Jordan Lynch and NIU busted the BCS last year; could NCAA reform limit those chances? (Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
By Martin Rickman
DETROIT -- It's impossible to get through more than a few minutes of a conference commissioner's press conference in 2013 before the phrases "stipends," "college football playoff" or "governing body" are uttered.
Depending on which commissioner is uttering those phrases, however, the context can vary substantially. The Mid-American Conference -- like the Sun Belt, Conference USA and the newly–revamped American Athletic Conference -- anxiously awaits how the playoff system and NCAA leadership will alter the college football landscape as a whole.
"The system is broken and it's broken because we don't have a place to come together and effectively talk about the issues affecting us," MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said Tuesday at his conference's media day in Detroit.
"The best example of this is the issue of the miscellaneous expense allowance," Steinbrecher later added, "whether it's a stipend, a need-based component to financial aid, whatever it is. There's clearly interest in doing something, particularly at the highest levels. I think it's been a little unfairly appointed that the low resource conferences or schools voted that down. The fact of the matter is there were too many proposals. We need to come together and work through that. That’s a tough issue."
The power conferences seemingly came together with a focused message, culminating in Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby's comments at his league's media days on Monday. Bowlsby stressed the need for reform in the NCAA, emphasizing a restructuring of the enforcement process. He even hinted at the formation of a super division, which could draw a line in the sand between the big five and the smaller conferences.
Bowlsby's comments reverberated throughout the sport, including in the MAC.
"There is great diversity from the top of Division I to the bottom of Division I," Steinbrecher said Tuesday. "I'd also argue there's great diversity in the higher revenue conferences as well. That's part of what we do, and it's our job to manage that. I'd suggest there are differences in how much revenue they're generating, but we're able to go out there and compete. The question is, can we come to agreement on a set of rules that allows us to coexist amicably, and I believe we can."
The MAC has certainly been able to compete recently, and 2012 was no exception. Last year the league produced seven bowl teams, including a BCS participant; four ranked teams; six teams with eight or more wins; and the number one selection in the 2013 NFL Draft. But if the high-revenue leagues take their ball and go home, the mere opportunity to compete will prove more difficult for the MAC and its peers.
More MAC media day notes
• The next Nick Saban: Looking for the next great college football head coach? Akron's Terry Bowden thinks he's already out there -- and he's from the MAC.
"Frank Solich has been here 10 years, and he's made his mark, but you see all these young guys," Bowden said. "You start asking, 'which one's going to be the Urban Meyer? Which one's going to be the next Nick Saban?' There are young guns here who are dynamic, smart, sharp, they're risk-takers. They do exciting things offensively and defensively, and they're anxious to be in the big arena. The coaching is astounding."
So, who is the next Saban or Meyer?
"How do we know?" Bowden said. "Who can say? It may have been someone from last year, (Darrell) Hazell or (Dave) Doeren. We had a couple guys leave then. Or it's someone here now. If history repeats itself -- and it does and it will -- it'll be guys in this conference. I wouldn't tell you if I knew because I don't want to make the others mad, but I certainly have an idea."
Buffalo didn't draw much of a crowd at MAC media day. (Martin Rickman)
• Somebody cares about Buffalo: Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack finds himself on the Bednarik Award, Butkus Award and Bronko Nagurski Award watch lists, so it's clear somebody is paying attention to him. But the Buffalo table wasn't nearly as crowded as Central Michigan's, Toledo's, Northern Illinois' or Kent State's on Tuesday, and Mack noticed.
"I guess nobody cares about Buffalo," Mack said. "But we don't take that personally. Not at all, we don't want the attention. We just want to go out there and play our game. We'll get the attention when we deserve it."
The senior, a projected second-round NFL draft pick, knows the extra attention would mean more double teams and fewer personal opportunities for big plays. That would be OK with him.
"I don't mind having a target on my back and getting doubled; it just means our defense is going to make plays," Mack said. "We're growing up. It's crazy, watching these guys get better and get more mature. We're going to be wild. We're going to be a fun defense."
• Fraternity within a fraternity: If there are initiation rituals in the MAC, at least first year head coaches Paul Haynes and P.J. Fleck know they'll have someone with whom to talk. The two both served on Jim Tressel's staff at Ohio State, and now they'll be coaching against each other on Sept. 28.
"Coach Haynes is one of the classiest guys in all of college football," Fleck said. "We developed a trust at Ohio State, and I knew he trusted me as we went through our few months together. He's easy to talk to, and he remembers where he came from. We learned under the same guy, and we have a lot of the same values, so we talk about that. I'm really happy he got the job at Kent State."
Fleck, coming off a brief stint as wide receivers coach with the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was hired by Western Michigan on Dec. 12, 2012. At just 32, he's the youngest coach in the FBS. Toledo's Matt Campbell is the second youngest.
"This is a fraternity within a fraternity," Haynes said. "P.J. and I being new, we sit there and share ideas and thoughts. Although we battle, I think we want this conference to be great, so we kick ideas around and make each other better."
Coach Fleck wants you to Row the Boat, Western Michigan fans. (Martin Rickman)
•Do you know the way to Kalamazoo? With the way Fleck talks, and the mantras he's instilling at Western Michigan, you find yourself nodding your head in unison, not even realizing you're doing it. So when he talks about transforming Western Michigan, you start to believe it.
"I feel like this program has so much to offer our community," Fleck said. "It's a hidden gem. It's a ticking time-bomb. You have a rural area; you have the urban area. You have a true college town. You have some of the best restaurants in the state of Michigan. You have a community around you. All these things to offer. It just needs to be dusted off a little bit and shined up, and that’s what I’m doing."
• "80 guys:" With Ohio's Beau Blankenship, Central Michigan's Titus Davis and Zurlon Tipton, Toledo's David Fluellen and Bernard Reedy, Buffalo's Branden Oliver, Northern Illinois' Tommylee Lewis and dual-threat quarterbacks like NIU's Jordan Lynch and OU's Tyler Tettleton, there are no shortage of versatile playmakers in the MAC.
"I call them '80 guys,'" Haynes said. "Guys who can sit there and catch a hitch, return a kick, take a run, and go 80. This conference is filled with them. It makes a quarterback better. It makes a young offensive line better. It makes a team better. We're lucky to have two of them in Dri Archer and Trayion Durham."
• "The Hard Way:" The Northern Illinois motto might have started under Joe Novak, but it has stuck around, and it's starting to embody the MAC as a whole.
"We've got a chip on our shoulders," NIU defensive back Jimmie Ward said. "We're not big schools. You can say it for every school from top to bottom. We don't have indoor practice facilities. We have to practice in the snow. We have to do it the hard way."
• Prediction Time: Kent State running back Dri Archer played high school football with Florida's Trey Burton. The two have maintained their friendship and still talk about everything from navigating college to Xs and Os. So, Archer might be biased when he talks about who will come out of the SEC East this season.