Moving Mountains, Part 1: Athletic directors, commissioners provide insight into NCAA reform, what lies ahead
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — There was no seminal moment that sent the world of intercollegiate athletics down this path toward what seems like inevitable changes and consequences.
It was actually a series of moments. A handful of conference commissioners went to their summer media days last year and took turns making a case to grant the 65 schools in the five major conferences a sense of sovereignty beneath the Division I umbrella provided by the NCAA.
“This is not the NCAA that’s evolving,” Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick said. “It’s the five (major) conferences. They want to try to separate themselves and try to continue to make the playing field unlevel.”
Since the end of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, the NCAA has approved measures aimed at reform and been the defendant in vital court cases. It is currently arguing against former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon and a judgment in favor of the plaintiff could forever change the status of a student-athlete.
Many college administrators, including the athletic directors at the Mountain State’s only two Division I colleges, believe the first changes will take form in August. Others are certain the effects will be dramatic and alter what is already perceived to be an uneven competitive balance.
“Right now, sometimes we do recruit against those non-power five or non-high visibility conferences or whatever you want to call it, but we’re going to get to a point where we never recruit against them and the kid is either a power five guy or he’s not,” said a member of a major conference football program who requested anonymity. “Based on the resources we have, based on offering the full cost of attendance, based on how much food we can give him and how much support we can give him and the difference in just the revenue and what the advantages are for a student-athlete being at a power five conference as opposed to a non-power five conference, once that separation happens the difference is going to be that big and that important to them.”
That, of course, is not a universally accepted opinion. Nor is it reality, and it won’t be until the major programs are empowered by new liberties to do what they believe is in the best interest of their student-athletes and then those liberties go into effect and have time to be used as leverage.
But for now, it is a concern.
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A prevailing opinion is that most Football Bowl Subdivision programs and bigger-budget basketball-only schools will try to provide students the full cost of attendance.
The full cost of attendance accounts for the difference that exists between the value of a scholarship and the value of what a university calculates to be the scholarship plus the money a student-athlete needs to pay for every other necessity. Those necessities are outside tuition, fees, room, board, books and supplies covered by a scholarship.
Suppose a student-athlete lines up an interview for an internship and the first part is done over the phone. The student covers the cost of the cell phone and the bill. If the next stage is to be in person, the student would have to pay for a suit and shoes for a proper appearance as well as the gas needed to travel to the interview. If it’s a long drive and the student needs a meal, that’s an out-of-pocket expense, too.
When former WVU running back Shawne Alston sued the NCAA and the five major conferences in March for violating antitrust laws and capping the value of a scholarship, he said he needed a $5,500 loan to cover those expenses while in college.
Beyond that, the schools could be permitted to provide extra benefits to the student-athletes. Schools expect to be able to offer unlimited meals to players who walk on and are on scholarship. They believe they’ll also have a chance to provide greater academic support through a larger number of academic personnel, additional educational opportunities so student-athletes will finish their undergraduate or master’s degrees, health care for injuries that were sustained or accumulated on campus and programs to help student-athletes with professional opportunities and job placement.
Athletic programs with bigger budgets will have the resources to check off more items from that list.
People both involved in and observing the NCAA believe that a large gap will appear between the major conference schools who have come to call themselves the “high visibility” programs and the rest of Division I.
And then, it is thought, that gap will only grow.
Locally, it would mean a larger separation than the one that exists between West Virginia and Marshall. WVU, a member of the so-called high visibility Big 12, spent $73.5 million on sports in the 2012-13 year and generated $77.7 million in revenue. Marshall, which belongs to Conference USA, spent $28.3 million in 2012-13 and generated $27.5 million.
“I disagree with that. That’s not accurate,” Hamrick said. “There are only 85 scholarships. So when we go head to head with Alabama, Auburn or UCLA or USC in recruiting, do we win? No, but there are still players out there. You’ve got to have a scholarship to go to college. We give 85 scholarships, so as long as there are 85 scholarships, we’re fine.”
The difference, if one is to exist and to be exploited, is in what teams will do once those players are on campus with a scholarship.
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The key to accurately anticipating the future is to understand the past. One reason programs, no matter how much they can spend or generate, aren’t afraid of a disparity is because they know that disparity has existed for a long time.
The legislation hasn’t kept up with the way the business and the infrastructure have changed. Adaptations have been stalled by voting. The major programs inside and just outside the five major conferences are outnumbered by schools that make it impossible to pass the rules the major schools feel are needed to keep up with how the environment has evolved.
“Let’s assume what’s proposed is the right way to do things and that if it’s the right way to do things then we should be able to do it,” West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck said. “I think it’s somewhat of a shame not to be able to do those things just because there are 10 or so schools, smaller Division I schools, that say, ‘No, we’re not going to support that.’
“You can’t legislate equality. The NCAA has tried for years to legislate equality with the same rules for everybody, but it’s like life in general — you can’t legislate equality.”
