Gil LeBreton

August 9, 2014

NCAA power conferences couldn’t be stopped

TCU is fortunate to have gotten on the Big 12 caboose.

The train was coming.

The diehards in the NCAA’s Division I could have prostrated themselves on the railroad tracks in defiance, I suppose, but the outcome only would have been worse.

The train was coming.

Once the five so-called power conferences of the NCAA began to openly campaign for their autonomy, there was no stopping them, as Thursday’s vote showed.

The Division I board of directors voted 16-2 to allow the 65 schools of the Power Five conferences, plus Notre Dame, to begin drafting many of their own rules.

Formal approval still has to come from a vote of all 351 Division I colleges and universities, but as they said in a Star Trek movie, resistance is futile. If the Southeastern, Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast conferences aren’t allowed to write their own rules, they likely would simply separate and start their own association, with their own TV deals and big-bucks tournaments.

The train was coming.

And frankly, I was too naïve to gauge the mighty momentum of it three years ago, when I wondered in print if TCU was doing the right thing. The Horned Frogs were about to abandon their plans to join the football-friendly Big East, and I conjectured whether it was worth giving up those 10 or 11 annual gridiron victories, just for a few easy road trips to Lubbock and Waco.

The Frogs, lucky for them, grabbed ahold of the Big 12 caboose, and there’s no need for them to look back, except to occasionally polish the Rose Bowl trophy.

They’re in with the big boys — with Texas, with the Big Ten schools and with Notre Dame. It’s full speed ahead.

Based upon reports, that means that student-athletes in the Power Five will soon be receiving cost-of-attendance stipends — i.e., spending money. Scholarships will cover all four years. Coaching staff sizes may increase. Recruiting rules may get modernized. Common sense may be added to the NCAA governing equation.

But unionized players? Weekly athlete paychecks? Free Escalades for the quarterbacks? That’s not what the autonomy vote was all about.

As Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, the new Power Five rules will reflect a “new covenant, reflective of 21st century realities.”

And in so doing, maybe the NCAA, as a whole, will be able to withstand the max-blitz of legal assaults it could be facing — union certifications, increased congressional scrutiny and a continuing wave of player lawsuits. The O’Bannon case is just the beginning.

I have no idea how much full-cost-of-attendance payments to athletes would add to, say, TCU’s and Baylor’s budgets. Estimates have ranged from $2,000 to $5,000 per athlete. (Schools know the figure because it calculates into how much aid each regular student can receive.)

For the non-Power Five leagues, the divide will only become larger.

Texas athletic director Steve Patterson made that point starkly last week, when he said, “We’re the ones making the money and carrying the liability ... The others don’t make any money. Nobody wants to watch them on TV.”

But not every university in the Power Five has its own TV network, and not all are able to fill a 100,000-seat football stadium each week. The Power Five’s new rules are going to come with a price tag.

That money is going to have to come from somewhere. Rutgers, which jumped from the Big East to the Big Ten just in time, eliminated eight sports in the 2006-07 school year. Maryland cut seven sports, including swimming, tennis and indoor track, just three years ago.

Bowlsby, a former college wrestler, knows the intrinsic value of the NCAA’s nonrevenue sports as well as anyone. But he’s also wondered aloud lately whether it’s the colleges’ mission to support the “Olympic movement.”

If I were an NCAA swimming, tennis or rowing coach, I’d be listening for the next train.

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