While he was at the beach this summer, Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz spent a couple of days thinking about the future of college football.
“Somebody has to run it,” he said, “because right now, we are running amok.”
“Who’s the boss in college football?” asked West Virginia coach Neal Brown. “That’s a great question. How many other huge enterprises do you say, ‘Who’s the boss?'”
Coaches aren’t the only ones contemplating who should run the most lucrative and popular sport in college athletics. There is a growing contingent that suggests the FBS should separate from the NCAA, which currently handles all regulatory functions — like rules, officiating, bowl certification, litigation and enforcement — but doesn’t operate the postseason or receive any revenue from college football. The money from the College Football Playoff is retained by the 10 FBS conferences, and schools use the money how they choose.
“The fact is that the NCAA has all of this responsibility, yet it has no resources with respect to FBS football,” said Tom McMillen, the president and CEO of the LEAD1 Association, which represents the athletic directors in the FBS.
This summer, LEAD1 organized a working group of 38 athletic directors representing all 10 FBS conferences and one independent to study the idea of separating college football from the NCAA. With the help of North Carolina’s Center for Research in Intercollegiate Athletics, LEAD1 developed a survey it released this week and expects the results by the end of the month. It will review the findings at its September meeting in Washington, D.C.
“We have had three calls and each involved passionate discussion and debate about the future of college football,” said Erianne Weight, director of the Center for Research in Intercollegiate Athletics. “The very clear consensus is that the status quo is no longer acceptable.”
Decision-makers are still scratching the surface of possibilities, and few people have put a plan on paper, leaving many questions about logistics and how any change would be implemented. Here’s a look at the more popular options currently being considered, and what leaders throughout the sport are saying about each:
The College Football Playoff should run the sport.
How it would work: The same people who operate the current national championship would run college football, leaving ultimate authority at the presidential level. There are 10 FBS commissioners, along with Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who comprise the CFP’s management committee. They report to 10 FBS presidents and chancellors, along with Notre Dame’s president, Rev. John Jenkins, who comprise the CFP’s board of managers. They would add oversight and governance of college football to their responsibilities. There would also be an operating group with representatives from each league that oversees operations such as rules and officiating — but the NCAA would continue to handle all academic-related issues.
“I think we need to be more expeditious in how we govern it, and have more focused oversight,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. “As we have seen over the years, there’s been fragmentation around the oversight of football. It’s true. The pandemic brought that out even more. We just need to get to a point where we have more focused collaboration, the ability to deal with issues more expeditiously. I think it needs to be a more singular focus.”
Olympic sports would stay the same, along with the NCAA championships and the current governance structure for them.
“We cannot make this hard,” Smith said. “We can’t make this bureaucratic. We’ve got to keep it simple. You know, we have a great structure with a CFP, in my view.”
Why it wouldn’t work: The Knight Commission argues that this is missing independent and player voices on a governing board. Critics also argue that the same problems around NIL and the transfer portal would follow college football to the CFP, and that separating football would send the wrong message to the other sports. The CFP would also have to be willing to undertake issues it has been able to keep at a distance — including concussion and antitrust litigation. There are also complications with existing television grant of rights agreements, which make it difficult to determine the financial value of doing something different. Until there is a specific model for television partners to consider, it’s difficult to accurately say what contracts schools can get out of without penalty, and what it’s worth if they were to be restructured. With the upcoming changes in the Big Ten and SEC, which are poised to become the nation’s first superconferences, it will be very difficult to get them to change their financial models.
What they’re saying:
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey: “My view is, it is insufficient to simply identify moving football and football alone out of the current structure and think that that will be a destination. And so I’m very careful about suggesting that’s the right step. I don’t think anyone can legitimately look a basketball player in the eye — male or female — and say, ‘We can do A, B and C for football, but we can’t do that for you because we’re in the NCAA.’
“I also haven’t heard anyone articulate all of the big problems we have that are solved by just taking football away and running it under the CFP or some independent entity,” he said. “Those problems are going to persist.”
