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John Underwood
September 21, 1981
When the rebellious CFA signed a deal with NBC that could have torn apart college sports, the NCAA stopped digging in its heels and sought a solution
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September 21, 1981

To-do Over What To Do

When the rebellious CFA signed a deal with NBC that could have torn apart college sports, the NCAA stopped digging in its heels and sought a solution

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According to the reorganization plan, a school would qualify for I-A based on several considerations, including the size of its stadium—minimum capacity: 30,000 seats—or its average home attendance over four seasons—minimum: 17,000. Other options would permit a school to be I-A if its four-year attendance average, home and away, was 20,000 or more, or if it belonged to a conference in which more than 50% of the members qualified for I-A. The plan pointedly excludes the Ivy Amendment, which provided I-A status to any school that participated in 12 intercollegiate sports, regardless of the scope of its football program.

Based on current attendance patterns, under the new plan I-A could be reduced to 97 lions by 1984. Five conferences would likely be reclassified I-AA in the process: the Missouri Valley, the MidAmerican, the Southern, Southland and Pacific Coast. The Ivy League probably would drop down, too—a move, says one NCAA source, the Ivies are "leaning" toward anyway.

According to the convention format, 150 I-A votes (representing 137 schools and 13 conferences) will decide the issue in December. The first question to be answered, then, is why should the CFA, with only 61 members and a residue of skepticism from past setbacks, expect a positive result now? "Whenever they [the Division I-A schools] vote," says Alabama's Bear Bryant, "we [the CFA] lose." The special session is "encouraging," says CFA Executive Director Chuck Neinas, "but reorganization has come up three times and never made it." How, indeed, can the CFA hope for the 76 votes needed to pass the plan when most of the schools in the Big Ten and Pac-10 conferences voted for the Ivy Amendment in 1978, chose not to join the CFA then and, in fact, still side against it?

The answer: NCAA officials have had their ears to the ground, and they say reorganization is now a shoo-in. "Both the Big Ten and the Pac-10 will go for it almost 100%," says NCAA Public Relations Director Dave Cawood. Says Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke, "We're committed to reorganization."

Paterno, the most prominent voice among CFA coaches, says there is now a growing "sentiment" to wait for the December vote before taking final action on the CFA contract. The need for reorganization, he says, supersedes the need to sign a television contract before this or that network's deadline. And the reorganization figures to brighten the TV picture all across Division I-A, because it would allow for a more uniform distribution of television money to schools that dare to compete at the highest level—and at the greatest expense.

A fallacy that has had a long, unchallenged life is that TV contracts save the day for everyone. They don't. Oh, they're dandy for the Notre Dames and Oklahomas, who get big television bucks that they can shovel back into their programs. But what about schools that rarely appear on TV or compete in conferences that spread the television money around—but don't get many TV checks to spread around? They're actually worse off because of the NCAA's network contracts; if they intend to remain competitive, they have to match the big TV revenues of the Notre Dames and Oklahomas by coming up with money from other sources. That's never easy.

The single most compelling feature of the NBC deal with the CFA is that it guarantees every one of the 61 schools $1 million over a four-year period. Conceivably, the $263.5 million ABC/CBS package could, after reorganization, result in a similar redistribution plan that would be worth even more for the 97 members of I-A. And that kind of "financial relief," says Paterno, would allow everybody "to compete and recruit without having to cheat."

But why should NBC agree to wait for the NCAA vote? It doesn't owe the NCAA anything. It has, in fact, less than the best of feelings for the NCAA—"a pathological hatred for us, actually," says one NCAA leader. That leader portrays NBC executives as guys in motorcycle boots with grease in their hair who have "tried to stampede the CFA into a decision on a contract that has more flaws in it than a $10 diamond—including the fact that it's pretty tough to play Saturday night games in stadiums that don't have lights." The NBC "hatred," he says, stems from its being outbid by CBS on the NCAA basketball tournament and by CBS and ABC on the NCAA football package. So, in addition to grease in their hair, NBC officials presumably have egg on their faces. Why, then, should they do the NCAA a favor and wait?

Simply because it's good business to do so. If NBC goes along with the CFA now and reorganization once more goes down the tubes, the network could easily have an open dance card in December and 61 (or even 81, counting the Big Ten and Pac-10 members) angry football schools ready to waltz into its arms. As Paterno says, "We want to stay in the NCAA and if an open dialogue leads to a restructuring that is responsive to our legitimate needs, it'll be a big step forward. But if we're led down the garden path one more time, it may be the last time."

Conversely, why should ABC/CBS wait? Same reason. They have a contract with the NCAA, awaiting only Byers' finalizing signature. Bui even so, the terms are based on the NCAA's ability to deliver much more than just the Big Ten and Pac-10 games. A CFA bust-out in December would mean the ABC/CBS contract would collapse under its own weight (or lack of it) and have to be rewritten or scotched. There's just no percentage in a rush to judgment.

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