College Football Insider

Big Ten bracing for change, but how big of a change?


CHICAGO -- The athletic director from one of the country's most powerful schools said it.

A coach coming off back-to-back national titles alluded to it.

A power-broking commissioner punctuated it.

Talk of schools from the five power conferences -- the ones with the most money by a wide margin, the ones that play for the most championships and have the biggest donor bases -- breaking off as a separate NCAA division with their own set of rules is just that. It's chatter with which not everyone agrees, including several officials at the Big Ten spring meetings in Chicago this week.

But that's some pretty prominent chatter.

These aren't associate athletic directors popping off. These are three influential dudes. And they understand revenue projections, which tell them the ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 will make at least $100-plus million more per school over the next seven years than the so-called Group of Five (the American, Mountain West, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference and Sun Belt). And that's before the college football playoff money, tilted heavily toward the big five, takes effect in 2014-15.

"I think we need to have a conversation about, 'Should there be a different division within the NCAA structure that allows X number of schools to be legislated differently, but within the structure,'" Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told the Columbus Dispatch.

In other words, he's hoping this issue becomes more than chatter.

The Big Ten isn't ready to go there, at least not right now.

Though some within the conference do agree with Smith, several officials say such an NCAA "subdivision" wouldn't be healthy for the game. There are too many important football voices outside of the BCS automatic-qualifying structure that shouldn't be ignored, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said.

"I don't see a radical separation of five conferences above the rest," Delany said.

But that doesn't mean the league is ignoring the growing rumblings from trusted college football voices nationally. Many are bracing for at least mild legislative change.

In fact, one Big Ten faculty athletic representative believes the NCAA and its governance consultant, Jean S. Frankel, will at least consider a potential subdivision while navigating the recent round of restructuring.

Smith and SEC commissioner Mike Slive use the $2,000 stipend issue to emphasize the point -– if everyone can't pay it, why hinder those who can? (the college football playoff money will help most or all FBS schools pay the stipend if they have to, but that's another issue).

Slive said at a recent Associated Press Sports Editors event that if the $2,000 stipend, which is lost somewhere in NCAA translation, doesn't happen, the SEC could consider an "alternative or division or something like that. But that's not our desire."

Slive is deliberate enough to know his words carry serious weight. He gave that statement some thought before dropping it. He's waiting for NCAA president Mark Emmert to get the stipend rule passed, which is considered a challenge because more than 340 schools in the NCAA body with varying revenue streams have a vote.

Alabama coach Nick Saban used scheduling to make his point. He's for the five power conferences playing each other in football, which is essentially what the Big Ten is trying to do right now.

To see a seismic governance change, Northwestern AD Jim Phillips believes the five power conferences would need to "carry the day" on the subdivision agenda. And it's uncertain if that's really the case, especially with several Big Ten athletic directors supporting the NCAA model when asked this week.

"I'm not sure of the influence they would have in either direction," Phillips said. "We're all, with what access is now and what structures are going to be in multiple conferences, there are lots of mouths to feed, so they try to do it in most equitable way they can." has left messages with Frankel, who, according to college officials who have been on conference calls with her, has listened to several concerns of the NCAA membership in recent months.

Athletic directors wanting more influence on decision-making that currently belongs to university presidents is a big one. People have stressed the point both publicly and to Frankel.

College athletics officials can be imaginative. Take Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke, who believes conference commissioners should serve as a Senate-like influence on the NCAA -– a smaller body that can get routine matters approved without checking with several people first ("Maybe the founding fathers of the United States of America weren't so dumb," he says).

So it's no surprise that some Big Ten athletic directors view the subdivision topic differently.

Not all think it's a terrible idea.

Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas isn't counting out anything.

"Even when you get into the governance piece, decisions being made, a lot of (schools) don't look a lot alike," Thomas said. "I know that became public when Mike Slive came out. At some point in time if we don't have schools that don't look like us makings choices that affect us, maybe we need to (consider options)."

Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague said he doesn't believe the model is as broken as it seems. He sees a Big Ten that can schedule the way it wants (a leaguewide push to drop FCS schools from the football schedule), add schools as it sees fit (Maryland/Rutgers in expansion) while valuing the opinion of the 125 Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

"Too much is at stake from a holistic standpoint," Teague said.

Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon sees the public push on the topic but said the league is "very much invested in the NCAA as a member institution."

"The NCAA has to provide the leadership we need to kind of bring some of these issues into some kind of crystal-clear reality," Brandon said. "We're trying to work with them to get reforms in place that will help us all sustain activity."

Delany questions whether "380 people making rules makes a lot of sense," a reference to the large NCAA body deciding on broad issues such as stipends. Maybe that should be cut in half, he said, but he's not banking on a wholesale change.

What's interesting to Burke is, despite the booming revenue growth, the subdivision cries have been around for awhile. And here he is, in the same FBS as 124 others.

"Our system isn't bad, we just have significant divide in Republican vs. Democrats right now," Burke said.

Jeremy Fowler is a national college football insider with Fowler joined CBS in 2012 after covering the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for two seasons and covering the Florida Gators for the Orlando Sentinel for two years. Fowler is also a contributor to the CBS Sports Network.

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