Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany stepped up to the podium at his conference's media days on Wednesday, and what followed was a bizarre, half-hour speech and question-and-answer session that was both confusing and illuminating.
Delany's power-conference counterparts from the SEC, Big 12, and ACC have all made a lot of noise this week and last about the need for major change in the NCAA, including a potential secession by the football powers from the rest of the governing body as pay-for-play and concussion issues loom, the NCAA's enforcement authority crumbles, and even greater financial windfalls near.
And while Delany followed suit, he opted against some of the more aggressive rhetoric his fellow commissioners used. For instance:
The SEC's Mike Slive:
The current regulatory approach would be more at home in the era of Johann Gutenberg's printing press than in our current fast-paced, technology-driven society and will no longer serve to functionally govern recruiting behaviors moving forward.
As Albert Einstein once said, ‘We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
The Big 12's Bob Bowlsby:
I really do think we need to reconfigure the leadership of the organization. I don't think we can at this point in time move forward, and we certainly haven't been able to configure an agenda that made the changes we need to make ...
It's probably unrealistic to think that we can manage football and field hockey by the same set of rules. I think some kind of reconfiguration of how we govern is in order.
The ACC's John Swofford:
That's a potential way of making a change that would basically retain the fundamental NCAA oversight and umbrella, if you will. If the five conferences were to break off, I mean, that's a complicated move.
You'd have to, in essence, duplicate the NCAA in some form or fashion, and then what does that mean for intercollegiate athletics? So if you've got another division, if that's the answer within the NCAA, you can maneuver and find an appropriate way, I think, to address those kinds of issues.
But here's Delany on the same issue, whether there needs to be a split in the FBS between the power conferences and "mid-major" football conferences:
On any of this restructuring, governance, competitive advantage, level-playing field, how that gets resolved, you call it -- I call it the plumbing and the politics of restructuring. That needs a lot of work ... And I think the conference commissioners that I've spoken with throughout the range of Division I are open for that discussion.
And I think it's necessary and it's a traditional organization and it needs to innovate as we all do, and I'm pretty optimistic that we do that. But I want us also to keep in mind why we're doing it and I think it's to make better connections between our athletes, the educational and the athletic experience.
Delany shut down any talk of a new, long-speculated "Division IV" for major-conference schools, but didn't shy away from saying the way college football is currently structured won't do. He moved on to address the status of NCAA president Mark Emmert, and once again was delicate in his wording:
You know, there's been a lot said about Mark Emmert. My own view is that Mark has done some good things. Mark has I think made some mistakes, but I would tell you this: That running the NCAA is a real challenge, and most of the problems that we confront today preceded Mark Emmert. So the fundamental challenges to institutions, conferences in the NCAA, were there before Mark ever walked into the door.
(Delany's closest ally, the Pac-12's Larry Scott, likewise calls the idea of a total breakaway "overcooked.")
Again, similar to what Slive, Bowlsby, and Swofford were saying, but toned down, which isn't necessarily out of character for Delany. What was so interesting about his comments, though, was this section in particular:
It will require some give and take, but I honestly am very optimistic, very optimistic about this membership organization, which has been slow to change and slow to respond. Very optimistic we'll get it. And I think we may get it within a year.
The time frame is interesting. We already know a lot will be changing in about one year's time, with the introduction of the College Football Playoff. There could be a lot more, too, as we could realistically have a resolution to the Ed O'Bannon player-licenses lawsuit around 2014 and perhaps the "restructuring" to which power-conference commissioners have been referring.
If the O'Bannon plaintiffs are victorious, the game changes. Players will have to be compensated for the use of their names and likenesses, but the sabre-rattling we've heard from the Big Ten about dropping to Division III is just that: sabre-rattling. College football is overflowing with cash, and large universities aren't fond of leaving money on the table, especially with the Playoff money set to begin arriving in 2014.
If the highest level of college football needs to shed the NCAA to survive, it most assuredly will, but the most likely scenario is still probably a modified arrangement within the NCAA structure that would allow players to be compensated in some manner while accounting for the issues that raises, including Title IX. Football and basketball are the ones steering the proverbial ship, but leaving the NCAA would completely leave all other sports out to dry.
College football purists will frequently opine about how all the recent upheaval has ruined the sport, but that's nonsense. College football has never been a static monolith, and teams have been rapidly joining and swapping conferences for over 20 years now.
The sport has never experienced a change like what could come to pass in the next 12 to 18 months, though, and that leaves us in an incredibly uncertain place.