College football needs a way to prevent schools from getting caught up in the panic of fast-pace conference changes, said National Collegiate Athletic Association President Mark Emmert.
Texas Christian University became the fourth school to jump leagues in a month when it agreed to join the Big 12 yesterday. It was the second time in a year that the Fort Worth, Texas, university changed conferences, pulling out of the Big East even before its membership became official in 2012.
The most recent rush, which included three other schools jumping leagues in the space of a month and rumblings of more to come, left the Providence, Rhode Island-based Big East with only six schools playing football at the highest level and the Big 12 without a commissioner. At stake is getting a piece of television contracts as big a $225 million a year.
“We could have had complete chaos because everybody had their finger on the trigger,” Emmert said in a telephone interview last week. “Very few of them wanted to pull the trigger. But they were afraid that if they didn’t, somebody else would. That’s a difficult climate to make thoughtful choices.”
This year’s rush started when Texas A&M joined the Southeastern Conference in September and left the Big 12. Twelve days later, the University of Pittsburgh and Syracuse University left the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference. TCU, which had agreed to join the Big East, instead paid what the Associated Press reported to be a $5 million fee to get out of its commitment.
The schools’ decisions unleashed torrents of speculation that other schools would change leagues. Texas and Oklahoma gave their presidents approval to shop for a new conference, and Big 12 Commissioner Don Beebe agreed to step down. The Big East said yesterday it would try to add six new football-playing schools.
The NCAA needs to have enough power to step in and stop schools from making decisions in a panic, said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a non-profit organization that has pursued college athletic reform since its founding in 1989.
“There is nobody in charge,” Kirwan said in a telephone interview. “We have a mess on our hands, and I think we do need a more central authority. I see no alternative to that than the NCAA president or the NCAA board.”
Kirwan says that while realignment has caught the nation’s attention, there is a greater crisis looming beneath the surface of college athletics.
“Conferences and commissioners have a license to operate outside of the NCAA, while making decisions that have monumental impact on the members of the association, who have little or no say,” Kirwan said. “It’s greed. There is so much money on the table that everyone is in a state of panic.”
Universities still would be unlikely to accept a person or policies that could hinder their independence, said Cedric Dempsey, NCAA president from 1994 to 2002.
“I would doubt the NCAA would be interested in a czar with ability to act unilaterally,” Dempsey said in an e-mail. “Many in Division I accept the expectation that eventually there will be five to six super conferences and are trying to determine where they will fit when that does happen.”
University of Connecticut President Susan Herbst said the schools are still capable of solving their own problems without any help from their governing body.
“I don’t know that more authority or regulation is needed, but President Emmert and the NCAA can be influential in helping presidents to think through the key issues,” she said in an e-mail.
For example, the NCAA can help schools understand the cost of travel as they consider joining conferences with members a half-continent away.
“Hundreds of student athletes are crisscrossing the nation, at great cost and miss class,” said Herbst, whose school is based in Storrs, Connecticut, and is a member of the Big East. “We rely on President Emmert to keep the conversation focused on these most vital pressures.”
In the month of September, it was all happening too fast, Emmert said.
“This is one of those cases where speed can really be the enemy,” he said. “If decisions are made very quickly, out of reaction to what others are doing, or may be doing, or you think they may be doing, then that leads to bad decision making.”