Senior College Football Columnist

Will power conferences break away from NCAA? In a way they have

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PASADENA, Calif. -- Unintended consequences. The term itself -- when the BCS was announced in June 1998 -- was, well, unknown. But it became a way to describe what the commissioners had wrought.

Those commissioners, in their zeal to evolve college football’s postseason to the next level, segregated the sport. Haves vs. have nots. BCS vs. non-BCS. At one point, they even asked the media to quit applying those labels. Then they just stopped asking. The labels stuck.

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As the annual (and last) BCS meetings convene here, there is talk about the power conferences breaking away from the NCAA and forming their own association. Sixty-five or so schools calling the shots because they can. Sixty-five or so schools calling the shots because they have.

Unintended consequence of the BCS? Whether it actually happens, it already has happened, figuratively. The large majority of national championships and more than 70 percent of the playoff money will flow to the ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12. Just like always only bigger money, more power. Issues that will formally guide college football toward what many think it already is -- a semi-pro feeder system for the NFL.

Perhaps it’s time to drop the pretense, quit funding volleyball and prepare young men for their chosen profession -- of football, basketball or whatever. Despite what Bob Stoops says, we’re headed toward at least paying athletes something, aren’t we? The O’Bannon lawsuit looms. Bodies are being sacrificed at the altar of bowl eligibility, and concussions -- for the threat of lawsuits stemming from them -- aren’t going away anytime soon.

The NCAA may not even be a part of this bold, new world. How’s that for unintended consequences?

Think of today’s conferences defined this way: There are those with networks and those without. The Pac-12, Big Ten and (soon) SEC have one. The ACC is thinking about it. The 10-team Big 12 has a decision to make as the only league without a conference championship game.

The Sun Belt is just glad to be playing FBS football for perception, fundraising and enrollment purposes. Yeah, that Louisiana-Monroe win over Arkansas was great last season. Arkansas will still be making more in a month than ULM makes in a year in football.

With the ACC’s announcement Monday of a grant of rights, that puts the breaks to realignment at least temporarily. Big 12 and ACC schools can’t leave. SEC and Big Ten schools won’t leave. The Pac-12 is out there on the West Coast stuck at 12.

Check with me, though, next week.

Super conferences? You’re looking at 'em. Don’t think the size of conferences so much as the earning power.

Finances have evolved to the point that even within that 65-team BCS group, there is a subset. The SEC and Big Ten will be guaranteed more automatic berths during the 12 years of the playoff agreement than the other conferences. That makes sense since those two leagues accounted for most of the BCS berths to date.

It seems a minor point now, that the BCS created college football upstarts who otherwise would have never gotten the chance. Boise State rose to prominence. So did Utah and Urban Meyer along with TCU and Gary Patterson. Utah and TCU made it through the filter into power leagues. Boise did not. The talents of Meyer and Patterson now have them coaching in those power conferences.

All of it unintended and, perhaps soon, unremembered. In 2003, Tulane president Scott Cowen threatened the system -- and won. Who recalls that the New York Times and Associated Press -- great news organizations that cover the BCS -- were once part of it with their rankings?

In 2004, Auburn got screwed. Oklahoma, Nebraska and Alabama didn’t win conference titles and played for national championships.

“Death to the BCS” got written. The power brokers were not so much changed by it, they adjusted to it. They responded to the outrage by creating a playoff -- not without some caution. One commissioner last year was approached and personally handed a playoff idea by a fan.

“Here, you want it?” he said, holding out the multipage proposal out to me, knowing that if he actually looked at it the fan could one day have sued for some sort of copyright infringement.

Unintended consequences, all of them. Now, welcome to the playoff era. Four teams instead of two. What was wrong has been righted. Sort of.

No improvement of the sport’s postseason was going to come without admitting the obvious from 1998: There are those who have invested more in the sport than others. Their ongoing thought has been that Michigan deserved more because it had been a power for seven decades. Boise didn’t because it had been good for seven years.

That was it, basically. A matter of investment, demographics, fan following and market share. As we transition to the playoff era, that line has been drawn almost exactly in the middle of what is now FBS’ 124 schools. The sport subdivided over the past 15 years with the 65 schools in those power conferences controlling the overwhelming majority of the revenue. A decade and a half later, those power schools have even less in common with their smaller, poorer brethren.

The divide is big and getting bigger. Mercy is a four-touchdown underdog. In the new playoff era beginning in 2014, BCS conferences will take home $90 million each annually without snapping a football. The Group of Five non-BCS conferences (American Athletic Conference, Mountain West, MAC, Conference USA, Sun Belt) will get an average $17.3 million with base playoff revenue capped at $1 million per school.

