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 likely will result in the five wealthiest football conferences, consisting of 65 schools, being allowed to make rules without the support of the other 286 schools that play Division I sports.
The Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences want the freedom to spend the billions they make from television deals and other revenue streams more freely on athletes. That includes 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 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 might 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 told The Associated Press last month. “It keeps us participating in championships. It keeps us all playing by the same set of rules.”
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,” wrote Kustra, whose school is in the Mountain West Conference.
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.
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 Mississippi. The Broncos have future games scheduled against Florida State and Washington, among other Big Five schools.
For the relatively near future, plenty of football games will be 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 likely will beat — and schools that don’t demand a game on its field 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,” MWC 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 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 U.S. 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 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.