Oddly enough, the high visibility programs have succeeded by pushing away from equality and reaching for autonomy. They’ve crept toward the coming changes this past year by asking only for a separation from the other schools that can’t keep up and spend the way the more affluent schools spend — or as they like to say, provide.
“I’ve never seen this as a financial matter,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “There are some things we want to do with student-athletes that have some financial implications, obviously. But the autonomy is about having some prerogatives in managing the organizations that we run and the institutions that we represent.
“Will it create a larger divide? I suppose it’s theoretically possible, but there’s a pretty substantial divide right now. Our Division I membership ranges from $3 million budgets to $170 million budgets. That’s a fairly large gulf already.
“We have apples, bananas and plums and kumquats and persimmons and grapes. We’ve got them all.”
Yet there will be a line that divides the two groups within the FBS. The five major conferences will stand on one side and all the others will stand across from them. Hamrick and Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky are fine with that. Those two and their peers on their side of the line accept that those schools opposite them are qualified to lead the entire pack.
“Those conferences with the most resources will spend more time thinking about and talking about developing those policies,” Banowsky said.
The outsiders are encouraged by that, never mind at peace with it, because it’s been proven so far that the leaders of the high visibility programs are interested in maintaining as much of the Division I structure as possible.
Bowlsby and Luck both said the major programs have a responsibility to act with the other side of the line in mind.
“The ADs and presidents at the bigger schools are not doing this blindly,” Luck said. “They are concerned and have a little bit of anxiety about how this will affect the smaller Division I schools and even the ones at the I-AA and the Division II level. There’s a respect that we’re all in this together somewhat. There’s a lot of concern and empathy, if you will, for schools that are right on the cusp.
“There’s concern for some smaller schools in other conferences that recognize that they’re not really going to be able to compete with the University of Wherever and that this move is inevitable.”
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When the new features are introduced, they will be considered permissive legislation, meaning the schools will decide individually if they want to initiate some of the new ideas. Naturally, schools in major conferences with more resources, greater income and highly lucrative television contracts will have more money to apply.
The best schools will do what they can do, but exactly what schools can do, or what they choose to do, will differ. WVU supports granting the full cost of attendance, but so does Marshall.
The amount of money WVU would grant a student-athlete to cover the full cost of attendance would be around $1,700. That’s certain to become a part of discussions with recruits and used against or even used by other schools.
Some might think the Thundering Herd would be hurt by that conversation because they don’t have the same financial resources, but Marshall’s sum would be nearly $2,800.
Similarly, recruits could be intrigued by the long-term benefits that might come from the educational and professional counseling a school provides. A parent might point out how useful the insurance coverage could be later in life if something happens in college.
In a teenager’s mind, those variables can remove the gap or increase the distance between two schools.
“It’ll give kids something more to think about, give them another thing to put on the list of pluses and minuses,” Luck said.
The major conferences teams will cover the full cost of attendance. A few of the smaller leagues, including Conference USA, will do the same. It’s expected that some other schools might do that for select teams.
Banowsky said his conference considers benefits in addition to the full cost of attendance “not something we’re interested in” while Bowlsby knows his schools will make those changes where they’re needed and that they’ll probably benefit because of it.
He believes that not because of where he is now or when he was the athletic director at Stanford or Iowa, but when he was running the athletic department at Northern Iowa.
“There are tremendous programs and lots of wonderful people out there, but we aren’t all the same and as much as I have empathy for the needs of the 275 institutions that are not like the five high visibility conferences, my principal responsibility is to help to do what is best for my 10 schools,” he said. “We have to move forward and I think we are probably passed the time where we can all get absolutely what we want.”
WVU football coach Dana Holgorsen made headlines last summer when he said the system needed changes because larger schools and their student-athletes were being held back by the smaller schools. His counterpart at Marshall, Doc Holliday, who is considered to be on that other side of the line, believes the division won’t exist exclusively between the larger and smaller programs.
“There are a lot of schools out there that have unlimited budgets, but there are also schools in the so-called power five that can’t do what the Alabamas and Floridas can do,” he said. “I think they have a hard time keeping up, too. So I think they’ve got to be careful with where they go.
“It’s easy to say, ‘Well, hey, Marshall and Cincinnati and the Boise States can’t provide what the power five conferences can provide,’ but there are also schools in those power five conferences that aren’t a whole hell of a lot different than we are. They’re going to have a hard time keeping up with the Joneses. I think you’ve got to be careful with what you ask for.”
All of that means the ultimate decision and the eventual destination is still up to the recruit. When the time comes, these changes don’t affect the weather at one campus or how close it is to a recruit’s home. They won’t change the majors offered at a school or the reputation certain places have for specific areas of study.
Whatever comes next from the courtroom or the NCAA will test this belief from Banowsky.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “a conference doesn’t recruit players.”
n Daily Mail sportswriter Derek Redd contributed to this story.