They staged this early June USF booster luncheon in a Lakeland clubhouse overlooking a golf course. A fitting venue, considering the series of gimme putts comprising the question-answer session.
New Bulls athletic director Mark Harlan and his entourage, including football coach Willie Taggart and men's basketball coach Orlando Antigua, had all the standard inquiries lobbed their way. They were asked about conference affiliations and on-campus stadiums, the potential of incoming freshmen and progress of returners.
For the entire discourse, through the salads and vegetable medleys and parfaits, the elephant remained outside the room. But it lurked in the foyer.
For any school in USF's weight class, it's an omnipresent behemoth cloaked in a four-syllable buzzword: autonomy. It likely will trample any lingering notions of a level playing field on the Division I landscape. Proponents suggest it's a 21st-century spackle for an amateur model in dire need of patchwork. Others say it will only expand the existing fractures.
"Autonomy does concern me," Harlan said.
What mid-major AD hasn't at least winced over the possible repercussions? At its core, autonomy is the quest of the nation's "Power Five" conferences (Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and ACC) for legislative freedom to increase the benefits for their student-athletes without the support of the nation's other Division I schools.
In the recruiting trenches, how could a USF or UCF beat them? On most occasions, they probably couldn't.
But could they join them?
"We're aligned with (the power conferences)," American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco told USA Today at the league's annual spring meeting. "We want to be like them. We think we're very close to them in terms of the issues."
To be sure, the American — perhaps more than any other non-power league — can forge an argument for being a Power Five bedfellow. The conference boasts the defending Fiesta Bowl champion (UCF) and the reigning men's and women's basketball national champs (Connecticut).
"In many ways we look at it as five plus one," said East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher, whose school officially became an American member on July 1. "Because we feel like we're actually more like those Power Five than maybe we are the other (Division I conferences)."
But as the Associated Press recently noted, only one of the Rivals.com top 100 football recruits from the Class of 2014 signed with a non-power team. The year before, none did. The disparity stretches from letters of intent to bottom lines.
Many of the brand-name programs seeking autonomy, from the Alabamas to the Floridas to the Ohio States, boast nine-figure annual budgets. By contrast, USF's budget for the 2012-13 school year was $44.6 million.
"These five (conferences) are so much further ahead right now (in terms of) revenue," said Dr. William Sutton, director of USF's Sport and Entertainment Management program, "that I just don't see where the other … conferences are going to be able to make up that kind of revenue in terms of TV and everything else.''
Yet officials in those other five Division I-A football conferences — widely deemed the "Group of Five" — don't seem wavered.
"We absolutely are going to work our tails off to make sure we have the capital to do those things," Harlan said. "So yes, USF is committed to cost of attendance, and we're committed to continuing to look at all the legislation that comes down. But we're going to take care of our student-athletes in the highest possible way."
Bolstering ledgers and hope nationwide will be revenue shared from the new college football playoff. Each of the Group of Five conferences reportedly is projected to receive roughly $95 million in the playoff's first year.
"The whole cost-of-attendance thing … that will be potentially a half-million-dollar new line-item expense for us," Troy University athletic director John Hartwell said. "What a lot of people don't realize is, with the new … playoff money that comes into play next year, you're going to get more than double that as a minimum."
Yet cost of attendance, shorthand for an increased scholarship that goes beyond tuition and room and board, could be an expansive — and expensive — umbrella.
If and when the nation's heavyweights are granted legislative freedom, expect them to overwhelmingly approve measures that expand academic and career counseling for their athletes, and allow families of players to be reimbursed for travel expenses, among other provisions.
"I think that we have to look at them in some kind of priority and figure what are the things we can do," Compher said.
"How quickly can we phase those in or implement them? But we as a conference and even as a university have already said we support the Power Five and cost-of-attendance legislation, and we're going to try to do that as well."