Big 12's Bowlsby fires shot at NCAA
DALLAS -- Almost nothing that Bob Bowlsby said Monday about the NCAA and its future was particularly new. In fact, from bars and back rooms, from chat rooms and mainstream media outlets, his comments were more an echo than a new idea.
The fact that someone in a position of influence finally gave voice to them so vehemently, however, was groundbreaking.
Bowlsby, the Big 12's second-year commissioner and therefore one of the most influential figures in college athletics, delivered a scathing critique of the NCAA in which he called for "transformative change'' and suggested that while he would prefer it take place within the structure of the organization that no one had discounted the possibility of secession.
Speaking unprompted at first during his annual state of the conference remarks at the Big 12 football media days and later in response to questions, Bowlsby said that it was far past the time when the major players in the NCAA -- particularly the Big 5 conference football schools -- regained control of their own destiny.
His remarks would seem to constitute the groundbreaking act in a push to separate the members of the five major conferences -- the Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC and ACC -- from the rest of college football and form their own division.
"I think we all have a sense that transformative change is going to have to happen,'' Bowlsby said, referring to the commissioners of those five conferences, who met as a group in June. "This is not a time when trimming around the edges is going to make very much difference.''
The issues are many and varied but they all revolve around one thing: The NCAA's Division I has become so large that the biggest schools are but a fraction of the membership. The group now includes nearly 350 members, but those power conference members number only 62. That's less than 20 percent.
As a result, that small number of schools - which spends (and generates) the vast majority of the money and wins nearly all of the championships - is dwarfed in terms of voting power within the NCAA. The most recent example - and one of the most contentious - is the idea of stipends for athletes. The big schools want to pay the money and can. The smaller ones want to pay, too, but can't afford the cost, so legislation has no chance to advance.
Bowlsby pointed his finger at the NCAA for allowing Division I to get so large in the first place, creating a division whose members are so varied in their approach to athletics that they have little in common. And the idea of divisions in the first place is to group schools of like mentalities.
"I think we've permitted, or even sometimes encouraged, institutional social climbing by virtue of their athletics programs. And I think the fact is we've made it too easy to get into Division I and too easy to stay there,'' he said. "I think it's virtually impossible right now to configure legislative proposals that have any chance of getting through the system intact that would accomplish anything in the way of meaningful change. I think all of us are feeling that.''
While the crux of the problem is football - the sport that costs and generates by far the most money - it extends to all sports. As an example, Bowlsby pointed to Title IX regulations regarding equity among the sexes.
"You can do it in part by increasing the number of basketball and volleyball and softball scholarships,'' Bowlsby said. "But if you do that, the bigger schools get all the players and the schools that were mid-majors that were competitive previously, now all their best players are sitting on major schools' benches. It's a great solution for one set of schools, but it's a lousy solution for others. That's where we find ourselves.
"Is there a segregation of some sort based upon their tax bracket, so to put it? Probably. But I don't know how you go about solving problems other than getting like-minded people together and try to come up with some solutions.''
In this case, the like-minded people ready to get together are the power conference schools. And their solution will almost certainly be to form another division, be it for football only or for all sports. That later option would be difficult because of the money committed by television to the NCAA men's basketball tournament, but it's not out of the question.
However the change happens, Bowlsby said everyone would prefer that it happen within the structure of the NCAA rather than being forced to break away.
"We haven't wanted to put the threat of secession on the table and I think, in all honesty, there aren't many that think it's a legitimate threat,'' Bowlsby said. "I'm very sincere when I say I haven't spoken with anyone in the business that seriously proposes we should go find another organization.''
Still, the threat probably has to exist in order to force change.
"Some of my colleagues are capable of saber-rattling,'' Bowlsby said, referring to his fellow power conference commissioners. "But on that topic, I haven't rattled any sabers."
If the power conference schools do form their own group, it would be the most significant change within the NCAA's divisions since Division I-AA (now the Football Championship Series) was created in 1978. In many ways that sparked the current inequities in Division I because schools that wanted to compete at the highest level in basketball no longer had to try and keep pace with the biggest football schools. Division I membership only requires that schools that field football teams also compete in Division I and the FCS satisfies that requirement.
If the biggest schools do break off, it would even further relegate teams in Conference USA, the MAC, the Mountain West, the Sun Belt and the American Athletic Conference to lower-tier status. For now they are considered equals by the NCAA, although through contracts between television and the BCS, they get only a fraction of the revenues. Under a new setup, they would likely be left to fend completely for themselves.
The bottom line, as it always is, is size and money and Bowlsby made that clear.
"I really think the time has come to think about federation by size and scope and equity brought to the system,'' Bowlsby said, meaning different divisions and rules for schools of similar size and financial commitments. "There are about 75 schools that win 90 percent of the championships in the NCAA and we have a whole bunch of others that don't look much like the people in our league, but yet through rule variation they're trying to compete with us.
"I think it may even be time to look at federation by sport. It's probably unrealistic to think that we can manage football and field hockey by the same set of rules. I think some kind of reconfiguration of how we govern is in order.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.