Following a vote by the NCAA on Thursday that allows more autonomy for the five most powerful FBS conferences, many Southern Miss fans are left to wonder what's next for their program with the table now tilted toward the richest conferences.
The vote means that the Power Five, which includes the Pac-12, Big 12, SEC, ACC and Big Ten, will have a much greater voice in establishing their own new guidelines.
USM is in Conference USA, which joins the Mountain West, American Athletic, Sun Belt and MAC in the second tier of FBS, which is known as the “Group of Five.”
USM athletic director Bill McGillis said Friday that there's still a good deal of uncertainty going forward on what those new rules might look like, but he made a case against the idea that the Group of Five is now left out in the cold.
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“Yesterday's action changes the governance model we've had in that the passing of rules, the changing of rules have always been at the purview of all schools,” McGillis said. “All schools had an equal voice at the Division I level. With this change, there's no question that the higher resource conferences will have a greater voice, but whatever proposals, whatever legislation is adopted going forward, is for all of us and not just those five conferences. That's been lost in some of the coverage.”
The new governance model would allow the top five conferences to establish new rules on issues such as recruiting, insurance benefits for players and providing cost-of-attendance stipends to student-athletes. These new rules can be adopted by other conferences if they choose.
There are a handful of ways that the NCAA Division I Board of Directors could be forced to reconsider its vote, but all signs point toward the Power Five putting up their own legislation for consideration by Oct. 1 and it will be adopted in January at the NCAA convention.
So what's next for Southern Miss and the rest of Conference USA?
“I don't think it's going to result, in the short term, in a dramatic change in how we do business or on the competitive landscape,” McGillis said. “It's really going to facilitate a relaxation of some of the rules that were established to ensure a level playing field, which is the premise behind most NCAA rules. I think we're going to see changes that benefit student-athletes and that can certainly be a good thing. It gives a greater voice to the student-athletes
“The resource gap between the power conferences and the others has been growing for a number of years. This doesn't increase the resource gap, but it allows anybody who chooses to to utilize those resources in a lot more flexible way.”
The greatest issue facing USM and other schools like Louisiana-Lafayette, Akron and Tulane is the increased cost of putting together a competitive program when compared to the Power Five schools.
The new rules are still under debate among the Power Five so there is no sure thing on how much programs like USM will have to bolster their athletic budgets.
It's not a matter of Conference USA leadership not seeing this coming. C-USA commissioner Britton Banowsky endorsed the idea of student-athletes receiving a stipend for the full cost of attendance a year ago. The league's presidents and athletic directors followed with their support.
There's no denying that the increased cost of athletic scholarships could be a significant blow to a program like Southern Miss.
McGillis said Friday that the current total cost of scholarships for student-athletes at USM is north of $5 million.
When asked what percentage of that $5 million-plus has the school been able to cover through the Eagle Club, McGillis didn't have an exact figure on hand. The Eagle Club is the fund-raising division of USM athletics that has the mission of offsetting the cost of student-athlete scholarships.
In recent years, the Eagle Club has managed to raise money to cover approximately 50 percent of the cost of athletic scholarships. The athletic department has had to step up and cover the rest.
Going forward, there's no doubt that USM has to significantly improve its fund-raising efforts to keep up with the competition.
“We're going to have to identify resources and raise more money through the Eagle Club,” McGillis said. “We've got to grow (the Eagle Club) every year. The challenge is going to get greater. It may very well be greater next year with some of these changes. The cost of operating a Division I athletic program will continue to escalate. We'll have to generate more funds through external sources and through the Eagle Club.”
McGillis said Friday that the Power Five will have to decide how the cost-of-attendance stipend will be established. It could be a fixed amount for every student-athlete, it could differ from school to school or it could be based on need for each student-athlete.
“I can tell you this that the national average of the difference between current full scholarship and the cost-of-attendance is just over $3,000 annually,” McGillis said. “That's a relevant statistic. The cost of attendance is determined by each institution. It's not done by athletics. It's determined by the financial aid office.”
It will also have to be determined whether these cost-of-attendance stipends will be awarded to just full-scholarship athletes or all athletes, including those who are on partial scholarships.
The financial impact on schools like USM won't be fully known until the final rules are set under the NCAA's new governance structure.
“There's a lot of uncertainty,” McGillis said. “Just take the cost-of-attendance stipend issue that has drawn quite a bit attention. That is a blank canvas. There is a movement toward increasing the cap on school books and board, but who is eligible for it? How much is it going to be? None of that has been developed, but there are a lot of different ideas.”
McGillis pointed out that there are several Power Five schools, such as Georgia Tech, Iowa State and Purdue, that have voiced some reservations about the direction of Thursday's vote, but the decisive 16-2 tally was necessary to keep Division I together.
“Everybody involved agreed that this model was the best to keep the organization together, to keep the 125-plus FBS schools together under one tent,” McGillis said. “I think the five high-resource conferences compromised in terms of the areas in which they will have autonomy. It's not in all areas of intercollegiate athletics. It's going to be in certain areas related to student-athlete benefits. I think the Division I institutions outside the high-resource conferences compromised as well and recognized that this was important to the higher-resource conferences that they have greater flexibility to use their resources. I think people were considerate of all those factors and worked together.”
McGillis believes that the inclusive nature of the discussions that led to Thursday's vote will continue as the Power Five begins to set standards that will impact the rest of the NCAA.