Conference realignment in the NCAA has generally resulted in more conferences. When the Southwest Conference folded, Conference USA was created out of it. The Mountain West Conference was created when the Western Athletic Conference (the original 16 team football conference) split in two. Conference movement is a constant across all of Division I. Since 1985, only 1992–93 saw no conference movement.
A lot of how the NCAA works seems to be geared toward steady growth in member institutions and member conferences. When the size of Division I grows, a lot of things happen almost automatically. Tournaments expand, the governance structure grows and shifts, and the administrative needs of Division I are reassessed.
When the number of conferences shrink, what happens is less clear. Nothing needs to happen. If a conference disappears, but not its member institutions, that just means another at-large bid is available to tournaments where the conference qualified for automatic qualification. The conference can be removed from the governance structure, which may not even affect all committees and cabinets. This is a feature of the way the NCAA operates. This allows the very autonomous institutions of the NCAA to shift around without toppling the structure above.
The current events may necessitate action. The conferences that might cease to exist would be among the largest and most powerful conferences in the governance structure. At some point realignment driven by football may be deemed to be too much for multi-sport conferences and the idea of an institution being a member of one conference for most sports could end.
Votes in the Legislative Council would be substantially changed. If the number of large FBS conferences dropped to four, it would mean that without another change, six votes are lost in the Legislative Council. The four superconferences would have a majority on FBS issues and one would assume be able to vote as a bloc more effectively with four rather than six constituencies. But on issues facing all of Division I, the FBS conference would lose their majority. All 20 FCS and non-football conferences would need to be united and it would only be a small majority, but it would be a shift in the delicate balance.
The way votes are distributed amongst the Division I conferences means consensus tends to rule the day. The Legislative Council rarely votes on “party line” and legislation is rarely adopted via a close vote. Generally a consensus is found or proposals are modified before going to a coin-flip vote. There’s value to maintaining the current legislative structure and distribution of votes since it has seemed to produce a legislative process that serves the needs of the greatest number of institutions. It also appears good for student-athletes. In 2010–11, the Legislative Council voted against the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee position only three times.
Going back to institutional voting would radically change how the NCAA is governed but it might be necessary. Voting would be less about consensus and more about majorities since the same type of debate would be impossible. One could see the end of the Legislative Council as a voting body, with institutions getting together to discuss legislation (formally or informally) but voting and institutional positions managed online. Groups like NACDA (and its affiliates) and coaches associations would become more important in developing legislative positions.
If multi-sport conferences disappear, that could mean more conferences than institutions, as every sport looks to rebuild the structure provided by today’s conferences. Conference based governance would be impossible, changing the relationship between the NCAA and its members. Without a middleman, the NCAA would deal with institutions on an individual basis. That would roll back the delegation of some functions to conferences, like administering medical hardship waivers (a.k.a medical redshirts) and the reporting of the most minor violations.
Pretty much everyone in college athletics wishes this round of conference realignment is over. With such major changes possible, the hope is that a period of stability will follow. I agree with President Emmert that an “NCAA Commissioner” deciding who will be in what conference is not likely and not a positive. There might be a role for the NCAA to establish a more formal, national process for when and how institutions change conference affiliation.
Once the dust settles on conference realignment though, the effect at the national level needs to be sorted out. That means this is both an opportunity for major change and unanswered questions presenting a possible hurdle to reform. Either way, these conference changes are more likely to be the first act rather than the final one.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.