SAN DIEGO -- Following a two-day discussion here among roughly 800 Division I administrators, it appears increasingly likely that the NCAA's five power conferences will eventually gain their wish for some form of separate legislative authority.
In an electronic straw poll of attendees Friday at the NCAA's Division I Governance Dialogue seminar, 58 percent supported granting autonomy to the Power 5 (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC). While largely symbolic, it demonstrated a shifting mindset over what once would have seemed an unfathomable concept. The majority of those voting represented either FCS or non-football schools.
"It's something people are getting increasingly comfortable with," NCAA President Mark Emmert said afterward. "I suspect a year ago you would have seen a different result."
The autonomy issue accounted for a small percentage of the conversation during the nearly seven-hour exercise. The delegates, meeting in an enormous convention center ballroom, primarily debated minute details of the NCAA's impending "redesign," like board of directors composition. But the "elephant in the room," as one university president referred to Power 5 autonomy, could eventually be the organization's most notable structural change.
While not as radical as establishing an entirely new division, as was briefly bandied about last summer, the Power 5 commissioners are seeking a means for their schools -- some of which have annual athletic budgets of more than $100 million -- to push through certain measures without needing approval from Division I's lower-revenue schools. Their primary cause is "student-athlete welfare" -- issues like the ability to provide cost-of-attendance scholarship stipends or pay for former athletes to return to school to finish their degrees.
"We have different resources, different goals," said SEC commissioner Mike Slive. "We need to be able to use those resources in the best interest of our institutions and our athletes."
"The challenge for us right now is we don't feel we can get through an intact piece of legislation that benefits our 65 programs," said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. "The fact is, what might be a great decision for us might be a marginal decision for FCS and an awful decision for the rest of Division I. Those are honest disagreements, but we have enough issues, and our issues are of high-enough profile that we need to be able to solve those problems."
Few details emerged as to how this so-called voting federation would work, but presumably schools from outside those conferences would be free to adopt the same policies. The Mountain West and American Athletic Conference have already said they would likely provide athlete stipends if allowed. However, many Division I schools admittedly could not afford such provisions, thus contradicting the NCAA's age-old "level playing field" mission.
Some delegates from non-power conferences indicated they'd be fine with that divide as long as the Power 5 schools can't alter fundamental competition standards like scholarship limits per sport.
Other administrators from the non-power conferences took to the microphone Friday to express their reservations about autonomy. However, there's a collective sense they may have no choice. Alienating the Power 5 and causing some larger split could jeopardize the all-important NCAA basketball tournament.
"Taking about 120 schools and breaking off would be a much easier alternative," one power-conference official said Friday. "Even creating another [subdivision] would be an easier alternative."
However, those more radical options now appear unlikely, as the commissioners' strong preference remains to "keep everyone under the big tent," said Slive.
"We have a complete understanding that the Division I brand is important, that access to the basketball tournament is very important and access to all the [NCAA] championships important to everybody," said Bowlsby. "And there hasn't been any assertion that any of that should change."
No formal votes were taken at this week's event, which was nevertheless deemed "an important step" in the NCAA's restructuring process. A steering committee of seven university presidents spearheading the project will meet again next month.
"By April, we hope to have the next model to be shared with the membership," said Board of Directors chairman Nathan Hatch, Wake Forest's president. "Hopefully we have it wrapped up by this summer."