Sunday, January 21, 2018
Colleges

Major conference changes leave USF Bulls with uncertainty

USF athletic director Mark Harlan says he's a glass-half-full kind of guy. He might want to fill the other half of that glass with something stiffer than club soda. Last week, the NCAA board of directors voted to approve a bunch of changes that allow schools from the biggest and richest five football conferences — the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 — to have more autonomy, especially when it comes to scholarships. If things go as expected, it will soon become the law of the land. And bad news for schools such as USF. In a nutshell: The Big Five (plus Notre Dame) will take over college sports and do things the way they want to do them. That means guaranteeing scholarships for four years, giving players stipends to cover costs beyond the usual tuition, books, room and board. It might include better health benefits and paying for parents to attend games. And you don't have to squint to see that this is a major step in eventually paying players.

Great, you might say. Many of you believe that players should get their fair slice of the pie, seeing as how they are the ones who bleed and sweat in games that make billions for the NCAA and its member universities.

And, yeah, the new rules sound just peachy if you're one of the fat cats such as Florida, FSU and Miami. But what if you're one of the smaller schools outside of a major conference? What if you're USF?

While the smaller schools will be able to play under the same rules as the big guys, it just doesn't seem realistic that the little kids of college athletics will be able to compete financially with those in the five major conferences.

The major conferences have their own TV networks. They play in the better bowls. They have the richest boosters. They make the most money.

They are the ones who can most afford this new world of dishing out dough for all these new luxuries.

"That's fair,'' Harlan said. "We get it. Texas with a $175 million (budget) and we got a $41 million budget. We understand that. But with cost of attendance being a federal standard that will be set — that's the way we're heading — it's not going to be some arbitrary number. There will be a standard to it and it will be fair, and then we can make our decisions.''

But clearly, college sports seem to be heading to a greater divide between the haves and the have-nots.

Consider: It's estimated that the five mid-major conferences will share about $75 million in revenue from college football's new playoff format. That's about $15 million a conference. That's about $35 million less than the Power Five conferences. Now factor in all the TV money that the big conferences get and it would appear that many smaller schools won't be able to offer recruits the same packages as a big school.

Say you're a mid-level college football prospect and your two most attractive options are Indiana and USF. Indiana is not considered a great football school, but because it is in the Big Ten, it would be able to offer a scholarship guaranteed for four years with all the extra amenities and stipends. Meantime, USF might not be able to match each and every promise made by Indiana.

Regardless of all the other factors — the location, the coach, the education, the tradition, how good the teams are, the facilities, all that other stuff — wouldn't Indiana's package and guarantees be too good to pass up?

That's when USF and other mid-major schools would be faced with hard choices that Harlan was referring to.

Do you continue to lose solid recruits to the bigger schools? Or do you create money for the football program by cutting other sports? Maybe in order to field a competitive football team, you kill the baseball, softball and soccer programs.

Those might be drastic measures, but they are certainly plausible. Small schools might have to decide which two or three sports they can best compete in, then dump all their resources into those sports, while getting rid of the rest.

Meantime, there's talk the major five conferences would completely break away from the NCAA and do everything on their own, including playing only each other in football. Many smaller schools are paid handsomely to be homecoming road kill at Texas or Ohio State or Oregon.

If the big schools stop playing the small programs, it would severely slash the athletic budgets of the mid-major schools.

You can't help but wonder if we are heading down the road to where the big five conferences will become what is known as major college football playing for the national championship. Then all the leftover schools would play for the equivalent of a I-AA championship.

"I don't believe that will happen,'' Harlan said. "There are good people in those conferences, and I trust that is something they would not want to have happen.''

Still, even Harlan admits that if you're not in one of the major five conferences, there is now uncertainty about the future.

And if you're a USF booster, you're reminded this could have been avoided if president Judy Genshaft and former AD Doug Woolard hadn't nodded off during all the conference realignment.

But that was yesterday. The concern now is about today and, especially, tomorrow. Harlan knows it isn't going to be easy, but he's optimistic.

Honestly, if I was him, I would see the glass as half-empty.

Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] or (727) 893-8544. He can be heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-AM 620.

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