The NCAA as a governing organization is once again under fire. Big and small schools with differing aspirations and goals are growing weary of each other with the haves considering a separation from the have-nots.
Sounds familiar, huh?
Well, the shot across the NCAA’s bow made earlier this week by commissioners from the Big 5 conferences – the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac 12 and ACC - isn’t anything new.
In fact, this has been at least 40 years in the making.
Collegiate sports, financed mostly by college football and its massive television contracts, have always been a disparate group consisting of institutions with varying degrees of aspirations and wealth - all tied together by the NCAA.
In the mid-1970s, there were what Keith Dunnavant in his 2004 book about the relationship between college football and television “The 50 Year Seduction”
termed the four major classes of programs: the Headliners, the Spoilers, the Pretenders, and the Iveys.
Naturally the Headliners, consisting of about 60 schools from the Big Eight, Big Ten, Pac-8, SEC, Southwest Conference and key independents such as Notre Dame and Penn State, dominated the sport back then. They typically played in the major bowl games and won most of the national championships.
The Spoilers, according to Dunnavant, were situated in a less secure place in the hierarchy of the game. They had access to the big bowls but rarely got there - schools such as Florida State, Miami (Fla.), Boston College, Syracuse, Virginia Tech, Pitt, the entire ACC, and, yes, West Virginia University.
The Pretenders were made up of schools from leagues such as the Mid-American, Pacific Coast, Southern and Southland conferences. They were major college in name only but were never factors in the national picture.
Then there were the Iveys, who wanted to have it both ways, wrote Dunnavant. The Iveys were not competitive on the field but still wielded great power when it came to legislative matters.
The man who for years held all of these factions together like Tito once held Yugoslavia together was Walter Byers, the NCAA’s longtime executive director.
For many years, the big-time football schools were able to conduct business within the NCAA organizational structure while viewing the smaller schools as just a minor nusiance, primarily because the smaller schools never tried to use their numerical advantage in an attempt to rein the bigger schools in.
But that changed in 1973.
If you recall, the U.S. economy in the mid-1970s was in the midst of a major recession with the Vietnam War winding down and many athletic departments were struggling financially, which led the NCAA to more aggressively manage college sports (especially college football) with its so-called “cost cutting” conventions of 1973 and 1975.
What came out of those two conventions were considerable reductions in scholarships, coaches, recruiting budgets, travel rosters and other financial matters that were once the sole domain of the individual conferences.
“It’s probably unrealistic to think that we can manage football and field hockey by the same set of rules,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said last Monday. “I think some kind of reconfiguration of how we govern is in order.”
Well, that was exactly what the major college power brokers were saying back in 1975 when the next round of cost-cutting measures were enacted.
“I don’t know anything about hockey in Minnesota, lacrosse at Navy, rugby at Cal-Tech, or fencing at Cornell, but I know that football at Auburn, football in the Southeastern Conference, has just been kicked in the pants, “ said Auburn coach Shug Jordan.
“I don’t want Hofstra telling Texas how to play football,” said Darrell Royal.
Right away, the most prosperous institutions felt handicapped by the new set of rules and were frustrated with their inability to control their own destinies. The NCAA acquiesced somewhat to the major schools by reorganizing into three divisions in 1973: Division I for major schools, Division II for small colleges that offered some scholarships and Division III, which didn’t offer any scholarships at all.
Yet the new classification still left too many schools in Division I, with institutions such as Long Beach State and Villanova lumped in with Nebraska and Ohio State. The top 60 football schools were still a minority - a minority that today still exists within the NCAA legislative hierarchy.
“I think we’ve permitted or 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,” said Bowlsby. “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.”
So, where do we go from here?
“Right now our national organization is under fire, there isn’t any question about it,” said Bowlsby. “And yet I’m not hearing anyone say we ought to find another organization. I have not heard from a single commissioner or even athletic directors on an individual basis that they believe another organization other than the NCAA is the right approach for us.”
“Why are we where we are? It’s hard to say. I guess it’s the cumulative effect of a long period of time, but I think what we’ve done essentially is we have tried to accomplish competitive equity through rules and legislation changes, and it’s probably not possible to do that.”
Yes, the winds of change are once again blowing in college sports, as they did 40 years ago.
“I think we need to do some things to change it, and I don’t say this to be critical of (NCAA) President Emmert or leadership,” said Bowlsby. “I think, relative to the academic things, Myles Brand got a lot of those academic initiatives started, and they certainly continued under Mark Emmert’s watch. But I really do think we need to reconfigure the leadership of the organization.”
Bowlsby’s recommendation is a smaller federation within the NCAA consisting of the major football schools.
“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,” said Bowlsby.
Bowlsby’s comments, along with those made by the other Big 5 commissioners earlier this week, are gaining traction.
"This wasn't an accident that you're getting this series of media day comments,” one prominent college official told CNN-SI earlier this week
. “The train is moving.”
To those of us who pay attention to history, this sounds awful familiar. It will be interesting to see how the NCAA responds this time.