Is it time for football powers to split?

This story has been corrected. Read below.

DALLAS -- College football's big boys aren't ready to break up the NCAA and raze its stately compound in downtown Indianapolis.

But if the sport's heavyweights don't start getting some cooperation from the rest of the NCAA's member schools -- i.e., athletic departments with smaller checkbooks, fewer national championships and less tradition -- the idea might not sound so preposterous in the very near future.

And who can blame them?

It's like your neighborhood ballpark concession stand having as much say as McDonald's in the regulation of the fast-food industry.

It doesn't make sense.

College football's socialism is why it's about to become the "big five" against everybody else.

I think we all have a sense that transformative change needs to happen. I don't know that we can keep doing what we're doing. It's bad grammar but a good concept: If we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always got. That's kind of where we are right now.
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby

College football is setting the stage for the final season of the controversial Bowl Championship Series and a forthcoming four-team playoff that will crown the sport's national champion starting in 2014. But the future of the NCAA and how major college football is structured seems more fragile than ever.

In fact, what once seemed like an idle threat now seems like a very plausible scenario: Schools in the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC might break away from the rest of the FBS leagues and form their own federation within the current NCAA structure. Such a move would allow the schools and their conferences to write and approve their own rules, such as increasing the value of scholarships to meet the full cost of attendance, reforming recruiting rules and overhauling the way they investigate and punish rule breakers.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, a former athletic director at Stanford, Iowa and Northern Iowa, delivered perhaps the most damaging criticism yet of the NCAA during his opening address at Big 12 media days on Monday morning.

"I think we all have a sense that transformative change needs to happen," Bowlsby said. "I don't know that we can keep doing what we're doing. It's bad grammar but a good concept: If we always do what we've always done, we'll always get what we've always got. That's kind of where we are right now."

It's exactly where the NCAA has been for much of the past two decades, which is why college athletics' most influential figures are starting to proclaim their displeasure loud and clear.

At nearly the same time Bowlsby was firing away at the NCAA on Monday, ACC commissioner John Swofford told USA Today that the next six months are "very important" to the future of the NCAA and suggested that drastic changes might be made at the NCAA's annual convention in January.

Last week, SEC commissioner Mike Slive echoed Bowlsby's comments at SEC media days: "We have supported and will continue to support the NCAA as the appropriate governing organization for intercollegiate athletics, but at the same time, however, we will continue to push for changes we believe are in the best interest of our student-athletes."

Expect Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott to make similar remarks at their respective leagues' preseason gatherings later this week.

Bowlsby said commissioners of the big five conferences met about six weeks ago to discuss their concerns. Bowlsby said the commissioners were "unanimous" in their desires for drastic changes to the NCAA structure and said he wasn't "out on a limb" with his scathing remarks on Monday.

"Some of it's the inability to do anything, but Pogo was right: We've met the enemy, and he's us," Bowlsby said. "We all have to take responsibility."

Bowlsby said none of the conference commissioners have suggested entirely breaking away from the NCAA, at least not yet.

"I don't see secession from the NCAA as a viable leverage point, except as a last resort," Bowlsby said.

This much is clear: The NCAA needs the big five more than the big five needs the NCAA. The NCAA offers very little in the day-to-day operations of college football. The FBS leagues do their own scheduling and stage their own conference championship games, and bowl committees (and the BCS until 2014) handle the postseason. Unlike Division I men's and women's basketball, and FCS, Division II and Division III football, the NCAA doesn't crown a national champion in FBS football.

In major college football, at least, the NCAA's primary role is to legislate rules approved by its member institutions and enforce them. If you've read the NCAA rulebook or paid attention to recent infractions cases at Ohio State, Miami and Penn State, it can certainly be argued that other entities might be better equipped to do it.

Although Bowlsby said the commissioners' recent comments were not an orchestrated effort to increase pressure on the embattled NCAA, it's clear that five of the most powerful men in college athletics are at the end of their ropes with the bloated bureaucracy. Bowlsby described the NCAA's current legislative process as "gridlock" and said it's impossible to address the needs of every NCAA member institution because they're so diverse.

"Look at Division I. There are programs that have $3 million budgets and programs that have $160 million budgets," Bowlsby said. "How do you begin to try and do things that are good for one and also good for the other? Is there a segregation of some sort based upon their tax bracket? Probably. But I don't know how you go about solving problems without getting like-minded people together and coming up with some solutions."

It's probably unrealistic to think that we can manage football and field hockey by the same set of rules.
Bowlsby

Bowlsby is right. The only way schools like Alabama, Ohio State, Southern Cal and Texas can address their needs is to break away from the Central Michigans and Utah States of the college football world. Every time legislation is proposed that might increase spending, the schools that can't afford it vote it down. And there are a lot more college athletics departments in the red when it comes to sports budgets.

"Why are we where we are?" Bowlsby asked. "It's hard to say. I guess it's the cumulative effect of a long period of time, but I think what we've done essentially is we have tried to accomplish competitive equity through rules and legislative changes, and it's probably not possible to do that. I think we've permitted or even sometimes encouraged institutional social climbing by virtue of their athletics programs, and I think the fact is we've made it too easy to get into Division I and too easy to stay there."

The harsh reality is that most of the schools from non-BCS leagues like the American Athletic Conference, Conference USA, Mid-American Conference, Mountain West and Sun Belt Conference don't have the financial resources to compete with the sport's heavyweights. Heck, many of the schools in the big five leagues don't even have the means to compete with traditional powers like Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Michigan and Oklahoma, but at least they have a fighting chance every season.

Obviously, a segregation of college football would have dire effects on teams that aren't part of the big five conferences. Nearly as many programs outside the big five (more than 60 in 2014) as in them (64 in 2014) would be adversely affected by the move. If the big five leagues formed their own federation, would there be another run on conference realignment? Would programs like Boise State, BYU and Cincinnati scramble for new homes so they wouldn't get left behind?

"Some of the things that would likely happen under some sort of process would likely not be favorable for mid-majors like Northern Iowa," Bowlsby said. "What if scheduling changes where the FBS guys aren't playing FCS schools? That's a profound impact on those guys. I know that perspective and understand it. But I don't know how to get my arms around it from a standpoint of being able to make change because Northern Iowa and Texas aren't much alike."

Not every sport will be segregated, just football, where there's more money at stake for the teams at the top.

"It's probably unrealistic to think that we can manage football and field hockey by the same set of rules," Bowlsby said.

Only the current NCAA structure believes that can happen.

A July 22 story on ESPN.com mischaracterized how the NCAA handles votes on Division I athletics. Division I is governed by a board of directors, made up of 18 school presidents – one from every FBS conference and eight other seats that rotate from the remaining 22 Division I conferences. For football, FBS teams vote on FBS issues and FCS teams vote on FCS issues. The story has been updated.

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