McMillen: “It’s an easy thing to say, ‘I want to move football out of the NCAA. That’s kind of a frustration comment. Then you have to start dealing with, ‘OK, who’s going to pay for enforcement? You have to set all that up. How about eligibility? How about all of the litigation? You’re going to need hundreds of millions of dollars, I would think. I haven’t put a pencil around that, but I would say it’s a big number. I understand the present system is not working both structurally and functionally.”
CFP executive director Bill Hancock: “The FBS schools need a bigger voice in how football is administered, and that will happen at some point. The trick will be how to do it. Most people haven’t given much thought to the logistics.
Remember that the conferences and Notre Dame run the CFP. In fact, they ARE the CFP. The conferences could certainly administer FBS football. They do it quite nicely for the CFP. With CFP, there is little separation between the conferences and the event — no administrative strata to dig through. All the commissioners appreciate that. Having said that, our board has not discussed whether CFP should take a broader role in the future. Until they do, it wouldn’t be prudent to speculate. We’ll have to see.”
Todd Turner, former Power 5 AD and current president of Collegiate Sports Associates consulting firm: “I think they would need to have a board and either a commissioner or a president or someone in an administrative union that would run it. I don’t like the representation of [the CFP] because it’s self-interested. Then students aren’t involved and it’s there for one purpose — to make money. It’s not necessarily to do the best things for college football, right? So you need to have a little bit broader charge than just running the championship. It’s got to be student-athlete well-being, educationally based, deal with issues like pay-for-play, name, image likeness, all those things the NCAA should have done a little better.”
Knight Commission CEO Amy Perko: “Just having the CFP as it’s currently constituted take over the governance of the sport in our view would still miss the mark because … there are no independent directors on the board to look out with their eye on what’s good for the collective, including the athletes and the sport in general, as well as having the voice of the athletes and an advocate for mental health.”
Knight Commission Proposal: The National College Football Association
How it would work: FBS football would be run by a separate governance structure outside of the NCAA, and funded by the CFP, which would take on expenses such as enforcement, catastrophic insurance, legal services, health and safety administration and research. The Knight Commission has deemed this new organization the National Collegiate Football Association.
There would be a simultaneous restructuring of the NCAA that would allow any FBS football programs that don’t believe they can compete with the most elite programs to affiliate with the NCAA instead of the new FBS organization.
According to the Knight Commission’s survey, three in five FBS leaders said they spend “too much” on football to keep up with other schools. This would give them an “off ramp from the highly commercialized college football environment of the wealthiest FBS conferences, the Power 5.”
The Knight Commission’s independent study determined the NCAA could redistribute $66 million if the FBS factors were removed from the NCAA formula. When the commission conducted its study, it tried to quantify the total national costs for the FBS, but the NCAA refused to share the financial information with the commission’s independent accounting firm, according to Perko. The NCAA would govern all other sports in a reorganized Division I, and schools with FBS football programs would remain part of the NCAA in all other sports.
The Knight Commission first proposed this idea in December 2020, and its report included a survey that found that more than 70% of FBS athletic directors favored a position similar to a commissioner of the sport.
One of the big differences between the Knight Commission’s proposal and the above idea is that the commission has called for a majority of independent directors on the board — including current and former athletes.
Why it wouldn’t work: While many of the concerns are similar to those above, some of the biggest pushback with this plan has been around the potential revenue distribution. Currently, FBS schools receive an exemption from the NCAA that enables them to receive a larger share of revenue from the NCAA even though the organization doesn’t get money from the CFP. The Knight Commission’s proposal calls for this exemption to be eliminated. It argues that the FBS counts as an “NCAA sport” for revenue distribution purposes because of an exemption that was written decades before college football staged its own separate national championship. Under this proposal, FBS football would not be an NCAA sport and would not be counted in NCAA revenue distribution as such. FBS schools would still receive hundreds of millions annually, though, from NCAA for other components of the formula. (The formula is under examination already by the transformation committee for a number a reasons, including the gender discrimination in the athletic performance component.) Ultimately, the revenue would have to be negotiated. FBS schools have the power to change the NCAA distribution formula because they have more votes in Division I.
