Rumblings that the five "Rockefeller conferences" of major college sports — the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — may secede from the rest of the NCAA have never been louder. The launch of the new $EC Network symbolizes a financial gulf between the haves of Division I college sports and everyone else that is ever-widening.
For those Division I schools outside of the "high-major" gated community, there may never have been a more uncertain time. In Kentucky, we have five such schools.
Western Kentucky is still a relative newcomer to playing football in the FBS. Eastern Kentucky and Murray State both play scholarship FCS football. Morehead State plays non-scholarship FCS football. Northern Kentucky, which is in its transition period moving from Division II to D-I, does not play football at all.
Such schools could see their worlds torn asunder if the big boys bail.
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A split of some sort could be the end of big-money football guarantees that help schools in leagues like the Ohio Valley Conference make budget. It could also end the NCAA men's basketball tournament as we know it. That would remove the main financing component for all NCAA sports other than FBS football.
"It's a confusing time," Morehead State Athletics Director Brian Hutchinson said last week. "You have to pay attention to (the national scene). At the same time, the only thing we can really do is worry about ourselves and try to make our league (the OVC) more stable."
Simon Gray, Eastern Kentucky's acting athletics director, said part of what makes the present time so uncertain for schools at the OVC level is how many conflicting statements are coming from the major conferences.
"Guys in the same conference will send signals that are completely opposite. It's just very hard to get a good read nationally," Gray said. "I've sort of taken my cue from the NCAA President, Mark Emmert, who said he does not think (a split) is likely. But how solid that view is, I don't know."
WKU AD Todd Stewart said he believes the recent move by Atlantic Coast Conference schools to grant their television rights to the league through 2027 — meaning if a school left to join a new conference in the time span the ACC would retain the rights to their TV revenues — has secured the current college landscape for now.
"I think that ACC grant of rights has stabilized the situation," Stewart said. "I think you will see kind of a 'taking a breather' phase until people see how the new (FCS) football playoff (which starts in 2014) works out."
Issues for every school
The uncertain landscape of Division I college sports raises big questions for most every school.
Conference realignment's churn has already moved Western. A member of the Sun Belt Conference since 1982, WKU will join Conference USA for the 2014-15 school year. That will put the Hilltoppers in a league with UAB, UTEP, Marshall and Louisiana Tech, among others. WKU will also reunite with rival Middle Tennessee State, which is leaving the Sun Belt for C-USA this summer.
"I think playing against teams like UAB, Marshall, Southern Mississippi, Louisiana Tech, and of course Middle, will create a lot of energy in our community and on our campus," Stewart said. "I think ... this will be an exciting era for WKU and its fans."
EKU has watched the conference musical chairs create a demand for teams that has caused some of the most tradition-rich FCS football schools to move up to the FBS. Georgia Southern and Appalachian State, to name two, will join the Sun Belt in 2014.
Eastern is a school of similar profile to those schools. Its ancient archrival, WKU, has already made the move up to FBS football.
The potential of EKU also moving up "does get talked about," said Gray. "We've watched what happened with Western, have looked at their finances. It's something you monitor, but I don't know what our future holds."
Morehead State phased out football grants-in-aid in the 1990s. Its OVC rival Austin Peay, which did the same, has now resumed scholarship football.
Given the financial uncertainty if the major conferences separated from the rest of Division I, is Morehead better off without the cost of football scholarships moving forward? Or is its athletics department a less attractive entity to whatever could form after an NCAA split because it does not have pigskin grants-in-aid?
"There's a lot of things that would go into that," Hutchinson said of a return to scholarship football at Morehead. "People still talk about that, but it's not something on the immediate horizon, I don't think."
(Interestingly, the non-scholarship Pioneer League, in which Morehead plays football, will for the first time in 2013 have an automatic bid to the FCS playoffs).
In the big picture, schools further down the Division I food chain than the five glamour, big-bucks conferences face a hard reality: Their fates are apt to be determined by forces outside of their control.
"Our main goal," EKU's Gray said, "is not to lose anything we have now."
Said Morehead State's Hutchinson: "I remind our people that, whatever is going to happen or not happen, there will be a place for Morehead State University somewhere. So sitting and worrying about things (outside of our control) is not going to help us."