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Words spoke louder than action

The delegates at the NCAA convention swept the important issue under the rug

One view of the 71st annual convention of the NCAA, which quietly ran its course at Miami Beach earlier this month, was that the absence of any substantive legislation indicated how "settled" and "mature" the NCAA has become. How comfortably quo its status. An alternative view was that the delegates didn't know their agenda from their beach chairs and consistently voted "no" out of wariness, the no's just happening to look better than usual. This interpretation of the inactivity more or less coincided with that of a number of revisionist Big Football delegates who want to subdivide the NCAA's Division I into two parts, to make life simpler all around. The Big Football people see what did not happen (again) as a time bomb activated. Tick, tick, tick.

A small bonus was the comforting dearth of crackpot proposals that usually mark the convention, and if that means maturity, then mature the delegates were. The fact that they failed (again) to come to grips with the basic issue, that they were, instead, so intimidated by it that they swept it under the rug before anyone could get a good look, and were still unable to properly define their mission is less reassuring.

The problem (not new) is simply this: Division I has 247 members, of widely divergent means and goals. The 247 delegates come to the meeting every year, set up caucus centers (with wet bars) in their $150-a-day suites, make reservations for dinner and then advance onto the convention floor armed to the teeth with ways to "cut costs." That reads "cut football," because football costs more and gets more attention. Chairs scrape and the coughing is epidemic when they talk about anything else.

Football, however, is the only means most schools have to make money from and for athletics. And in recent years "making money" has become more important than fielding good representative teams, teams that lift a school's spirit and inspire its alumni—but such is life in the inflationary spiral. Big Football schools would like to cut costs, too, but they would rather beat Notre Dame. You don't scare Notre Dame by taking laundry money from your athletes.

Thus, the battle lines are rigidly drawn whenever Division I schools meet. Some Division I schools are named Creighton and St. Joseph's, and they don't want to beat Notre Dame. They can't—110 of them don't even have football teams. They don't have $2 million budgets, either. They cannot relate.

But because they have the franchise, they can lock the 70-odd Big Football schools (from the seven major conferences and the 20 or so major independents) into a kind of de facto servitude by waving their colored voting paddles whenever Big Football needs to be taught a lesson. That, obviously, is heady stuff, being able to tell Bear Bryant what to do with his (Alabama's) money.

This year the reorganization plan was Proposal No. 28 on the NCAA agenda, on a bright Tuesday morning at the Fontainebleau Hotel. The plan was formulated by a prestigious steering committee headed by J. Neils Thompson of the University of Texas. NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers was a principal architect. A sound one, the plan called for reorganization based primarily on a school's ability to compete in Division I in at least eight sports, football and basketball included.

Some schools which play Division I basketball but not football objected, contending they would be Roman-numeraled out of business if forced into Division II just because they couldn't afford football. An amendment was formulated to allow such a school to retain Division I status in the one sport.

The plan took Byers and Thompson's group a year to construct, and was blown from the convention floor in 10 minutes. Peter A. Carlesimo, athletic director at Fordham, a member of the Eastern College Athletic Conference (no Notre Dame beaters there), moved immediately to table the proposal. A motion for a roll-call vote was turned back by a show of paddles. A second motion tabled the proposal right off the 1977 agenda. So long until 1978.

It could be that the advocates of reconstruction were still finding their seats when all this took place, or out getting haircuts. Certainly there was a marked lack of discussion before Carlesimo lowered the boom. No one even mentioned the amendment.

At that point in time the NCAA should have been holding its collective breath, because if ever the organization was on the verge of toppling, this was it. Already 56 members of the Big Football lobby had been rattling their sabers for a showdown. They had met in Dallas in December to form the College Football Association for the expressed purpose of wresting control of their fate, "hoping" to do so within the NCAA framework but not ruling out the necessity of an alternative.

The fact that they represented every major conference except the Big Ten and Pacific Eight gave them weight. No national television network is going to make multimillion-dollar commitments to college football without them. The two major items on the NCAA agenda gave them immediacy. As one of their number put it, they were "prepared to seriously re-evaluate their association with NCAA" if 1) realignment was not forthcoming and 2) the NCAA added to their burden by resurrecting the "need" scholarship program.

Under "need," scholarships, other than tuition and mandatory fees, are granted only to those athletes who cannot afford to pay. As a cost-cutting mechanism, it has merit—and a history of disaster in big-time athletics. Schools have found the concept so full of hazards that it is beyond formulae. The demanding criteria make it an impossible program to police. Questions are invariably left unanswered—such as what to do with the super athlete whose parents are "fit" to pay but won't, or with parents who lie or simply refuse to open their finances to scrutiny.

Nonetheless, "need" was again up for vote that Tuesday afternoon at the Fontainebleau. No one knows how close the Big Football bloc was to splitting beforehand; many of its members—coaches and athletic directors—were having their own meetings up the road at the Diplomat, where the American Football Coaches Association was holding its convention. Bear Bryant said he didn't think they "had the guts" to do it, but Bear may have underestimated his colleagues. In private they were saying how desperate the circumstances were.

The midday pause was tense, to say the least. Mercifully, the pivotal "need" vote was defeated, 146 to 102. But it was hardly an overwhelming mandate—a 23-vote swing would save it next time. It will surely come up again.

But at least the tension at Miami Beach was relieved considerably with the defeat, however temporary, of "need." Throughout the convention the mood against making waves went unaltered. The football scholarship restrictions were upheld: 30 a year, 95 total (though no one has yet demonstrated a way to make four times 30 equal 95 without running off some athletes, a tactic previously deplored by the membership). Eight-man coaching staff limits were upheld, as were three visits per recruit. And so forth.

By adjournment, the advocates of schism were stopping a breath short of predicting secession within the year. They received on the last day a surprise encouragement: J. Neils Thompson was voted NCAA president for 1977-78, and though he remains only one voice, he now becomes a difficult one to ignore. For some, that is worth waiting for.

Will Big Football wait beyond that? Not likely. The time bomb is ticking away. Michigan and Manhattan, Providence and Penn State have always made strange bedfellows. They are now so philosophically polarized that they are doing damage to each other by prolonging the marriage.