Smith Heads To SD To Talk NCAA Change

A major theme of 2014 will be how the NCAA reorganizes itself to face the major issues that confront it. Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith has been banging the drum for reform for months, and on the eve of the annual NCAA Convention, he tells BSB how progress is going.

In the discussion to figure out exactly how college sports will look going forward, a few things have already been determined.

At the top of the list, it appears the five major conferences aren't taking their ball and going home. Though it had been at least on the table that Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12 would leave the NCAA umbrella, their leadership has made it clear they aren't going anywhere – but they are going to get their way.

Those schools are expected to push forward with reforms that will help them set the course of the association, which will be discussed at the annual NCAA convention and accompanying Division I Governance Dialogue, taking place tomorrow through Friday in San Diego.

And among those present will be Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith, who has been telling BSB for months that change is necessary for the schools that produce the most revenue – not only to make the association more workable for those schools but to produce an NCAA that is able to weather the changing and rocky roads ahead.

"I think the one thing that everybody is pretty much in agreement with is that schools like ours, the top five conferences, need some flexibility with legislation," Smith told BSB last week. "Some legislative autonomy is really how we're framing it, so I think that will be discussed, is how do we allow those five conferences to do what they need to do in certain areas like student-athlete welfare and travel and things of that nature?

"I think that's one piece, and then the other piece is actually, how is this structured? We have so many cabinets and committees. There's a great deal of discussion on, how do we streamline that?"

In other words, expect to see things like the cost-of-attendance model and reduced limitations on what student-athletes can and cannot do going forward. The cost-of-attendance idea – which would add a few thousand dollars to each scholarship to close the monetary gap between tuition, books, and room and board, and the actual cost of going to school – seems almost assured to be adopted.

Then there's everyday issues of student-athlete welfare, the kinds of things Jim Delany talked about earlier this year when he rued the loss of a $15 laundry credit that existed during his time as a college athlete. Smith pointed to issues like the programs wishing to provide better snacks to athletes and making it easier to provide athletes with the ability to sightsee more on road trips as examples of those issues.

"These things sound small, but they constantly pop up where you have to go through some process to get formal approval to be able to do those kinds of things," Smith said. "We want the flexibility to make those decisions as an institution with our conference as opposed to going through an NCAA process.

"And then there's the biggest (part) that everyone is aware of, is cost of attendance. The old scholarship model is antiquated. How do we get to some model of cost of attendance? That's the bigger issue."

While some might argue such changes would institutionalize the competitive gap that already exists between schools like Ohio State and Eastern Michigan – a school at which he served as AD from 1985-93 – Smith views those reforms as a necessary step.

"I don't think it's a slippery slope," Smith said. "I think it's a recognition that it is fact. This is football-oriented because you can have a competitive, level playing field in other sports, but the reality is if we play Eastern Michigan 10 times, how often are they going to beat us? It's the same thing for Michigan and Central Michigan or Purdue and Ball State. You can go across the country, and there's a reality there."

Things that won't be changing include scholarship limits in all sports – for example, the maximum of 85 scholarships that FBS football teams currently have to work with – as well as the current revenue model to conferences.

Right now, though, the main key will be to figure out a structure that can handle the big changes coming.

"I think that a majority of people in the top five conferences know we have to do something," Smith said. "What exactly it looks like, that's still being debated. I don't think in San Diego next week we'll talk about that.

"I think what we'll focus on is more the structure, and I think once we have the structure in place where we have our legislative autonomy, that's when what we're talking about now will begin to get vetted – the cost of attendance and all the piece of legislation that the top five feels we need to do for ourselves. But right now, we're really focused on the broader model."

Reform is also necessary as the NCAA faces threats like the upcoming Ed O'Bannon lawsuit that could forever alter the amateurism model that college athletics is based on, which has come to the fore as television contracts have exploded across the sport. Then there's the looming specter of potential lawsuits about concussions suffered through college athletics.

Factor in what most agree is a broken enforcement structure, as well as the role of agents in college sports, and there's a lot that clearly needs fixed. So to power brokers like Smith, one of the key ways to do that is to pare through the unwieldy bureaucracy that the NCAA has become.

"It's a major, major opportunity for us to finally set up a structure that is recognizing what we'll need in place for the 21st century and the ability to respond to all these other issues that are coming at us," Smith said. "We do not have that now. We have a layered bureaucracy that makes it very difficult to us as an organization to respond to these issues. The second part is we have done a poor job of using our best talent to help us deal with those issues."

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