What's next in college sports? Talk of seismic change in the air

Thursday July 25th, 2013

SEC commissioner Mike Slive hinted at major change in the NCAA last week by quoting Albert Einstein: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
AL.COM /Landov

After the upheaval of realignment, a frenzy of multimillion dollar television contracts and the agreement on a four-team football playoff starting in 2014, things finally appeared to be settling down in college sports.

Hope you enjoyed the past three months.

The talk of seismic change returned this week. Multiple conference commissioners hinted at media days that major changes in the way the NCAA is run are inevitable, including a new division made up of the schools which produce the most revenue.

Pointed comments by SEC commissioner Mike Slive last week toward the NCAA -- "there are important questions that must be answered" -- began the drumbeat. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and ACC commissioner John Swofford spoke openly about "transformative change" and "some kind of reconfiguration of how we govern."

STAPLES: Bowlsby comments could spark meaningful change

This week SI.com spoke with numerous high-level college sports officials, and there was a clear feeling among them that there would be many changes at the highest levels of college sports within the next year. The so-called Big 5 conferences -- Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and ACC -- have been commiserating for months and there's a consensus that significant change is needed.

"I think there's such momentum at this point," said one prominent college official. "This wasn't an accident that you're getting this series of media day comments. The train is moving."

All five conference commissioners agree that the situation in untenable, that it's only getting worse and that there is a lack of NCAA leadership. What they haven't figured out yet is a solution. In January, an internal audit of the inner workings of the NCAA will be completed and officials don't expect the results to be pretty.

One thing is clear: College sports will likely look drastically different by the start of the 2014-15 school year, and there's a question of whether NCAA president Mark Emmert will be around for it.

Specific plans and proposals are several months away from being discussed. Conference commissioners are sensitive to taking attention away from the college football season the way that realignment did and will likely wait to have any substantive discussions until January's NCAA Convention in San Diego. But make no mistake: change is in the air.

Here's a look at the major issues:

What will happen?

At this point, it's easier to predict what won't happen. There is zero momentum to break from the NCAA and start a whole new organization. Whatever changes will be made will likely be under the NCAA's umbrella.

There's also little chance for significant change to the NCAA tournament. The one thing the NCAA does well is run championships, and unwinding the $10.8 billion CBS-Turner deal would be thorny.

The most likely change will be in the NCAA governance structure, and while that isn't particularly sexy, it's still significant.

How will things look?

This is impossible to answer right now. The Big 5 will likely form a new tier -- perhaps Division IV or a "super division" -- that creates an elite division of athletics still under the auspices of the NCAA. Think of a scenario where a total of 12-15 conferences -- about 150 schools -- end up in this new subset of Division I.

The key difference will be in governance structure and greater rule flexibility. The Big 5 want change so their ability to pass legislation, especially to provide more for their student athletes, isn't impeded by schools on radically different financial planes.

Think of a governance structure filled more with athletic directors and faculty instead of the current presidential-led Executive Committee. And the schools may end up with a structure similar in fashion to the United Nations, where the "security council," namely the Big 5, have final veto power after hearing from all parties.

A hypothetical: The Big 5 want a rule that they can provide training tables for all their athletes year round. The Atlantic 10, which is under the same umbrella, says that it can't afford that. The rule still passes and the A-10 simply doesn't have to implement it.

Who is in and who is out?

This will be the big question, much like in realignment. But think of this potential change as similar to realignment in that for all the drastic scenarios floated, in the end it wasn't nearly as earth shaking as many had predicted.

Along with the Big 5, a majority of the other major football-playing leagues would likely go with them -- Mountain West, American Athletic, Conference USA, Sun Belt and MAC. The top basketball leagues like the Big East, Atlantic-10 and perhaps the WCC would go as well. The Ivy League and Patriot League will be talked about, too.

This doesn't mean that the America Easts, Big Souths and Big Wests of the world will be all that different. They'll still have access to the NCAA tournament. Most would agree the NCAA tournament is a better event with Valparaiso, Long Beach State and Florida Gulf Coast.

So if a league is "out," it is really just subjected to a different rules structure. The championship structure will be the same and they'll play the same teams. This means that the average fan watching Big Monday or filling out a bracket won't see much difference.

Think of it as bloodless coup. The Big 5 want better leadership, less paralysis and a more smoothly running NCAA. And they are, essentially, going to attempt to provide it themselves. They have the money and leverage. They'll fill the new governance structure -- and no one has drilled down too far on the specifics of that. And the less influential leagues will fall in line, even if they do so reluctantly, because they really have no choice.

What will happen to Mark Emmert?

However obvious the public disapproval of Emmert is from college leaders, there's even less faith in him privately. The prevailing thought is that the NCAA isn't healthy and is not in a better position than when Emmert took over. Some have the feeling that significant conversation about new governance won't happen until he's removed. Others are pessimistic that the presidents ultimately in charge of Emmert's fate are willing to make such a drastic move.

Emmert's refusals to admit he'd do anything differently in a recent ESPN article about his leadership was his latest public relations blunder. It led to both chuckles of amusement and groans of frustration from leaders around college sports.

Emmert does have allies, especially in the Pac-12, where Oregon State president Ed Ray is one of his closest confidants. Emmert also worked with many of the Pac-12 presidents in his last job as the president of Washington.

There's a notion that if Emmert survives the next three months or so, he could embrace the inevitable change, attach himself to it and potentially overhaul his current image of being inept and ineffective. But there's a lot of skepticism, as he's buried himself too deep and failed to show leadership on seemingly obvious issues the NCAA could legitimately impact, such as concussions.

Emmert was hired as a change agent, and it's ironic that as the NCAA sits on the precipice of major change it could be done despite him or without him and not because of him.

What prompted this?

This is not about the divisive $2,000 stipend that's become a convenient anecdote to tie to the unhappiness and unrest (some of the Big 5 leagues are not in favor of the stipend). This is much bigger than that.

This is about acknowledging the different operating models in Division I instead of trying to legislate them. The ideal of there being an even playing field in college sports was antiquated long before the Longhorn Network, conference expansion and multi-billion dollar television deals. The reality being embraced by the Big 5 is that there never really has been an even playing field, so why pretend.

How did it escalate to this point?

There have been conversations behind the scenes for months, but the buzz coalesced at a series of meetings in June in Colorado Springs. Emmert spent a morning with the 31 commissioners at the Collegiate Commissioner Association meetings, and a general sense of dissatisfaction filled the room. The Big 5 met separately in Colorado Springs, and momentum began to build.

The biggest sign that change was inevitable (maybe even imminent) was when Slive made blunt comments at SEC Media Days last week, including quoting Albert Einstein: "We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

Slive's firing of the first shot resonated among leaders around college sports.

"It was very significant that Slive got out front," said a college official. "Mike rarely does that. He's too good a politician. Of all of the comments, that may have been the most considered and intentional."

Slive is the most calculating man in college sports. He's made consistent public comments about his displeasure with the NCAA for a few months. He's linked many of his comments to the "welfare of student athletes," a sly tactic that makes this look altruistic.

Slive drove the train out of the station, and conference officials are spending countless hours analyzing what's next. Where the train ends up, no one is sure.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.