April after a stint at the ACC. While with the ACC in January, Vaas was the replay official for the CFP championship game between Georgia and Alabama, which means he upheld the Stetson Bennett forward fumble that nearly turned the game into a Crimson Tide victory. Bulldogs fans, start your barking now.
25. Stephanie Herbst-Lucke, Georgia State University faculty member. So, you think changing conferences is going to fix everything that ails your athletic department and university as a whole? Herbst-Lucke has a PhD dissertation that challenges such magical thinking. Based on 82 interviews with college leaders and reams of data, Herbst-Lucke comes to conclusions that should make a school think twice about uprooting for another conference.
26. (Bonus) Sliced Bread. Agent of chaos. Jimbo Fisher’s favorite scoop meister. Check the message boards for his exclusive insight.
More College Football Coverage:
• The Other Side of the NIL Collective
• 40 Observations on the College Football Schedule
• The Direction of College Athletics Hangs in the Balance