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What NCAA's Power-5 Autonomy Ruling Means for Notre Dame

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What NCAA's Power-5 Autonomy Ruling Means for Notre Dame
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

You can ruin a good thing. 

So while on paper, the NCAA's approved restructuring to give the power-five conferences autonomy over their own governance makes sense, it also pushes us closer to the end of college sports as we know it.

Hailed as progress, the restructuring (best described here by colleague Ben Kercheval) will firmly illustrated the distinct line in the sand between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in the ever-changing world of collegiate athletics.

At Notre Dame, it pulls one of the most high-profile—and deep-pocketed—athletic departments in two distinctly different directions. Join the arms race, or risk drifting even further out to sea.

Joe Raymond/Associated Press
It has been a busy few years for Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick.

For Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick, it's just another move on a chessboard that needs constant evaluating. Swarbrick has already adeptly navigated conference realignment, relocating Notre Dame's sports to the Atlantic Coast Conference while keeping the football team independent.

He also made sure Notre Dame kept its door to the College Football Playoff open, serving as the driving force behind the construct of the four-team playoff and working with SEC commissioner Mike Slive in an unlikely partnership that helped seal the deal.

On paper, the ruling is being heralded as a success, a key concession made by the bureaucratic glacier known as the NCAA. 

"I am immensely proud of the work done by the membership. The new governance model represents a compromise on all sides that will better serve our members and, most importantly, our student-athletes," NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement. "These changes will help all our schools better support the young people who come to college to play sports while earning a degree."

Used for good, this governance means additional benefits to student-athletes. Full cost-of-attendance scholarships, stipends to help students and even extended health care and four-year scholarships are being bandied about.

That's how Slive views the decision (not all that surprisingly), as he talked to Fox Sports' Stewart Mandel:

I know there’s angst amongst some of our colleagues in Division I, but I think those are fears that are really not necessary. This is not about competition. We’re pretty competitive. We don’t need to create additional advantages for competitive purposes. We don’t need to create additional advantages for our ability to generate revenue.

What we want to do simply and solely -- and the cynics have a hard time accepting this -- is to create a system that benefits student-athletes.

Of course, not everybody agrees. Not even some head coaches in the power conferences. 

Randy Edsall, new to the Big Ten as he brings Maryland to the conference for the 2014 season, thinks like a lot of others do

"I think it’s one step closer to the five conferences splitting off,” Edsall told a group of assembled media, according to CSNBaltimore.com  "I really do, but again I think there’s bigger issues now that you have that in terms of who is really going to take charge of what’s best for football.

"Yeah, you have this autonomy, but now what are we going to do with that to get the collegiate model, you know, the way it should be or back to where it was?"

Edsall is new in Big Ten country, building his reputation in the Big East, a conference better known for basketball, so maybe Jim Delany hasn't won him over yet. 

But Kansas State's Bill Snyder didn't bite his tongue either, the 74-year-old coach with his name on the side of the Wildcats' newly renovated stadium, calling it how he saw it

"It's no longer about education," Snyder said, according to CBSSports.com. "We've sold out to the cameras over there, and TV has made its way, and I don't fault TV. I don't fault whoever broadcasts games. They have to make a living and that's what they do, but athletics—that's it. It's sold out."

Snyder's observation isn't a new one. At this point, selling out in college sports is like MySpace. It's been around so long that we're not even sure if it exists anymore. 

For Irish fans wondering what to make of the ruling, there should be comfort in the fact that this isn't new news to Swarbrick. He talked about this ruling as an inevitability back in May, telling the South Bend Tribune's Eric Hansen that the change is a good one

I think the concept of autonomy is absolutely a good thing, because it reflects there are growing differences in the models among the members of the NCAA. Difference has been reflected over the years by different divisions, right? Division I is different than II is different than III. Well within Division I there are now increasing differences.

And this is a way that allows you to keep the division intact, but recognize those differences, so I think it’s a very creative solution. And I think it’s the right solution.

When reached by Mandel earlier today for comment, Swarbrick said essentially the same thing, reminding all of us that consensus isn't all that easy to find among 65 different athletic departments. 

"People assume a measure of unity that doesn’t exist," Swarbrick told Mandel. "There’s no clear position [among the 65] on some of the key issues. That doesn’t mean we won’t reach solutions. I absolutely believe we will. But the notion that that’s already happened, that we’ve got clear consensus on legislation that is queued up and ready to go—we’re not there yet."

From the sounds of it, one place where the Irish already stand in the minority is over scheduling. ESPN's Brett McMurphy polled the head coaches of the power-five conferences, with almost half of them (46 percent) in favor of playing exclusively power-five opponents. 

Brian Kelly was one of just 23 coaches that was against it. 

Even though Notre Dame has never played an FCS team and plays almost exclusively Power Five opponents already, Irish coach Brian Kelly said he would be against it if it meant no longer playing Navy.

Kelly said removing Navy from Notre Dame's schedule would be "a deal-breaker." Even with teams playing tougher schedules, Kelly said he doesn't favor teams with losing records playing in bowls.

That the Irish didn't feel like giving up one of college football's most important rivalries wasn't surprising. Nor was it surprising that most head coaches have forgotten about things like tradition and rivalry, too laser-focused on winning a conference title, or doing whatever it takes to keep their multimillion-dollar job. 

But as the NFL continues to find ways to become bigger and bigger, it's worth remembering that most of us that love their football on Saturdays don't watch the college game because it's a better product.

We watch because it's a game where tradition and loyalty have embedded themselves, passed down (sometimes begrudgingly) through generations. 

Duane Burleson/Associated Press/Associated Press
Could an upset like Appalachian State's win over Michigan be impossible with new rule changes?

We believe the Rose Bowl is still the granddaddy of them all. That New Year's Day was made for college football. And more specific to Irish fans, we believe that whatever the odds, old Notre Dame will win over all. 

That's the mystique college football risks losing with this pronounced separation. It's the same one that gutted great high school events like the single-class basketball tournament in Indiana or the boys hockey tournament in Minnesota. 

In 10 years, we could be looking at a different college game. A sport that could erase games like Appalachian State's historic win at the Big House. Or Boise State's BCS-crashing victory over Oklahoma. Maybe eventually the opportunity for an independent Notre Dame to play for a College Football Playoff Championship.  

Sure, on paper, Thursday's news makes a ton of sense. It just doesn't make it a good thing. 

 

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