NEW YORK — The five power conferences are trying to redefine what it takes to operate a Division I college athletic program, with their commissioners calling out the NCAA at media days around the country.
Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby and fellow commissioners Mike Slive of the Southeastern Conference and John Swofford of the Atlantic Coast Conference have taken turns critiquing the NCAA over the last week, and it's likely Jim Delany of the Big Ten and Larry Scott of the Pac-12 will follow suit in the coming days.
The schools in the most powerful and wealthy leagues want more freedom to be able to run their programs the way they want, without the less powerful schools standing in the way.
Does this mean the end of the NCAA as we know it is near? Or will there be a new division of college football — Division 4 as Bowlsby calls it? Not necessarily.
Former Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe says he thinks Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference can get the power to govern themselves without cutting off all ties to schools from the less powerful and wealthy FBS conferences.
And NCAA expert John Infante, who writes the ByLaw Blog at athleticscholarship.com, says the best solution for the schools in those conferences is not leaving Division I, but reshaping it in a way where some smaller schools choose to leave.
The lightning rod issue at the heart of this debate has been the proposed stipend to college athletes that would add about $2,000 to an athletic scholarship to cover the full cost of attendance. All the commissioners from the major conferences have pushed for it, but it could not be passed because smaller schools said they couldn't afford it.
So, a possible solution for the powerful, wealthy schools is to set up a level of football at which all the participating schools gave players stipends — and let the smaller schools play each other.
The programs that would be most affected by the big five isolating itself from the rest of college sports would be from the lesser leagues in college football's top tier: the Mountain West, the American Athletic Conference (formerly the Big East), Conference USA, the Sun Belt and the Mid-American Conference — aka the group of five.
Those schools still want to compete against the big five on the field, cash in on the monster pay days that usually come with playing those games and capitalize on the attention that comes when they occasionally win one.
The FBS conferences will share, though not equally, the $5.6 billion ESPN is set to pay over 12 years for broadcast rights to College Football Playoff. The big five conferences will take 75 percent of that money, but the 25 percent left over for the other five to split still represents a big raise from what they were making under the BCS.
Presumably, the power conferences would make even more breaking away. But it might not be that easy.
"What happens when these 70 schools break away and form Division 4? Might happen. I don't think it's going to happen," Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson told reporters at his league's football media day in Las Vegas.
MAC Commissioner John Steinbrecher said at media day in Detroit: "The question is, can we come to agreement on a set of rules that allows us to co-exist amicably? I tend to believe we can."
Beebe thinks so, too. He said the big five will ultimately be allowed to allocate their enormous resources toward providing more money for student-athletes and they will be able to increase academic standards the way they see fit.
"It's going to be done but the competition is going to go on on the court and field," said Beebe, who now heads a sports consulting firm called the Dan Beebe Group.
Infante said if the big five gets its way, it could lead to a culling of Division I, which currently includes 349 schools, with some of the 125 FBS schools dropping down to FCS, major college football's second tier.
Infante added the big five creating a new division of college athletics might not be so well-received by the lower-revenue members of their own leagues, schools such as Iowa State and Mississippi State that would become the new have-nots of major college football.
Also, the potential backlash from FBS schools in the group of five who were no longer considered major college football schools could be also blunt movement toward the big five separating from the rest of Division I.
"You're going to have governors and attorneys general in states that are going to be ticked off," he said. "Not sure (the big five conferences) are going to want to invite more antitrust lawsuits."