Old Dominion's athletic program just joined the high-rollers' table at The Bellagio. Alabama is there. Texas, Ohio State and LSU as well. But how will the Monarchs respond when, before the first hand is played, the big dogs up the ante?
Make no mistake, that's where major college football is headed, and soon. Conference commissioners such as the ACC's John Swofford, Big 12's Bob Bowlsby and Southeastern's Mike Slive made clear this summer their intentions to offer full cost-of-attendance scholarships, rewrite antiquated NCAA rules and overhaul its nonsensical, failed governance.
"We've had over a decade to kind of evaluate the current structure," Swofford said as we discussed university presidents micromanaging athletics. "And I don't think it's worked as well as we'd hoped it would. Sometimes you just find that out, and when you find that out, you have to adjust it and change it. …
"I think what we've lost, in my opinion, is that the real pros and practitioners on a day-to-day basis, meaning the athletic directors, are not as involved and engaged in the decision-making and legislative process as we need them to be. And that's not the ADs' fault. That's the fault of the governance structure we now have. You need people that live this day-to-day. You need people that understand the nuances."
Bowlsby and Slive echoed Swofford at their respective preseason football media gatherings, and each mentioned the possibility of creating, under the NCAA umbrella, a new subgroup of Division I. Those schools from the five power conferences — ACC, Big 12, Pacific 12, SEC and Big Ten — would streamline rules, tailor them by sport and offer athletes $2,000 stipends to cover ancillary costs such as travel home and midnight pizzas.
And if the group is really smart, it will hire czars to oversee football and men's basketball, billion-dollar enterprises that require daily, dedicated leadership.
The question is, can schools from leagues such as Conference USA, which ODU joined July 1, afford to tag along?
"I get where the larger schools want to go," Monarchs athletic director Wood Selig said Wednesday, "and I don't blame them, and I don't begrudge them at all. If I had a $166 million budget, I'd be thinking the same things. When you have a (range) of $3 million budgets to $166 million budgets within (Division I), that's a pretty big difference between the top and the bottom.
"You've just got this rampant growth that's gone on with the big-time football-playing schools, big basketball powers and they're just generating so much revenue (from television and the impending football playoff) that they can afford to invest it in so many different ways beyond salaries and scholarships and facilities. … So I get that they're pushing the envelope. …
"The cost of playing poker, the cost of playing the game, is going up."
For fiscal 2011-12, ODU reported $35.2 million in athletics revenue to the U.S. Department of Education. Texas reported $163.3 million, Alabama $124.1 million.
Conversely, local Division I Championship Subdivision schools Hampton, Norfolk State and William and Mary checked in at $8.9 million, $11.6 million and $19.5 million, respectively. So the range that Selig described is vast, indeed.
If Old Dominion, its Conference USA colleagues and schools from the Mid-American, Mountain West, American Athletic and Sun Belt fold their cards, they do so just as they've secured access to the College Football Playoff that debuts next season. The highest-ranked team from among those leagues is guaranteed a spot in either the Cotton, Fiesta or Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Each of the so-called Group of Five conferences will receive approximately $17 million in annual playoff revenue, according to CBSSports.com. The league that lands a team in the high-dollar bowl will collect another $26 million.
"We now have access to the playoff structure," Selig said. "We now have access to one of the $26 million bowls, and if this is the (Kentucky) Derby, you're in the race. I don't think you fade to the back. I think you go to the crop [whip] and find a way to make it happen, figure a way to fund-raise and generate the revenue necessary for whatever full cost-of-attendance might be.
"The devil is still in that detail. Do you pay a football player the same as you a swimmer? Do you pay a partial scholarship athlete the same as you pay a full-time athlete? That's the crazy stuff."
Those are issues for another day, but rest assured, the power five conferences will solve them.
What no one is suggesting, yet, is that the football faction split entirely from the NCAA and stage its own championships, a divorce that would rob postseason basketball of its Florida Gulf Coast-over-Georgetown, VCU-in-the-Final Four charm.
Breaking away "would be a pretty selfish thing to do," Swofford said, "and I don't think the frustration level has reached that point."
But change is brewing, and Selig aims to ride the wave. Visionary ambition? Delusions of grandeur?
A $2,000 stipend for each athlete would cost ODU about $1 million per year. That's neither insignificant nor oppressive.
"I know I'm just raising the ante on myself," Selig said, "but I think we have to find a way."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun