Membership stable after two years of upheaval, Colonial Athletic Association and Atlantic 10 Conference schools and officials turn their attention to the growing movement among the NCAA's power conferences toward greater freedom to govern themselves.
A potential new NCAA governance model dominated discussions at recent conference meetings among coaches and athletic directors, and earlier this week at presidents' meetings within both leagues.
"This summer there's going to be a lot of conversation," William and Mary athletic director Terry Driscoll said, "a lot of discussion, a lot of posturing, for lack of a better word, to get to a point where people decide whether they want full autonomy in their governance and to what degree they're willing to work with other groups."
The five power conferences — the ACC, Southeastern, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Big 12 — have separated themselves from the other 27 Division I leagues financially, largely due to lucrative TV contracts for football broadcast rights that bring in millions of dollars annually.
Those leagues want the opportunity to handle their affairs and spend money how they see fit, whether it's extra stipends for athletes — the so-called "cost of attendance" above what's provided in scholarships — or in areas such as increased medical benefits and athletic training tables.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive, at his league's recent conference meetings, even floated the idea of the power leagues splitting off into a Division IV if they aren't granted greater latitude by the NCAA or its membership.
None of Slive's brethren hopped on the secession bandwagon, but in an era in which the status quo is increasingly challenged — the O'Bannon vs. NCAA trial, the Northwestern football players union decision — a new model is inevitable.
"It's a big deal," Atlantic 10 commissioner Bernadette McGlade said, "because the NCAA is such a large organization with so many diverse institutions that a major restructuring of governance is going to impact everyone."
Leagues such as the CAA, the Newport News-based A-10 and the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference wait to see what comes of the discussion and possible trickle-down effects.
"Some of the stuff hasn't been clarified to a great degree that it doesn't send you chasing worst-case scenarios," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said. "Because it's in generalities and people sit down and talk through things, you tend to go to the extremes. It's like you're reading the fine print in the contract to buy your car or the warning label on the medication you're taking. It says you can go blind, gain weight and your hair falls out, but it's good for a cold."
Conference meetings were a part of the process that will lead to the new model. A draft was circulated in May. NCAA reps visited conference offices to explain what they could, and league officials in turn discussed key points and possibilities at their respective conference meetings.
The next step is conference commissioners' meetings starting Monday at Dana Point, Calif., where Yeager, McGlade and their peers will voice their constituents' positions and concerns.
Schools and officials have until July 1 to file formal comments about the plan to the NCAA Steering Committee on Governance. The committee will make adjustments and then circulate the plan among conferences and schools beginning July 11. A final plan will be submitted to the NCAA Board of Directors on Aug. 7.
A 60-day override period exists once the final plan is submitted to the board. If 125 Division I schools request an override by the end of the 60-day window, in early October, action is tabled. The plan then will be taken up and likely voted on at the full NCAA convention in January in Washington D.C., an appropriate setting, given that the government of Division I sports is at stake.
"The period of time between now and July 1 will be one of great input into the steering committee — concern, support, issues, whatever," Yeager said. "What they want to do is get a report going to the board that has as much consensus support as anything because nobody wants a big fight in an override. That's why the next two weeks are going to be fairly spellbinding, if anything is spellbinding in NCAA restructuring."
McGlade is confident that the seven university presidents on the steering committee will work conscientiously to assemble and circulate a new plan. But given the magnitude of change in the works and the number of schools and conferences, she said, "I think the timeline is extremely worrisome."
The new governance model goes beyond simply giving conferences and schools more latitude to spend money and conduct business. It also will restructure the membership of the NCAA's powerful Board of Directors — which schools and leagues will be represented and ultimately vote.
McGlade believes that the A-10 and other non-FBS football Division I leagues should and will be adequately represented. The NCAA basketball tournament remains a signature and lucrative event, and it embodies the inclusive ethos that the governing body wants to convey. The A-10, the restructured Big East and the American Athletic Conference each had multiple teams in the NCAA tournament.
Though what McGlade referred to as the "five equity conferences" are the prime movers in restructuring, she said that the A-10 membership fully supports giving schools the option to provide greater assistance to student-athletes. For example, the A-10 supported the "cost of attendance" measure when it was introduced in 2011, and will do so again.
McGlade favors a more permissive model that gives schools the option to provide extra benefits. She recognizes that all athletic departments can't afford cost of attendance stipends or charter flights for their teams, but she believes it's best to give schools the option to do so.
Though there are plenty of details to be worked out in the new model, McGlade is adamant that the basic structure of Division I remain intact. Extra scholarships or more games by the most well-heeled programs and conferences would fundamentally change the college model.
Schools such as William and Mary, Hampton, Richmond, VCU and even Old Dominion — despite its membership in an FBS conference — are more reactive than proactive. The five power conferences will drive the discussion.
"It's really premature at this point to say what the impact of some of these issues will be until we know more details," Driscoll said. "After that, we have to decide what we can do to take advantage of a situation or how we're able to react."
The landscape has changed just within the past couple of years. Conference realignment prompted new TV contracts, and leagues started their own networks, providing more money and more challenges. Athletes in the revenue producing sports of football and men's basketball see the money being made and increasingly demand a cut. Power conference schools want to use some of that money to provide extra benefits.
"I think there's much greater willingness to sit down and talk through some of the challenges that everybody has had," Yeager said. "There's recognition that those five conferences have unique pressures, characteristics, whatever. I think everybody would like to live in the big tent, as they say, and keep everything going.
"The approach from the beginning was, if this doesn't happen, we're leaving," Yeager said, referring to the Big Five conferences. "But there's been some pushback, because I think there are a lot of people in the (membership) that are willing to give them the latitude to solve those things."
Conference realignment affected not only the Big Five leagues, but had a trickle-down effect on the next tier of Division I.
VCU and its upwardly mobile basketball program jumped from the CAA to the A-10. CAA charter member George Mason followed suit a year later, and Davidson moves from the Southern Conference to the A-10 this coming school year, after rejecting overtures from the CAA. ODU and Georgia State bolted the CAA in search of FBS homes for their football programs.
The A-10 lost flagship programs Temple and Xavier. Butler left for the reconstituted Big East following a one-year stopover. UNC Charlotte departed for Conference USA and a home for its fledgling football program.
The CAA added College of Charleston and welcomes Elon next year as full members. The conference bolstered football with the additions of Stony Brook and Albany. That in turn helped stem a possible northern exodus, and Rhode Island football did an about-face and decided to remain in the CAA.
Yeager and Driscoll said that one coach at the league meetings expressed relief that for the first time in a couple of years everybody in the room wanted to be there. No one was a lame duck or angling to leave. Nobody's commitment was questioned.
The anxiety over who's in the room was replaced by a different concern, about how college athletics will govern itself in the coming years. Who will make decisions and how will they be made? How will schools and athletic departments adapt?
Answers and details are short at the moment. But everyone feels change coming.
"Going up to Aug. 7," Yeager said, "it's going to be a wild ride."
Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun