CULVER CITY, Calif. -- Much like the NCAA system they have been flaming this week, it's becoming clear to the BCS commissioners that change is going to be complicated.
Starting with agreement among themselves.
That's one conclusion after hearing those five commissioners present their levels of dissatisfaction at the NCAA over the past 10 days. They agreed on transformative change during their media days, but no one has a specific plan.
"The current discussion I've heard this week," Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said Friday, “is both too radical and too narrow at the same time.”
Everybody clear on that? Scott was referring to his peers while putting his personal stamp on what can conveniently be termed the Big 5 Revolution. It has come about because the commissioners of the Pac-12, Big 12, ACC, SEC and Big Ten have never been stronger. They control the driving force in college athletics, football. They feel cut out of the process with NCAA president Mark Emmert, an academic by trade, overseeing their biggest money producer.
While none of the Big 5 has advocated a breakaway from the NCAA, the reason for their frustration is clear: Those five BCS commissioners realize the threat of a clean-break divorce is their leverage, their hammer. If the NCAA doesn't act -- and lower-division membership capitulates to their demands -- they will break away and form their own organization.
“I think everyone knows that,” Scott said. “You don't have to say it. It's always possible.”
The Big 5 are bellowing because they can.
Speaking at his league's media day Friday, Scott zoned in criticizing the NBA one-and-done rule and NCAA enforcement. But in the preceding days, SEC commissioner Mike Slive called out the NCAA board of directors. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby delivered a scathing criticism of the entire system. Big Ten peer Jim Delany struck a more even tone laying out how a stipend for players might work.
Most of them have gone out of their way not to completely slam -- even compliment -- Emmert. Turns out the association's CEO says he is in complete agreement with the Big 5 about change according to a Thursday story on the Indianapolis Star website.
Some might call that leading the parade from behind. There is no question frustration with the NCAA has been building up for years. One conference source called it a “vacuum of leadership”.
At least lately, it's clear that Emmert now at least gets it. The membership -- or at least the top membership that matters -- is up in arms. He will meet next week with the newly formed ADs Council in Chicago. Athletic directors' frustration at being cut out of the process was expressed during an April meeting in Santa Monica, Calif., convened by USC AD Pat Haden.
The NCAA executive committee and board of directors will meet Aug. 8 to begin work on how cash-rich conferences consolidate power in the governance process. For at least a period of weeks, Emmert has been sending out memos, reminding members of a January 2014 summit at the NCAA convention in San Diego. It could be the most significant such convention since the reform conventions of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Other outlets have reported -- and CBSSports.com has confirmed -- that a consensus for change among the Big 5 came out of a Collegiate Commissioners Association meeting last month in Colorado Springs, Colo.
A management consultant hired by the NCAA has been filled with “no shortage of opinions,” according to a source. There is a consensus for change but, for now, no consensus about what shape it would take. Rutgers AD Julie Hermann stood at the back of the room at the Big Ten media days and laid out the impediments to a stipend.
“There may be no change in terms of concept,” Scott said, "but maybe more autonomy for different groups to make decisions.”
The commissioners' current swagger flows from having painstakingly assembled the College Football Playoff over the past two years. That move further defined what had been taking place over the 15 years of the BCS -- a formalized, financial and philosophical separation of the haves and the have nots.
Those non-BCS conferences have been marginalized during the BCS era (since 1998) in terms of access to the championship and finances. Any further separation could lead to a sea change for those schools. Back in 1978, the largest football-playing schools were frustrated at the same issue -- smaller schools blocking legislation. Division I-AA was formed. It had a playoff but the participants lost the perception of being major-college institutions. Never mind the broad TV exposure and money that goes with it.
The commissioners' statements these past 10 days have been both striking and calculated. Slive is a former practicing lawyer. His remarks were subtle and nuanced. Bowlsby spoke of that transformative change. Scott took up the baton Friday saying "the NCAA is at a crossroads” and laying out a four-point plan for change.
"If we fail to change,” he said, “we forfeit the right to complain."
That NCAA management consultant Jean Frankel has met with a estimated 250 college administrators according to one source. That same source said Frankel will deliver a report at the Aug. 8 meeting.
It's becoming muddled as to what conferences would be in these new divisions. The American Athletic Conference's Mike Aresco already has lobbied for inclusion. If the issue is a stipend, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson reminded me that 10 of his 12 schools supported the measure.
“Be careful who you call out,” Thompson said. “I do totally get we've got $5 million budgets and $150 million budgets. They want to have the autonomy to say, 'This is the way we're going to handle it.' What is the new standard going to be?”
Part of Bowlsby's agenda is stopping the flow of schools moving up to FBS from lower divisions.
“We've made it too easy to get into Division I and too easy to stay there," he said.
Colonial Athletic Association commissioner Tom Yeager this week had some pointed warnings for those schools. The FCS (Division I-AA) administrator has some skin in the game having endured the loss of Georgia State (Sun Belt) and Old Dominion (Conference USA) to FBS (Division I-A) conferences.
Since 1987, 19 schools have moved up to FBS. None of those are in a BCS league (Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten, ACC, SEC). Yeager suggested the upper level of FCS looks more like the bottom level of FBS than the lower tier of FBS looks like the BCS schools.
One FBS commissioner said he would support “relegation” -- the European soccer model of teams moving up and down between divisions based on accomplishments on the field. Such a model in the NCAA would most likely center on budgets.
The issue has crystallized, for now, around the stipend issue, essentially spending money paid to players. Delany estimated the amount to be $3,000-$5,000 per academic year. The issue has been bogged down, unable to be passed in any meaningful way, in the traditional NCAA legislative process.
That's part of the reason we are about to witness an unprecedented reorganization of college athletics. Currently, smaller schools who can't afford that $3,000-$5,000 are allowed to vote on the same issues with schools who have 100,000-seat stadiums. The Big 5 contend it is fair that players get compensated because of the time the athletes put in to play their sports. (Way more than the 20 hours limited by the NCAA, by most accounts.)
Part of it is fairness, part of it is Big 5 guilt. Both are related to the billions of dollars their conferences generate without any of the money going the players.
All we know for the moment is the when. That significant change should begin to take shape at January's convention. The Big 5 Revolution is coming.
“It's due,” Thompson said, “it's time."