Some headline writers called it the birth of "a new super football conference"—the lions at last rising up and moving away from the lambs. Father Edmund Joyce of Notre Dame, more in touch with the soil, perhaps, called it the natural "division of apples and oranges." Opponents (those oranges who saw themselves being squeezed out) rallied behind the eloquence of San Jose State Athletic Director Bob Murphy, their principal spokesman, and predicted "second-class citizenship" and doom for their programs, and Sodom and Gomorrah for the spendthrifts up in first class.
It was none of those things. After heated debate, the vote to subdivide Division I football into I-A and I-AA at the National Collegiate Athletic Association convention in Atlanta last week was no more than the first (albeit most important) step in structuring the game so that it can serve everyone along compatible lines—i.e., legislative lines that join schools with similar philosophies and economic and physical commitments. It was neither a massive elixir nor a massive knockout drop. It will neither solve all the problems of the strong nor start a funeral march for the weak.
But because several misconceptions of what happened abound, they need examination:
•"A super conference of elitists has been formed by the haves of college football at the expense of the have-nots."
January 23, 1978
Not even close. The Texases and the Tennessees, with their $4 million athletic budgets and 80,000-seat stadiums and the goals and problems those things imply, were simply split away from the Ball States and the Marshalls with their more modest aspirations. And the Nebraskas and the LSUs, with their costly 10-sport programs highly dependent on football money, were extricated from the peonage of voting one-on-one on key issues with such schools as Oral Roberts and Oklahoma City, where football is not played.
At the same time, within the mixed bag of schools which now qualify for I-A membership under the criteria laid down, there still is enough disparity to keep the democratic process humming. These are the criteria for a school's admittance to I-A: 60% of its games against other I-A teams; either a 30,000-seat stadium and an average attendance of 17,000 for one year in the last four, or an average of 17,000 over the last four years—if a school has either of these, an eight-sport program will do; if not, it must have a 12-sport program.
•"Then what do the big guys want? They've got the crowds, the television money, the bowl games—what else?"
This was Murphy's litany in Atlanta. He repeated it often, as if the question were not being answered. But it was answered, in the context of Murphy's own logic. In the past, when the bigger football schools were asked to swallow still another piece of unpalatable legislation—the "Robin Hood plan" to disperse television money across the board; the periodic moves to base scholarship grants on financial need (a move with vast potential for cheating)—they somehow managed to vote down the offending legislation. Well, that is exactly what the big football schools want: an end to having every NCAA meeting turned into an exercise in nitpicking by schools with which they have nothing in common; an end to having to face a threat a year. They want autonomy.
•"The bigs will rip down all the restraints on spending, open the lid on scholarship limits, coaching staffs and recruiting costs."
Patently absurd. Apparently accepted at face value in many corners, Murphy characterized this prospect as a "return to the meat-on-the-hoof college football philosophies of a decade ago." His colleagues on the floor hammered at it relentlessly. Surprisingly, they were allowed to go virtually unchallenged until Dr. Edwin Cady, the faculty representative from Duke, got up to say he was "weary" of the notion that if you were a smaller school you somehow qualified as "wiser or more moral." Cady pointed, out that the integrity of some very prominent institutions was being questioned.
Furthermore, even the biggest-budgeted schools are not without financial problems today. The 30-a-year, 95-total-scholarship limits, eight-man coaching staffs and various recruiting restrictions have been well received. They are roundly credited with equalizing the competition and enhancing the college game. There is not much sympathy for abrogation of these restrictions, though the Big Eight and Southeastern conferences would like to see the overall limits go to, say, 105 scholarships and nine coaches. Their colleagues in the Big Ten and Pacific Eight are not sympathetic, however. And none of them wishes to set itself up for economic suicide, not when the specter of HEW's Title IX legislation (equal opportunity for women's athletics) hangs over every budget.
As for recruiting, some of the larger schools, having had to face its many toxic effects for so long, are usually in the forefront of efforts to control its excesses and to reduce the procession of marginal students onto the athletic rosters of America. (That they don't always succeed is evident enough without going into the ramifications.) It was, coincidentally and ironically, the big schools that pushed for the amendment in Atlanta that would have raised Division I's academic requirements of incoming freshmen to a minimum 2.25 grade average. At present the only standard is a 2.0 average. The amendment did not carry.
