The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

June 28, 2014

Could power conferences break away from NCAA?

MORGANTOWN — In the 1976 movie “All The President’s Men,” Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward was involved in a shadowy meeting in a Washington, D.C., garage with his source known only as “Deep Throat” and received the following suggestion in trying to track down President Richard M. Nixon’s role in the Watergate break in.

“Follow the money,” instructed “Deep Throat,” a phrase that became part of movie history for, in real life, it seems to always get you to the heart of the matter.

So it is in the turmoil within which the NCAA is now existing, lawsuits flying in every direction, conference realignment still in the air, a championship playoff having been moved in place, changes in benefits given student-athletes seemingly being added every day.

It’s certainly an interesting time, at a number of different levels,” said a most interested spectator, West Virginia University athletic director Oliver Luck, during an exclusive interview on Friday morning. “It’s interesting how all this is happening at the same time, this perfect storm concept and they are all tied together.”

And the rope that ties them together is nothing else but money.

In fact, if you want to get to the heart of the problem, it boils down to this:

In the world in which we live, whoever controls the money is normally in control of everything, but in the world of college football, while the NCAA may be the ruling body, the money comes from television and it is paid not to the NCAA, but to the conferences.

This turns everything upside down.

“The way I look at it is that 1984 was the critical year with the Oklahoma vs. NCAA court case,” said Luck, referring to a ruling that said the conferences, not the NCAA, owned the rights to their broadcasts. “That created the vacuum which said the NCAA could not do the TV thing anymore. That allowed the conferences to really grow.

“The conferences quickly realized, ‘We have television. We have content, and CBS, ABC, Fox, ESPN will pay for that content.’ That’s where the real money is,” Luck continued.

TV money is college football.

“At the end of the day, we say we have ticket sales, MAC contributions, your multi-media stuff, no matter who is doing it – in house, IMG, whoever is doing it. It doesn’t matter. TV is the big oak tree.”

And the branches of that big oak tree are the SEC, the Big 10, the Big 12, the ACC and the Pac-12.

In truth, the NCAA is a non-entity in football, which sets up the very real scenario of the power conferences breaking away and running their own show.

“The NCAA doesn’t generate any money from big-time college football,” Luck said. “They have no involvement.”

Basketball is the NCAA’s “money train,” as Luck put it.

But basketball is different. There are 320 Division I schools, and in basketball the underdogs have a chance, unlike in football.

“One of the great things about the tournament is you have a Florida Gulf Coast rising up … but at the end of the day, if you ask people, they will tell you they’d rather watch Kansas play Kentucky or in the good old days UCLA play Houston,” Luck said.

Add that to the money the power schools have from football, and it is not the NCAA’s world at all.

“In a sense, the 65 schools have most, if not all the leverage,” Luck said. “I don’t think anybody wants to see the NCAA disappear, but there has been a lot of discontent among the schools because of the NCAA’s heavy-handed enforcement procedures.

“Some of these cases last four or five years. What they did to USC was awful. That was just wrong.”

And the other power schools see this and feel the same way. They might be better off without the NCAA.

“The NCAA doesn’t do anything for us,” Luck said. “All of my contact is with the Big 12 or the college football playoff group. That’s not the NCAA. It’s a different group that was created by the conferences.”

Breaking away isn’t a panacea, however, especially for WVU.

Even among the power schools there are haves and have nots.

“No playing field is level,” Luck admitted.

Don’t believe that? Consider that WVU trumpeted loudly a plan to spend $109 million in capital facility improvements covering the entire athletic department. Last week Oklahoma announced a $305 million capital improvement plan, but not one for the entire athletic department … just for the football stadium.

“I believe you cannot legislate equality. Theoretically we are all born equal, but the moment we come out of the womb the guy who has two parents working will probably have a better life than the kid who comes out to a single parent whose mom in a crack head, right?” Luck said.

“You can create opportunities that are as equal as possible. You will have 65 schools, but you’ll always have your Texases and Ohio States who are the truly big boys, and you’ll have the other guys,” Luck continued.

“Quite honestly, we’re going to be among the other guys, given our state and our size.”

The schools in that situation accept their place.

“The AD at Iowa State, jokingly at our meeting, says, ‘Hey, we’re No. 65.’ I’m not sure they are 65, but there are 20 or 25 schools that are going to be in that lower tier simply because of money, the size of your marketplace and those things we’re not going to be able to change.” Luck acknowledged.

Don’t, however, think Luck is complaining.

“I’d much rather be in the lower tier of the 65 than be in the upper tier of the group behind us. I just don’t know if the group behind us will ever have a chance to move in.”

Luck says either way it is hard for WVU to keep up with the traditional power schools.

“Historically, it’s hard to keep up, if you look back. Utah had a nice run that’s over. Boise also had a nice run, but they also had a great coach who left. I think the world of Peterson. I think he’ll do a great job at Washington, but that will be a hard thing to keep going.”

WVU’s football history, in fact, shows a trend of building for a few years to a peak season in which the team is a contender for a national championship, then sliding back. It was Don Nehlen’s way as coach, going undefeated in 1988 and 1993 and believing he had a similar team in 1998 before losing the opener to Ohio State and never bouncing back from it.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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