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Big changes to Power 5: NCAA sports could see accelerated wealth gap

College athletic teams and conferences with fewer resources might be eclipsed entirely by top programs

ATLANTA — The middle and lower-tier schools of college athletics — Fresno State, Brigham Young and Memphis, among others — are supposed to be bum-rushed out of big-time football and basketball any month now.

They are not among the 65 schools in the Power 5 conferences that will now make their own rules on student-athlete welfare and allocation of funds, as per a vote by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) board of directors on Aug. 7.

The thinking is the bigger conferences — Pac-12, Southeastern, Big Ten, ACC and Big 12 — could use their vast television money from regional sports networks and the new College Football Playoff to expand coaching staffs, throw money at recruits with stipends, pay for disability insurance for athletes and on and on. Smaller-revenue schools like Boise State in the Mountain West, UConn in the American Athletic and other colleges in Conference-USA, Sun Belt and Mid-American would fall further and further behind.

Under this scenario, the big schools could offer full cost of attendance to athletes plus $2,000 to $5,000 to meet expenses outside the athletic scholarship. The smaller schools, with annual budgets of less than hald the $100 million at big schools, would find their finances stressed.

There was an ESPN survey of the several dozen football coaches in the major conferences in which almost half of respondents said they did not want to play football against schools outside the 65. That would deny significant revenue to the other schools. Ominous word of the Power 65’s breaking away hovers over the start of the 2014 college football season, with a doomsday split scenario beckoning for the smaller programs.

Conflicting opinions

But a funny thing may happen on the way to the feared demise of those Cinderella schools. Not all of the 65 relatively high-resource schools want to go along with the plan pushed by their brethren from Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and other behemoths with deep pockets. Schools like Wake Forest, Indiana, Syracuse and Pitt may not want to start pumping vast sums into athletics.

“I have talked to athletic directors across the country, and they have the same concerns we have,” said Mark Coyle, athletic director at Boise State, whose football team was in Atlanta on Thursday night to play Mississippi State in the college season’s opening game. “There are just a handful of [big] schools who want to make some of these changes. Not everybody does.”

There will be 80 voting members (which includes 15 current players) for the Power 5, and there could be voting blocs organized to keep the wealthy schools from controlling the room. One of the other things the big schools might do is expand the four-team playoff to eight teams at the behest of television moguls — further eroding the mission of the colleges. Yet they cannot do that without support in the room.

Think about the vote strategy. Indiana, in the Big Ten, has an annual athletic budget of approximately $76 million. Ohio State’s is approximately $140 million. Are the Hoosiers going to allow the Buckeyes, a conference rival, to use superior funds to get further ahead? Suppose a vote comes to the floor about expanding coaching staffs to 12 or allowing additional recruiting staff. Will Minnesota and Illinois side with Ohio State? Doubtful.

Here is one more thing to consider about the rumored demise of schools like Boise State. The Broncos' wide receiver Matt Miller is a senior from Helena, Montana. He was offered scholarships by Stanford, Arizona State, Arkansas and Oregon State. Those schools are in conferences with plenty of television money. With a federal judge ruling that schools can give athletes at least $5,000 for every year of eligibility (to be paid after they leave school) and also money to meet full cost of attendance (which could be $2,000 to $5,000 a year), Miller could pocket an extra $40,000 by going to an SEC or Pac-12 school. Boise might not be able to match that.

“I’d still go to Boise,” Miller said. “I can go and work as much as I can, as a ranch hand, to get money. The atmosphere around our program and school makes a lot of difference. Going to another school just for the money would not be for me.”

‘The atmosphere around our program and school makes a lot of difference. Going to another school just for the money would not be for me.’

Matt Miller

wide receiver, Boise State

On the other hand, other players feel the allure of the Power 5. High school linebacker Kyler Manu of Pocatello, Idaho, told The Idaho Statesman that he changed his commitment from Boise State to the University of Washington in the Pac-12 because of the cachet of the top conferences.

Paul Horn, whose son Tyler is a starting defensive lineman at Boise State, said his son chose to play for the Broncos because of the culture of the program and the location. Horn wonders if the Boise way will have the same influence over new recruits.

“I’m afraid the atmosphere of the program, the type [of] coaching, the chemistry of Boise State may not be enough for some high school kids who don’t have the money to make a decision based on where they need to be,” he said. “They are going to go somewhere based on money, which the big schools can offer now. These kids can’t work. There is no time. They’ll go to someplace like UCLA, [but] we might be a better fit for them. The playing field is going to be more uneven with some recruits.”

On the field of the Georgia Dome, where Boise was to play Mississippi of the wealthy SEC, Mountain West Conference Commissioner Craig Thompson was asked about potential recruiting duels for high school players.

“We’re probably going to lose some of those kids,” Thompson said. “All you can do is what you can do.”

But Thompson said teams in his conference — with fewer resources — have been competing for many seasons with schools from the SEC, Pac-12 and Big 12. In 2011, Boise State arrived here to defeat mighty Georgia, 35-21.

Thompson said one of the other reasons the smaller Division I conferences will not be easily kicked to the curb is the 12-year television contract for the College Football Playoff and other media deals.

“We’re co-signers to that,” Thompson said. “There are 10 of us and Notre Dame. They can’t just say, ‘We’re going to do something different.’ No, you can’t.”

He said there are some game changers that would significantly affect lower-resource schools. “One would be if they don’t play us, which I don’t think is going to happen,” he said, “and if we change the scholarship cap. If we go back to the ’70s and there are 120 guys sitting on the bench for big schools, we don’t get [Boise quarterback] Kellen Moore, we don’t get [Fresno State quarterback] Derek Carr.”

“As far as cost of attendance, I have athletic directors who have said their first $2 [million] to $3 million in the budget is going to cost of attendance for athletes. We can do that.”

In a statement after the vote by the NCAA board of directors three weeks ago, Boise State president Bob Kustra sounded an ominous tone.

“For those who already think that Division I athletics has devolved into a business that too often dictates university priorities rather than the other way around, it’s about to get worse,” he said. “These elite programs will bear less and less resemblance to amateur athletics and the mission and role of a university. No one should think it will stop here.”

The Boise States of college football are hoping enough schools among the Power 65 prove Kustra wrong. 

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