•"Subdivision will be the death of the I-AA schools. Reclassification will make them second-class citizens, and they will suffer accordingly in recruiting and support."
Nonsense. If Divisions II and III do not rail over classification and do not have heavy attrition rates, why should I-AA? Except at convention time, classification seldom gets a discouraging word, and serves not to point up inferiorities but to keep priorities in order. Below the very top level, divisions tend to run together, anyway.
In truth, most teams that will make up Division I-AA already have been grouped by sterner qualifiers than Roman numerals. The differences are obvious. No recruiter with a lick of sense would try to convince a youngster that playing at, say, Boise State, is the same as playing at Michigan State. By the same token, there are two immediate advantages to participating in I-AA. Less pressure for the Boise State Joneses to live up to the Michigan State Joneses, for one. And two, a playoff similar to that in Divisions II and III has been formulated to provide a I-AA national championship and a $750,000 television payoff (coming from the Division I package recently signed with ABC). Under the old structure, most I-AA schools could expect never to see the inside of a bowl or the figures on a television check. I-AA schools also would be guaranteed regular-season telecasts.
•"The division will be top-heavy; 104 are eligible for I-A, only 40 would be left for I-AA."
Not likely. Being eligible docs not necessarily mean a school will opt for I-A status. Within a 60-day period, all Division I schools have to declare the division they prefer. They will then have three years to meet the requirements. Originally, the breakdown figured to be 79 in I-A (the seven major conferences and top independents) and 65 in I-AA. The so-called Ivy League amendment, allowing eligibility in I-A for schools fielding teams in 12 intercollegiate sports, put an additional 25 on the roll. It is not likely, however, that in the privacy of their own environments, weighing the alternatives, more than a few of those will opt for I-A.
•"Once the lines are drawn, upward mobility—the desire to climb from I-AA to I-A—will be impossible to realize."
"Not easy" would be a better description. The bugaboo is scheduling. Schedules are sometimes made up 10 to 15 years in advance; having met all the other criteria, a school wanting to make six or seven matches a year with I-A schools might have to wait a very long time. Those already close to the schedule requirement—Utah State, Temple, Murphy's own San Jose State—would have no trouble.
•"Some conferences will have to shut down because half their teams will go one way, half the other."
Possibly. For three or four leagues there will be a dilemma. If San Jose State and Long Beach State of the Pacific Coast Athletic Association and Tulsa and New Mexico State of the Missouri Valley opt for I-A, as they likely will, those conferences will face realignment problems. That's nothing new, of course. Losing members is not always tantamount to disaster, and leagues are seldom held sacred by schools who want to get out. They usually don't stand on ceremony—they just get out. The Southern Conference has been playing musical chairs for years. Recent defectors include East Carolina, West Virginia, Richmond and William and Mary. Arizona and Arizona State have recently left the WAC for the Pac-10, as it will soon be called. Reclassification had nothing to do with it.
Why did such controversial legislation pass this time when it could not before? Partly because NCAA President J. Neils Thompson of Texas, whose council drew up the plan, took a year to work in all the angles that would get the football vote and, at the same time, figured a way to placate Division I basketball schools, like NCAA champion Marquette, that did not play football but faced expulsion under the old formula. I-A and I-AA apply only to football; basketball schools in Division I remain in I.
But mainly, the amendment passed because its time had come. On the day of the vote another move—to allow schools to dress their teams in "traveling jackets" if they so desire—was voted down by the full Division I membership. Smaller schools didn't want the expense.
Which is ironic. Under existing allowable expenses, it is perfectly all right for a big-budget school to spend $10,000 traveling back and forth across the country to land a star halfback, as one bragged it had done a couple of years ago. The immediate absurdity is this: the school spent all that money to get the boy on campus but could not buy him a $100 traveling jacket. Even if he promised to give it back.
And that is why the division was necessary.