The word is autonomy and its introduction into big-time college sports is a game-changer, even if it doesn’t immediately change the games.
The NCAA is in the midst of a radical restructuring that will likely result in the five wealthiest football conferences, comprising 65 schools, being allowed to make rules without the support of the other 286 schools that play Division I sports.
The Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference want the freedom to spend the billions they make from television deals and other revenue streams more freely on athletes, including increasing the value of a scholarship to include costs beyond tuition and room and board.
The other 63 schools that will play in college football’s top tier next season hope to be able to provide many of the same new benefits, even though they don’t have the same vast resources to pay for them.
Autonomy for those powerful conferences could widen an already large gap between them and the less powerful conferences when it comes to acquiring talent and revenue. It may not immediately transform the competition, however.
“If autonomy is successful, there is no question that it is a de facto Division IV, but it stays within Division I,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said last month. “It keeps us participating in championships. It keeps us all playing by the same set of rules.”
Mostly what the Big Five is hoping to accomplish with autonomy is to save college sports as we know it and they want it. At a time when the NCAA’s model for amateurism is under attack in courts both legal and of public opinion, the leaders of those conferences believe autonomy can bring the reforms necessary to alleviate some of the pressure.
“I think the American culture has adopted the collegiate model as a fundamental part,” Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive said. “People want that model to continue. But we all want change.”
Not everyone wants the kind of change Slive is pushing.
Boise State President Bob Kustra put out a scathing criticism of the move toward autonomy for the Big Five.
“The NCAA cannot fall prey to phony arguments about student welfare when the real goal of some of these so-called reformers is to create a plutocracy that serves no useful purpose in American higher education,” Kustra wrote.
Boise State, which plays in the Mountain West, carried the banner for college football underdogs for years, winning 91 percent of its games from 2006-12.
Kustra’s concern, and he’s not alone, is if schools in the Big Five can spend more on athletes, the other schools won’t have a chance to lure the blue-chippers.
That assumes they do now. They don’t in football.
Only one of the top-100 recruits in 2014, according to Rivals.com’s rankings, signed with a school outside the Big Five. In 2013, it was zero.
David Ridpath, associate professor of sports management at Ohio University, said Boise State’s success was an anomaly, and restructuring is simply an acknowledgment of the reality of big-time college football.
“The Boise State athletic department does not look like Alabama’s,” Ridpath said. “Boise State is never going to be Ohio State.”
Boise State’s $37 million athletic budget is dwarfed by most schools in the Big Five. Alabama’s is $109 million. Ohio State’s is about $130 million.
Boise State opens next season against Alabama’s SEC rival, Ole Miss. The Broncos have future games scheduled against Florida State and Washington, among other Big Five schools.
For the relatively near future, there will be plenty of football games played between the Big Five conferences and the so-called Group of Five. Those schools in the power conferences still need to fill out a 12-game schedule and aren’t in a rush to give up playing home games against teams they will likely beat — and schools that don’t demand a game on their fields in return.
Geography alone should keep the Pac-12 scheduling Mountain West teams, the SEC dipping into the Sun Belt, and the Big Ten matching up against the Mid-American Conference.
“My world in the West, we recruit against the Pac-12 for decades,” Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said. “Have we beaten them in recruiting a lot of those kids? Probably not. But we still play them. We win some games.
“I’m not fearful that we’re going to be squeezed out there.”
What could change is that opportunities for schools such as Boise State and Northern Illinois of the MAC to pull off David-slays-Goliath-type upsets will start to dwindle.
The College Football Playoff selection committee has been mandated to emphasize strength of schedule. In response, the Big Five schools are increasing the number of games they play against each other, both in and out of conference.
The College Football Playoff structure guarantees a spot in one of the marquee bowl games for at least one team from the Group of Five. And there is nothing that says a team from one of those leagues couldn’t play in a national semifinal — but the odds are stacked against it.
Despite threats to make a more dramatic breakaway from the rest of the NCAA if autonomy does not pass, the Big Five commissioners have said they want Division I athletics to remain a big tent, where even the schools that don’t play football can compete for championships in other sports.
Cinderella stories have helped turn the men’s basketball tournament into one of the biggest events in American sports. This week in the college baseball tournament, Kennesaw State and College of Charleston advanced to the super regionals.
South Carolina President Harris Pastides, who is on the steering committee that put together the autonomy proposal, and is on the board of directors who will vote on it in January, doesn’t want to see a breakaway happen.
“If you move completely into a different tent, with a different lock and key and different furnishings, I think that’s going to be the beginning of something that may be too difficult to ever get back,” he said.