What they’re saying:
Jacques McClendon, Knight Commission member, former Tennessee OL: “An overlooked part of the proposal that we put forward was that we’re calling for a majority of independent directors on the governing boards that include current and former athletes, as well as the designated expert and advocate on athletes’ physical, mental health and well-being. That representation I think could bring some balance to the force.
“I think that athletes have never gotten credit for the amount of institutional knowledge in which they possess. I know for myself, the way that I operate daily — especially with being in the front office in the NFL now — is that hopefully my perspective and opinion, whether it’s professional or collegiate professional playing experience, hopefully that brings merit to the conversation. … Institutions need to partner more with the student-athlete because they’re more empowered and more educated.”
Sankey: “I think the naivete of the Knight Commission observations have been created to share a direct perspective. The research that was cited … came at it with a bias towards this particular change, and not informed by the broader perspective.”
Baylor president Linda Livingstone, NCAA chair of the Board of Governors: “I think we’ve got to look at all of these options as we go forward and which ones are going to be best for the success of college athletics broadly? And I don’t know if that’s the right model or not. I do think there are complications, too, because then you have two administrative bodies that you’re having to deal with. And then you’ve got to make sure you’re still balancing all your Title IX requirements and everything.”
Gene Smith: “I was more curious around the revenue distribution model that they had. The structure I was fine with, which was kind of the same as what I’ve been talking about.”
Keep college football the same under a restructured NCAA
How it would work: This is the most ambiguous of the plans because it involves the NCAA, which is currently in the midst of searching for a new president and reworking its governance structure. Some have suggested making changes to how college football operates should be part of it. There is currently a Football Oversight Committee, which operates FBS and FCS football, and there would be a similar group tasked with handling the same duties. That board, which would consist of sport-specific leaders, would then report to the NCAA’s higher governing bodies.
Why it wouldn’t work: The NCAA moves at a glacial pace and is consistently tied up in red tape, and keeping college football in a system that has many layers could continue to make change difficult at a time when there is rapid change happening.
What they’re saying:
Sankey: “I think the responsibility right now is to contribute to solving the concerns within the current structure. And I’ve actually had people say the Football Oversight Committee works well. So as I think structurally, how do we have practitioners with common views, common interests, involved in decision-making and assigned responsibility in that sport — whether it’s football or basketball or baseball — and not subject decision-making to levels of bureaucracy that take months and years, but as a much more streamlined approach? Can that happen within the current NCAA structure? It’s going to have to change. Can that alter people’s views? Perhaps, but I think it’s a much more complex question than what I’ve seen observed in quick quotes and quick quips.”
McMillen: “There’s a lot of people who feel that the NCAA should be reformed on this issue, not necessarily blown up, to use an expression. They would rather see football governance work out within the NCAA than outside of it.”
Iowa athletic director Gary Barta: “I’ve heard a lot of people talk about should there be a commissioner or a leader just of college football and so maybe there’s a potential through the transformation committee or some other way for football to still be within the NCAA, but to have a separate and autonomous leadership group that just manages college football. I’m a supporter of looking into a different way to conduct business because college football is unique in how it’s run. It’s different. Nobody’s more important or better than the other, but college football is different than the other sports that we offer at Iowa. So there’s a need to look at a different model.”
Alabama coach Nick Saban: “When it comes to things like this, and you’re in my position as a coach, you really don’t first of all have a lot of input, No. 1, and No. 2, whatever happens, you have to be able to adapt. I do think that it’s very difficult for whoever runs college football, to have some kind of rules and guidelines that govern the game in a way that creates competitive balance. Because I think that’s what people want. I think that’s what fans want. I think they want to see good games. And the more we can create an atmosphere and environment that sort of creates that protects that — whether the conference commissioners, however many conferences we end up with, end up being the people that do that as their commissioner over those conferences that do that, whether the NCAA continues to do that, whether we sort of do something that brings the college football playoff and the NCAA together.”
Turner: “I do think that college football has separated itself from the other sports, but at the same time, you can’t sacrifice the great things that happened because of the structure college athletics has had for all the rest of the sports. If you’re not careful, you can dismember March Madness and you can dismember the College World Series and all those things that are so part of our history, so we have to be careful about it.”