Assessing the current state of the NCAA; more mail

Publish date:

While conference realignment talk has finally died a long-awaited (at least by me) death thanks to the ACC's Grant of Rights, there's been increasing chatter lately about a potentially much broader change to the college athletics landscape. And I don't believe I've addressed it yet, so ...

Stewart, some recent articles have suggested a split from the NCAA could be closer than ever for the major conferences. A variety of reasons are typically provided, from arbitrary rulings and uneven punishments to massive TV contracts and a basic shift of power. Do you think a split would ever happen? And if so, what exactly would it look like?-- Thomas Moore, Raleigh

The NCAA has long been a punching bag for fans and media, a result of its unwieldy rulebook, its often nonsensical athlete eligibility decisions and its unfavorable sanctions to someone's favorite school. This past year, however, is the first time since I started covering college sports that I'm hearing steadfast criticism and discontent from people inside college athletics. NCAA president Mark Emmert has been incredibly polarizing. His despotic handling of the Penn State case disillusioned a lot of people. His various presidential working groups have become divisive. And the Miami enforcement scandal that prompted VP Julie Roe Lach's scapegoat firing has been devastating to morale, particularly with a new employee departing seemingly every week. Few will say it publicly, but the general feeling is the NCAA is in a bad place right now.

Even amid that backdrop, though, talk of the major conferences breaking away from the NCAA is still premature and fantastical. It's not something the commissioners are actively exploring or even desire, mostly because of the complexity involved with forming some new entity from scratch. While fans primarily think of the NCAA as a regulatory body, it also stages 88 national tournaments, including an incredibly popular basketball event. And while many mock its academic component, if the conferences ever hope to convince their school presidents to create something new, academics suddenly become very important. All told, the conferences would rather let the NCAA continue to take the blame when something goes wrong rather than risk mishandling certain situations on their own.

A more realistic scenario -- and one that Ohio State AD Gene Smith and others have hinted at -- is forming a new subdivision within the NCAA structure that allows the "haves" to set their own agenda separate from the "have-nots." Specifically, the fact that the much-discussed $2,000 cost-of-attendance stipend for scholarships still has yet to become reality nearly two years after the initial proposal is incredibly frustrating to the power-conference schools that can easily afford it. "There are probably 60-70 schools that are different than everybody else," Smith told the Columbus Dispatch. "We need to think about a different division for them, within the NCAA structure, not outside of it, a division that allows those schools to have its own legislation." Essentially, he's proposing that the FBS should split into two divisions, though presumably schools from one could still play schools from the other (just as FBS teams do now against FCS schools). How the new playoff would fit with that system is unclear, though, since the playoff is run by the conferences, not the NCAA.

Now, the one issue that could theoretically change my answer completely is the Ed O'Bannon v. the NCAA case. Granted, it's still a long way from resolution, but if one day in the future a judge rules that athletes are entitled to hundreds of millions in unpaid royalties from use of their likenesses in video games or on jerseys -- or, as the plaintiffs are now arguing, a cut of TV revenue as well -- the NCAA as we know it may go up in smoke. While the power-conference schools would survive (they'd simply redirect the hundreds of millions they currently spend on facilities upgrades and some coaching salaries), the governing body may very well fall apart. Would the NCAA evolve and redefine its core definition of amateurism? Or would that model no longer be viable in a now-professionalized world? That's a more likely impetus for a breakaway/dissolution than any issues currently vexing the power conferences.

Is Oklahoma State coachMike Gundy the biggest weasel in college football?-- Steve Wolfe, Seattle

I once called Gundy a clown in this same column many years ago, and while I've long since changed my opinion of his coaching abilities, his handling of quarterback Wes Lunt's transfer is quite clownish -- and downright mean. While Gundy is hardly the first coach to put restrictions on a transfer's release, I've never heard of limitations quite as wide in scope as Gundy's multi-conference ban. Mind you, we rarely hear the full behind-the-scenes story in these situations because of privacy issues. And Gundy has declined to comment on his reasons for restricting Lunt. But seeing as it's highly unlikely the entire Pac-12 and SEC tampered with Lunt's transfer, it's hard to imagine that the player did anything to remotely merit such a nakedly vindictive and/or cowardly decision.

