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COLUMN

Change is coming in college sports - for everyone

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For more on college sports, follow Tom Davis via Twitter at www.twitter.com/Tom101010.

Extra benefits will be awarded throughout Division I, not just power leagues

Friday, August 8, 2014 - 12:02 am

A distinct separation seemingly became closer to reality within college athletics Thursday, as the NCAA took a step toward implementing a plan that seemingly ensures that there will be two levels within its current Division I category. I emphasize the word “seemingly” because when all is said and done, what was proposed will indeed be passed by the organization, but it won't widen the gap between the top five conferences in intercollegiate athletics – at least any more than it already is - and the rest of Division I.

The NCAA is moving forward with the concept of paying its student-athletes the “full cost of attendance,” which will result in the universities having to come up with a few thousand more dollars annually per student-athlete, or at least those on full-ride scholarships. The top five conferences (Big 10, Big 12, ACC, SEC and Pac-12) are ready to move forward with that plan yesterday. And caught in that wake of revenue stream are the remainder of Division I institutions, including Butler, Ball State, IPFW, etc.

What has precipitated this movement is the influx of cash. Lots and lots of cash from television deals, and in particular, the new college football playoff system. This revenue is not only fabulous for the top five conferences, but it's pretty darn good for the lower-tier leagues, as well.

“We are all in it together,” Ball State football coach Pete Lembo said recently. “(The top five conferences) need us, just as much as we need them. For the next 12 years, we are going to have a college football playoff that the other five conferences (MAC, Conference USA, AAC, Mountain West, and Sun Belt) are tied into.”

The football playoff system is essentially six bowl games, with the top two being designated to play in semifinals and later a championship, while four other major bowls will be played either Dec. 31 or Jan. 1 each year. The best team from the group of leagues that Lembo mentioned will earn a spot in that playoff bracket.

“Whether it be access or revenue sharing, we're all in it together,” Lembo explained.

But will they be “in it together” when it comes to awarding the full cost of attendance, as well as improved health care, and several other ancillary benefits? The answer is yes, because they have to in order to survive.

It has yet to be determined whether leagues like the Mid-American Conference will vote to enact these changes as a group or if it will be individually, but suffice to say, no matter how they pass the measures, changes are coming. An athletic program simply can't afford not to.

Wichita State can't battle New Mexico for recruits if the Lobos are promising a few extra thousand dollars annually. And closer to home, the Belmont men's basketball program has come into the state of Indiana and out-recruited several Indiana programs for four athletes in the last two recruiting classes (2014 and 2015) – and that is without the extra benefit of cash, health care, travel costs, etc. Imagine how difficult it would be for the IPFW's, Valparaiso's, Indiana State's, Ball State's, etc. to battle a highly-successful program like Belmont if they were hamstrung by not offering the extra benefits.

In football, the best of the “other five” leagues, which includes Lembo's Cardinals, already hold their own with the lower-tier Big 10 programs – on the field. Ball State has beaten Indiana three consecutive times, each time away from Muncie, and Northern Illinois made Purdue look silly (a 55-24 Husky win) last season. But in recruiting, that success has been more difficult to replicate due to the “wow factor” of facilities, travel and so forth.

If the Ball State's of the athletic world elected not to offer the extra benefits, the already difficult task of selling actual success over a more extravagant locker room would become nearly impossible. But it's not just competing with the Big 10 for recruits that the Cardinals would have to worry about, but it is more so it's brethren leagues, such as Conference USA and the like.

The Cardinals can't afford to skimp on benefits if Marshall, Charlotte, etc. aren't doing so.

That is one reason why – in theory – the majority of Division I institutions could vote the proposal down, but they won't. And the other reason, the main reason, that these changes will overwhelmingly be passed is that if the top five leagues aren't allowed to implement the changes, they'll up and leave the NCAA and take their cash windfalls with them. And the lesser programs grasp the magnitude of losing that money.

“I'm a big fan of (former President) Ronald Reagan,” Lembo said. “What Reagan used to call trickle-down economics, we may not have what Michigan has, but some of the things that Michigan will implement to benefit their student-athletes will trickle down to the Mid-American Conference. Whether that be cost of attendance, the ability to do some more things with meals, whatever it is, while we may not be able to do it to the same degree as Michigan can, the ability to do it if we want to, and the freedom to do it, will make things better for our student athletes.”

A fall guy

Southern Methodist football coach June Jones recently posed an interesting concept in light of the top five conferences searching for more autonomy from the rest of the NCAA. The veteran coach proposed a system in which the top five leagues would have a separate season than the rest of the FBS.

"I think the have-nots should go ahead and move to the spring just like the USFL did,” Jones said. “I think that there's an opportunity to do a complete other side of that division, and I think that if we don't think that way as a group of have-nots, we're going to get left behind.

"I can see in five-to-seven years, possibly, the public would demand to have the two leagues play, just like I think the USFL had in mind, originally, of the winner of the USFL playing the winner of the National Football League."

Lembo isn't quite as enthusiastic about that notion.

“No offense to June Jones personally, but I think that is ridiculous,” Lembo said. “This is college football. This is played in the fall.”

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Tom Davis at tdavis@news-sentinel.com.