Dave Martin, File, Associated Press
The word is autonomy and its introduction into big-time college sports is a game-changer, even if it doesn't immediately change the games.
The NCAA is in the midst of a radical restructuring that will likely result in the five wealthiest football conferences, comprising 65 schools, being allowed to make rules without the support of the other 286 schools that play Division I sports.
The Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference want the freedom to spend the billions they make from television deals and other revenue streams more freely on athletes, including increasing the value of a scholarship to include costs beyond tuition and room and board.
The other 63 schools that will play in college football's top tier next season hope to be able to provide many of the same new benefits, even though they don't have same vast resources to pay for them.
Autonomy for those powerful conferences could widen an already large gap between them and the less powerful conferences when it comes to acquiring talent and revenue. It may not immediately transform the competition, however.
"If autonomy is successful there is no question that it is a de facto Division IV, but it stays within Division I," Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby told The Associated Press last month. "It keeps us participating in championships. It keeps us all playing by the same set of rules."
Mostly what the Big Five is hoping to accomplish with autonomy is to save college sports as we know it and they want it. At a time when the NCAA's model for amateurism is under attack in courts both legal and of public opinion, the leaders of those conferences believe autonomy can bring the reforms necessary to alleviate some of the pressure.
"I think the American culture has adopted the collegiate model as a fundamental part," Southeastern Conference commissioner Mike Slive said. "People want that model to continue. But we all want change."
Not everyone wants the kind of change Slive is pushing.
Boise State President Bob Kustra put out a scathing criticism of the move toward autonomy for the Big Five.
"The NCAA cannot fall prey to phony arguments about student welfare when the real goal of some of these so-called reformers is to create a plutocracy," Kustra wrote, "that serves no useful purpose in American higher education."
Boise State, which plays in the Mountain West, carried the banner for college football underdogs for years, winning 91 percent of its games from 2006-12.
Kustra's concern, and he's not alone, is if schools in the Big Five can spend more on athletes, the other schools won't have a chance to lure the blue-chippers.
That assumes they do now. They don't in football.
Only one of the top-100 recruits in 2014, according to Rivals.com's rankings, signed with a school outside the Big Five. In 2013, it was zero.
David Ridpath, associate professor of sports management at Ohio University, said Boise State's success was an anomaly, and restructuring is simply an acknowledgment of the reality of big-time college football.
"The Boise State athletic department does not look like Alabama's," Ridpath said. "Boise State is never going to be Ohio State."
Boise State's $37 million athletic budget is dwarfed by most schools in the Big Five. Alabama's is $109 million. Ohio State's is about $130 million.
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