If you are reading this piece, chances are good you want to know how much the inevitable autonomy of the Power Five conferences is going to damage UConn football and basketball.
I must say UConn athletic director Warde Manuel sounded a lot less worried than I thought he might be.
The San Diego NCAA convention, which for a time was being hyped as a seminal moment in the history of amateur collegiate sports, was far less than that. There was no puff of white smoke. Nearly a thousand delegates didn't enter a giant ballroom dressed in white and emerge two days later dressed in black with stashes of greenbacks falling out of their pockets and horns growing from the back of their heads.
When it comes to major college sports, let's face it, the Good Ship Purity sailed a long time ago. What happened Friday with an electronic straw poll in a giant convention ballroom was essentially to give conceptual support to autonomy for the Power Five. In other words, the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 are going to call their own shots on a number of important issues — the most visible, of course, being stipends to athletes.
This merely reinforces the canyon of difference that has been a gripping truth for Central Connecticut and Hartford for many years.
And it leaves schools like UConn, which dearly wants to run with the big boys yet isn't in the Autonomy Club, wondering. Knowing the canyon that exists between the big-money and small-money schools will only grow bigger, will they land on one side or the other … or fall into the chasm.
Like we said, it was a straw poll in San Diego that showed nearly 60 percent supportive and 70 open to autonomy for the Power Five. Not one vote per Division I school, and certainly nothing binding. UHart president Walt Harrison, one of the guiding academic forces in the NCAA in recent years, said he didn't even have a clicker to vote and neither did many others.
"I wouldn't get too wrapped up in the specific numbers," Harrison said, "but I think it's true that probably more than two-thirds are willing to give the big five conferences some autonomy on certain issues.
"My conclusion is most people want to keep Division I together and are willing to make some concessions in order to do that. The real work to be done now is, what subjects are open to autonomy? And what are the shared governance issues?"
Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch, president of Division I schools, compared what is happening to the formation of the U.S. constitution.
"Big states versus small states," Hatch told reporters in San Diego. Hatch hopes for an "elegant solution where no one gets everything they want, but it's acceptable as a fair resolution."
Harrison called Hatch's analogy a fair one.
"Some of the original 13 colonies didn't know if they wanted to be part of it," Harrison said. "The five power conferences are saying, 'We're not certain we want to remain in the Division I, but we're willing to do it if we get certain concessions.'"
With not-so-veiled threats that began last summer, the Power Five have successfully held the rest of the Division I schools hostage. They don't want to lose those top 65 schools to a so-called Division 4 or have them break-away entirely from the NCAA. That could destroy the second biggest golden goose, March Madness, whose money is spread through many more schools than football.
Make no mistake. The sea change is coming and should be formalized by the summer. Change had to come one way or another. Getting cost-of-living money to scholarship athletes, who can't work, is the right thing to do. Revenue from sales of merchandise with their names and likenesses on it, dealing with agents, increased insurance for players bent on playing in the pros, Olympians soliciting training money … it's all out there to be decided. The days when schools can rake in all the money off the backs of free labor is over.
The 12-year television deal for the new college football playoffs is worth $7 billion. That's the pot of gold, folks. Yet only one highest-ranked champion from the American, Conference USA, Mountain West, MAC and Sun Belt is guaranteed a BCS bowl berth if one of their teams is not in the four-team national playoff. In other words, UConn is entitled to only a smaller stream from the giant river of plenty.
"What does it mean for us at Hartford?" Harrison asked. "It's an illusion right now we are providing the same kinds of things that the larger schools are. Clearly, they have better locker rooms, travel better and all those sort of things. This will widen the gap. The gap is already so significant it's not really affecting us as much. We can't afford to do what they're talking about anyhow. I think I would be much more concerned about this is if I was UConn.
"It's a tough spot for the other FBS conferences, the American, Boise State, Northern Illinois, all of them. They're trying to run with the big boys and right now they don't have that kind of revenue. There gap is only going to widen, yet they want to compete with them. They're going to have real problems. I think they are the ones that are being squeezed the most."
That's certainly the way it appears. Yet in talking to Manuel Saturday, he didn't sound nearly as concerned about UConn's plight as I thought he might.
"I don't agree that I need to sit back and be worried," Manuel said. "There are distinct differences between the very top programs and how they look toward the lower end of their own [Power Five] conferences, let alone worrying about UConn. You're going to have differences on how they want to do things [think Alabama vs. Vanderbilt in the SEC].
"I don't worry. I just work. Until I know more details, based on what I see, UConn and the members of the American Conference are going to be fine on ultimately what we're going to be able to do. It's not like the [Power Five] have gold everywhere and they're sitting on a throne going, 'This is where we're spending money today because we have it.' Having been at Michigan, I know what the other side looks like."
The average SEC athletic budget is $88.5 million, according to USA Today, while Mountain West schools spent an average of $41.3 million. That gap is only going to get bigger. Beyond the automatic BCS access, the Big East lagged badly against the Power Five in TV money. So, in a sense for UConn, the new boss is same as the old boss. Football also is an expensive game. The money culled from the Big East break-up will sustain UConn for some time, but big-time football, once a no-brainer in Connecticut, is now an unquestioned financial risk.
Questions abound on every topic. The vote for a $2,000 stipend a couple of years ago was pulled off the table. This time around, Harrison said, the theoretical "straw man" proposal at the convention was only for the Power Five. Obviously, that can be expanded.
"If you're asking for the perfect way, I'd say let every conference decide for itself," Harrison said.
"There's nothing out there yet," said Manuel, who said his biggest concern leaving the convention was that this will drag on without conclusion. "It's all discussion. Let's say they go to cost of attendance. The American can decide they want to do it. UConn could also decide."
There are seven presidents/chancellors on the NCAA steering committee that will guide the changes. Four are from the Power Five. It doesn't take a genius to see where the majority falls. And with $7 billion, who knows how much those top schools want to spend as they take football and college athletics to a much more professionalized model.