College Sports

August 5, 2014

NCAA autonomy on horizon for college athletics’ power programs

Thursday’s historic vote expected to allow more leeway for teams in Big 12, SEC, other leagues

After years of discussion, the NCAA governance structure soon is expected to permit more autonomy for athletic programs from the five highest-profile conferences in Division I.

A vote is scheduled Thursday. The date cannot come soon enough for SEC Commissioner Mike Slive, who leaned on the words of former President Dwight Eisenhower to hail impending tweaks he has advocated for three years.

“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him,” Slive said, quoting the former president. “With Eisenhower’s admonition in mind, we have created the initiative to restructure the NCAA in accordance with our vision for the 21st century with the support of student-athletes at its core. It is critical for the NCAA to change, and to change in accordance with the vision proposed … by the five conferences.”

Officials at the Big 12, who joined representatives from the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC in leading the charge for NCAA change, will host a Wednesday forum in New York to discuss the state of college athletics. Moderated by Jimmy Roberts of NBC Sports, panelists will include Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Baylor University chief executive officer Ken Starr and Texas men’s athletic director Steve Patterson, among others.

If the new governance structure passes, as expected, each of the 65 schools from the power conferences will have one voting representative on autonomous issues. Legislation pertaining only to those schools can be passed with 60 percent approval, accompanied by a majority vote in three of the five leagues, or by a simple majority vote it there is support from four of the five conferences.

Each of the five conferences will have three voting athletes in the mix, boosting the total to 80 votes on issues pertaining to the highest-profile leagues and assuring that athletes will have 18.8 percent of the votes to drive policy changes on issues impacting their lives.

At stake is a way to permit the 65 schools that compete in the highest-profile leagues and have the largest athletic budgets to make more financial decisions and create policies independently from other schools operating under the NCAA umbrella. One issue on the table includes scholarships that would cover the full cost of attendance (with monthly stipends), as deemed on a campus-by-campus basis.

“Left to our own devices, the five high-visibility conferences would have that already,” Bowlsby said. “But we can’t get it through the system. Now, we’re 65 votes out of 350. We have been patently unsuccessful in moving forward. But I think we have the rudiments of a resolution of the matter … that will be a very good outcome.”

The bottom line shows a rising cost factor for schools that seek the best opportunity to compete for national championships in the College Football Playoff era and remain major players in NCAA basketball, baseball and softball tournaments. The question is where to draw the line.

In April, the NCAA legislative council approved a measure allowing unlimited snacks for student-athletes (including walk-ons) in conjunction with their athletic participation. The provision, effective this fall, is in addition to meal plans or food stipends already awarded as part of a full scholarship. But there is a wide variety of opinion, even among Big 12 schools, about how best to fund and establish that policy.

Kansas State athletic director John Currie estimated it would cost his department $750,000 to comply, with plans to provide snacks at a designated on-campus facility. Oklahoma athletic director Joe Castiglione raised the possibility of providing vouchers for athletes that would permit them to eat at food trucks near the campus. He estimated OU might spend between $1.25 million and $1.5 million on snacks. Texas’ Patterson estimated his school could spend up to $2 million on snacks for athletes.

The snack quandary will impact all NCAA schools, not just those competing in the five highest-profile conferences. But the wide anticipated cost disparity between three schools from the same league suggests there will be major variance in the way things are approached from school-to-school in the NCAA’s new era of autonomy.

For schools that operate outside the five highest-profile leagues, the cost of continuing to field football programs capable of competing for national titles has raised significant questions. Boise State President Bob Kustra, among others, has vowed to fight NCAA efforts that increase the cost of an athletic scholarship. But he acknowledged his school cannot refuse to provide player stipends that help cover the actual cost of attendance — a move championed by officials from the five largest leagues — if other schools provide them.

Boise State, a member of the Mountain West Conference, has cracked the top 10 in the Associated Press’ final football rankings four times in the past eight seasons (2006, 2009, 2010, 2011), with two undefeated records in that stretch: 14-0 in 2009, when the Broncos finished fourth in the final poll, and 13-0 in 2006, when BSU was fifth in the final poll.

In each of those undefeated seasons, Boise State capped the year by winning a BCS bowl game against a current Big 12 member. Both victories came at the Fiesta Bowl: 43-42 over Oklahoma (2006 season) and 17-10 over TCU (2009 season).

In a letter to USA Today, Kustra wrote that proposed NCAA changes were created “to perpetuate the dominance of a few” schools that are “never satisfied with their bloated athletic budgets.”

“It is beyond me why university presidents are so quick to fall in line with powerful conference commissioners who seem to be calling the shots with these NCAA reforms,” Kustra wrote. “But I have no doubt why the power conferences are working to separate themselves from Division I universities who still see the value of equity and fairness in athletic funding. Lately, those pesky mid-major programs such as Boise State and many others have showed up the big boys for what they are — wasteful models of athletic spending that cannot be justified.”

Kustra pointed out that, during the 2006 football season, Boise State defeated Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl during a time when “our entire football budget was less than the salary alone of the Oklahoma football coach.”

Even some inside the five conferences pushing for change acknowledge there is reason for concern about the rising cost to compete in college athletics. TCU football coach Gary Patterson, whose school is heading into its third year of Big 12 membership, admits higher-than-ever coaching salaries — Alabama’s Nick Saban now leads the nation at $6.5 million per year — is part of the problem.

“I’ve been on both sides of the street,” Patterson said. “Everybody talks about the money of college football, but you’ve got a lot of schools that are not in the black (financially). They’re in the red. And a lot of coaches … if you take less, it would mean the betterment of the game. I’ve been saying it for four or five years. I think we all have to be careful about what we wish for, and that means even in this playoff system and all the different autonomy that we want to have. I’ve always said abuse leads to restriction.”

At this juncture, the drivers of change from the five highest-profile conferences do not view the rising number of 100,000-seat football stadiums and state-of-the-art weight rooms on college campuses as excessive. Instead, they are merely part of the cost of doing business in today’s climate.

Asked about the ongoing arms race to improve facilities in college athletics, Bowlsby said: “The only thing worse than being in an arms race is not being in one.”

In a nutshell, that is the premise behind the move toward greater autonomy for schools in the Big 12, SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and ACC. A multi-year march toward greater operating freedom for those schools within the NCAA’s Division I framework appears imminent.

If such autonomy is not endorsed, Slive already is pondering a Plan B.

“If we do not achieve a positive outcome under the existing big tent of Division I, we will need to consider the establishment of a venue with similar conferences and institutions where we can enact the desired changes,” Slive said.

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