I don't fall in the camp of those who believe there should be no restrictions on transfers, and I certainly understand coaches' reluctance to permit players to transfer to programs within the same conference. But Gundy is blocking Lunt from the entire SEC on the freak chance that Oklahoma State winds up playing Tennessee in the 2015 Russell Athletic Bowl. I get that Gundy feels burned after believing in Lunt and allowing him to start as a true freshman. I visited Stillwater during Lunt's first spring there, and I could tell that Gundy and then-offensive coordinator Todd Monken felt he was going to be special. But Lunt's departure is barely going to leave a scratch on Gundy's program. There will surely be another Lunt in the pipeline next year. On the other hand, Lunt has only one chance left to pick the school he feels is best for his career and life development. Gundy -- who, it should be noted, nearly left for Tennessee last winter with no one to block him -- can stay as ticked off as he wants, but he's a man. He's 45. He should know better than to mess with a kid's life.

I know the world is only interested in SEC football, but count me as one of the few who prefers the West Coast life and brand of college football. I'm sure you'll discuss Oregon and Stanford at length sometime during the summer. My question is about my Bruins. Lo and behold, UCLA has been the silver medalist in the first two Pac-12 title games. Barring injury, it should be the favorite to win the South again. Is this the year the Bruins get over the hump?-- Daniel, Los Angeles

Thank you for the change of pace, it's been a little SEC-centric here lately. As of now, it's pretty hard to envision anyone besides Oregon or Stanford winning the Pac-12. They've both won 11-plus games for three straight years, and both bring the overwhelming majority of their key players back to campus. Of course, I never would have predicted before last season that the Cardinal would win the conference and that USC would go 7-6, and Chip Kelly's departure is clearly a huge concern for Oregon. So I'm not going to dismiss UCLA as a possibility, either.

The Bruins had a nice nine-win season in their first year under Jim L. Mora, and it doesn't bother me that they ended it on a three-game losing streak; two of those losses came to Stanford and the other came in a second-tier bowl game. Quarterback Brett Hundley is cause for excitement, as is the return of star linebacker Anthony Barr. While 1,734-yard rusher Johnathan Franklin's exit is no small deal, UCLA's offensive line was extremely young in 2012. It wouldn't surprise me if this year's offense is even better.

However, the defense -- which was hardly a strong suit last season -- has suffered quite a bit of attrition. The good news is defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa's hip injury, initially feared to be season-ending, may not cost him game action, after all. I'd put UCLA and Arizona State on roughly equal footing as South favorites, so I'd worry about getting to the title game before targeting Oregon/Stanford.

Is Steve Spurrier still a great coach? He won the first of many SEC titles in only his second year at Florida and turned the Gators into the perennial contenders they have been since. He hasn't been able to replicate that success at South Carolina.-- David Wicks, Huntsville, Ala.

Did you send this email in 2009 and I only received it just now? In the past three seasons, Spurrier has led the Gamecocks to their first SEC title game appearance, followed by their first 11-win season, followed by another 11-win season. He's doing OK.

Stewart, I've always correlated success in football with quality offensive and defensive lines. Which teams are possibly overrated (Texas A&M and Alabama lost great offensive linemen; Florida State lost defensive linemen) or underrated given major losses or key returnees in the trenches?-- Bret, Tallahassee, Fla.

A team's number of returning starters still seems to be one of the biggest factors that determines annual preseason rankings, even though sometimes a five-star sophomore stud taking over for an unheralded fifth-year senior can signify an improvement in talent. Which team that may not have as many returning starters as other highly ranked teams could be poised for unexpected success because of capable replacements?-- Mark, Richmond, Va.

Overlooking losses on the offensive line is a classic preseason folly, and thus, if Alabama were any program but Alabama, I'd have major questions about its prospects following the departures of an Outland Trophy winner (Barrett Jones) and two first-round NFL draft picks (D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack). But since it's 'Bama, I'm assuming Nick Saban will have little trouble reloading. Still, if AJ McCarron suddenly takes a Matt Barkley-esque tumble in 2013, be sure to keep this nugget in mind.

I'm worried even less about Texas A&M, despite Luke Joeckel leaving for the pros a year early. The Aggies are simply moving another future first-rounder, Jake Matthews, into his old spot at left tackle. However, one team that might have cause for concern is Notre Dame, which lost two important veterans in guard Mike Golic Jr. and center Braxston Cave. Meanwhile, Ohio State falls in the opposite camp; the biggest reason I'm bullish on the Buckeyes is not Braxton Miller, but the four returning starters who will block for him.

In regard to returning starters, I've long felt the unofficial demarcation for referring to a team as "inexperienced" -- sometimes mistakenly -- is when 12 or fewer overall starters come back. Florida State falls in that category this year. Officially, the Seminoles return just 10 starters (six offense, four defense). However, that number doesn't include senior linebacker Telvin Smith, FSU's third-leading tackler last year (64 tackles); junior defensive lineman Timmy Jernigan, who had 46 tackles and eight tackles for loss; sophomore defensive end Mario Edwards, who started the ACC championship game and Orange Bowl following Tank Carradine's injury; and proven running backs Devonta Freeman (1,239 career yards) and James Wilder Jr. (635 yards last year). The 'Noles certainly have questions, most notably on their defensive front, but they have a lot more talent and experience than the numbers would suggest.

