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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)

The major conferences have every advantage in college athletics.

So, of course, they want more.

The biggest conferences -- the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern -- do not want to be bothered with the smaller fish in the NCAA Division I pond.

Finally, the smaller fish have sighed in resignation and said, OK, have at it.

Last week at the NCAA convention, Division I administrators, conference commissioners and other officials took a straw vote to gauge support for giving the Big Five more autonomy.

Almost 60 percent were in favor.

At a future NCAA meeting, this vote likely will become formal.

First on the agenda for the big guys will be stipends for scholarship athletes.

"I think this certainly has been bubbling for a long time," said Chris Mooney, men's basketball coach at the University of Richmond, a member of the Atlantic 10. "I don't want to speak for the conference commissioners or athletic directors, but I would think we would match that (stipends)."

Most conferences will do what is necessary to remain competitive in basketball. The quest for a spot in the NCAA tournament is an essential part of their existence.

The easy way to look at this push for autonomy is that it's all about stipends. But that's an ancillary point.

The bigger issue gets obscured by the philosophical, economic and emotional debate over stipends.

And the bigger issue is this is a major step in a seismic shift in Division I college athletics, a step that might be inevitable but is not in the right direction.

Division I football already is out of control. No team outside one of the five power conferences has a real chance to compete for a national championship.

That is not the case in basketball. At the moment, the NCAA tournament is seen as untouchable.

"What keeps it great is the Cinderella stories, the five-12 pairings often won by the 12," Mooney said.

But if the major conferences get more autonomy, how long before their members lose patience with the basketball tournament selection process -- "Our No.9 team didn't get in, but they took a second team from the Colonial?" -- and establish a super championship in basketball, followed by such championships in all sports?

As 2024 approaches and the $11 billion NCAA tournament television contract nears expiration, rest assured there will be talk of the lucrative possibilities of a basketball tournament among the Big Five conferences to establish a true national champion.

The NCAA and its sweet little Cinderella stories? Let them eat cake!

"I've had some pretty healthy debates with folks who think this is going to completely change the competitive structure of college athletics," said Tom Yeager, commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association. "I'm not as threatened by the whole 'gloom and doom, the sky is falling' scenario. There are so many unregulated areas -- housing, transportation (charter flights for games), weight rooms, locker rooms, how many jersey combinations you have, you name it -- that ... tip the level playing field on a pretty steep angle that have nothing to do with autonomy."

Yeager has devoted his professional life to college athletics. He knows his business.

But human nature is predictable. The more latitude received, the more sought.

For decades, there has been talk of super conferences that would set their own rules and hold their own championships. They would create leagues closer to professional than the current semi-professional level of college football, basketball and baseball.

If the Big Five are given the autonomy they seek, we will see the next step in that evolution.

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January 24, 2014

 

 
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