Those Group of Five schools will compete for one automatic berth among the 12 available in the six playoff bowls. Given the separation of the haves and the have nots, what selection committee is going to award that lone qualifier a spot in the top four when it has been marginalized by perception, finances and schedule strength?

In other words, if the choice is between an undefeated Miami (Ohio) and a second team from the SEC to play in a national semifinal, it’s easy to predict what the selection committee is going to do. The Group of Five is in the club (playing for that one automatic berth), but it has to enter through the back door (almost never finishing in the top four).

In the wire-service era, BYU in 1984 was actually able to win a national championship. Since 1998, it has never played in a BCS bowl. In the playoff era, as an independent, the Cougars will take home pennies on the dollar.

That’s just the start of the imbalance from the playoff’s 12-year deal worth a reported $7.3 billion. Left to their own devices, the power conferences have made the rules and reaped the spoils. Winners get to write history.

And history will record that market forces drove a largely unregulated sprint to the financial stratosphere. Outgoing North Carolina chancellor Holden Thorpe gave voice to college CEOs’ frustration in controlling athletics. Since 1988, the presidents were supposed to have been in charge. The NCAA said so but didn’t provide a road map.

Scandals bloomed as academics trained to track tenure, hire professors and fundraise were held suddenly responsible for an assistant coach lying to the NCAA. Former Penn State president Graham Spanier once told me that athletics were two percent of the budget, but took 10 percent of his time.

Judging from where he and his former university now stand, oversight of football should have commanded 90 percent of his time.

There were calls for reform except even that effort has been clumsy. Too much, too fast, it seems in the Mark Emmert era. One of the have nots’ few weapons in this new era is the override vote. It has slowed such legislation as the $2,000 player stipend that would cut into their revenue even further.

The NCAA has even less control of major college football than it did 15 years ago. What did the association do about conference realignment? Where was the advice on the BCS or playoff? The NCAA was cut out of the discussion 29 years ago when the Supreme Court affirmed the schools’ right to control their own television agreements.

That was six years after Division I-AA was created, the last time Division I subdivided in football. The issues back then were the same: Access to revenue and playing for a national championship. Look where that has gotten I-AA whose bloated playoff is subsidized by the NCAA.

In 2016, the Big Ten will have a new long-term TV rights agreement that threatens to outstrip everyone. That includes Jim Delany’s archrival Mike Slive, whose SEC schools will be bringing home a projected $28.5 million per year each when the SEC Network ramps up.

So does it matter if the Group of Five is left behind by some real seismic breakaway? They’re already playing for scraps. The Big Ten and Pac-12 will unveil a 100th anniversary Rose Bowl logo here Tuesday night. Meanwhile, the Sun Belt just admitted Georgia Southern and Appalachian State.

The commissioners are just doing their jobs, which have been redefined over the last 20 or so years. Their duties accelerated beyond just lining up bowls. They had to hire media consultants, price subscription fees and explain it all to their presidents who were supposed to be in charge in the first place.

The commissioners’ mandate was clear -- to make as much money as possible for their constituents. In doing so, they squeezed out the little guy with prejudice. No one seemed to mind.

Yeah, it’s brutal but the system won’t change. A commissioner of college football (and basketball) would be able to regulate realignment, more fairly distribute revenue. But there’s not an AD on a power conference level that wants to put that much power in the hands of one person.

As the deck chairs were rearranged in alignment, the fights became smaller. Boise State basically cashed in on a monumental upset of Oklahoma in 2007. It was the valuable chip being fought for among the Group of Five. Boise went to the Big East (now the AAC), then came back to the Mountain West without ever having played a game in Mike Aresco’s new conference.

Louisville was thrown a line by the ACC when the Big Ten raided Maryland. The same goes for Rutgers to the Big Ten when the league needed a New York presence for its network.

Cincinnati is now arguably the most valuable piece below that Mendoza Line. The program has a recent proven record of football excellence -- having at least shared four of the last five Big East titles. It also has some measure of TV attraction according to those media consultants. Relegated to the AAC, Cincinnati and UConn have had no shame about openly campaigning to get out in order to move up to a BCS conference.

Breaking away? It really doesn’t matter since, in a way, it already has happened. Besides, Delany once told me that a breakaway was unlikely. There are diverse issues even the power conferences can’t even agree on.

The big issue they can, rests in scores of interest-bearing savings accounts all over the country -- an absolutely intended consequence.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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