While reading about the projected new bowl lineups, I noticed that while the Pac-12 champion goes to the prestigious Rose Bowl, the second-place team is likely to play in the Alamo Bowl. In December! Is it just me or does the Pac-12 have the worst bowl tie-ins of any power conference? (The American Athletic Conference, a.k.a. the old Big East, is excluded.)-- Trevor Kuhn, Portland, Ore.

Clearly you've never been to San Antonio. It's a fantastic big-event city. Fans can stay right on the Riverwalk, which has about 27 different places to chow down on tortilla chips and margaritas, and walk to the stadium.

But I get what you're saying. The Jan. 1 games are considered more prestigious, even when the Gator Bowl pits two 6-6 teams as it did two years ago, and the Pac-12 lacks a second New Year's game. But that's because most Jan. 1 games are in Florida (save for the less prestigious Heart of Dallas Bowl), and no Florida bowl is going to lock itself into hosting schools located roughly 3,000 miles away. Pac-12 fans place so much emphasis on the Rose Bowl that they tend to be pretty apathetic about the games below it, even the ones played on their coast (Holiday, Vegas, etc.). This is also the reason there are no SEC vs. Pac-12 bowls, as I often hear Pac-12 fans complain about.

I will say this, though: The new Big Ten-Pac-12 Holiday Bowl partnership beginning in 2014 might help invigorate that game a bit. Arizona State fans probably won't flock to San Diego if the Sun Devils are playing Kansas State, but they likely will if they're playing against Michigan.

With all the shuffling of bowl tie-ins, is it possible that Pittsburgh might actually play in a bowl other than the BBVA Compass Bowl next season?-- Allen, Phoenix

With their move to the ACC, the Panthers may actually be out of the mix for Birmingham entirely. But that potential new bowl in Detroit has Pitt written all over it.

Stewart, there seems to have been an insane (and insanely expensive) rush for college football teams to create ever more palatial facilities. Other than draining university coffers, what do these really amount to? Do recruits really say they choose one school over another due to the facilities? And which school gains a real advantage, or suffers a disadvantage, from this line of thinking?-- Kerry, Denver

It's funny you bring this up. It seemed like nearly everywhere I visited this spring someone wanted to give me a facilities tour. And don't get me wrong, they're all ridiculously nice. That's why I roll my eyes whenever I see a preachy columnist refer to college football players as "exploited." Regardless of where you stand on the pay-for-play debate, that particular term seems a bit melodramatic when describing 19 year olds with free 24/7 access to hot tubs, players lounges lined with big screen TVs and Xboxes and locker rooms with iPads at every stall. That said, once you've seen one juice bar with 19 varieties of energy bars, one "largest weight room in the country," (that title apparently changes by the month), one wall lined with NFL helmets of all the program's alums in the league or one computer lab big enough for the entire starting offense to simultaneously write papers (or tweet), you've seen them all.

To answer the question, no, I do not often hear a recruit cite facilities as the primary reason he chose a certain school. (I imagine these palaces all run together for them, too.) However, no coach wants to risk losing a prospect because the program's facilities are outdated, and no school wants to risk losing a successful coach because he's ticked off about outdated facilities. So the arms race just keeps spiraling. I would love to see a study that examines the correlation between the size of a program's weight room and/or coaches suites and its performance on the field. Those great USC teams under Pete Carroll were based out of tiny, 1970s-looking Heritage Hall. Meanwhile, Texas has basically everything any athlete could want and posted an 11-15 Big 12 record over the past three years. These new facilities are all lavish and over the top, but as long as there are donors willing to pay, the construction companies will have no shortage of business.

Hi Stewart. In your opinion, which team has the most delusional fan base?-- Michael Kasa, Lincoln, Ill.

All of them. Except for Cal, as discussed in a previous Mailbag.

I'll be on vacation next week, which means two things: There will be no Mailbag, and there will almost certainly be some sort of major college football news.

On a more serious note, as you probably know, Moore, Okla., was devastated by a deadly tornado earlier this week. Moore sits directly between Oklahoma City and Norman, and I actually stopped there twice last season while covering Sooners games. The images have been hard to take in.

Oklahoma is a great college football state that's provided us all with great moments. Take a second if you can to donate to the relief effort.