Rabalais: SEC, Big 65 have clout to force NCAA’s hand

DESTIN, Fla. — It can’t be overstated how important football revenue is to the bottom line of every college athletic department’s bottom line.

It also can’t be overstated how much college football coaches want.

The Southeastern Conference football coaches got together in their meeting room at the SEC Spring Meeting on Tuesday, this most exclusive and privileged 14-member club, and decided to recommend to SEC athletic directors and CEOs that they be allowed to add a 10th assistant coach to their staffs.

LSU’s Les Miles and Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze said the proposal had unanimous support. South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier was a dissenting voice — but then he’s always Mr. Against The Grain, isn’t he?

There are those here who say the expense of adding another coach will never fly. But if and when it does — and given how powerful football and its coaches are, who’s to say it won’t? — one doubts The OBC (Spurrier, a.k.a. The Ol’ Ball Coach) will turn his nose up at an extra man to coach tight ends or kickers, or break down volumes of scouting video.

Of course, there will be plenty of schools that can’t afford yet another football assistant — schools outside the Big 65, the new unofficial name for the college sports’ elite subset.

The Big 65 are the schools from the five major conferences — the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12 — and Notre Dame. These are the schools with most of the money, the most clout, the most potential to make more money (see the SEC Network, or, as people say around here, Get the SEC Network. Please!).

These 65 schools don’t want to be governed in the same way Louisiana-Lafayette and Southern and Nicholls State are governed. They want autonomy, the freedom to decide on issues like extra assistant coaches or paying student-athletes stipends or whatever the so-called “full cost of education” means to everyone, without worrying about what Southern Mississippi or Eastern Michigan or Grand Canyon State thinks about it.

This will happen. It will have to happen. Otherwise, the Big 65 will take their ball and run away and start their own NCAA-like organization — with its own NCAA-like men’s basketball tournament. And the Lamars and Georgia Southerns and Gonzagas will be left with an NCAA that can’t pay the light bill, much less the 80-something championships the NCAA puts on for three divisions worth of schools.

SEC Commissioner Mike Slive is a lawyer by training, so he is cautious about making grand, podium-thumping statements about issues that could alter the very structure of college athletics.

But he speaks softly and carries the big stick of the SEC behind his $165 belt with the 14 SEC schools’ logos on it (he modeled it Tuesday — striking). And Slive, in so many words, says autonomy is an idea whose time has come.

“At football media days in 2011, we put forth a bit of a reform agenda and got started, but it ended,” he said.

“Our conference has been unanimous about wanting autonomy, and those areas (of seeking autonomy) have only increased. We are focused on the well-being of our student-athletes, which is the nexus of autonomy.”

That’s a veiled reference to providing more benefits for student-athletes, which is currently not allowed largely because not everyone can afford it. But the SEC club can, and will be able to afford even more after the SEC Network is switched on in August.

Another thing SEC football coaches say they want is an early signing period as exists in other sports, though this is certainly something schools from outside the big five conferences could adopt as well.

Miles said he envisions an early signing date as taking place on the first Monday in December, which would be immediately after the final regular-season weekend in SEC play. It would be for the players who have been long committed and don’t want to take visits to other schools.

“You can’t have an official visit and sign early,” Miles said. “So it’s only the guys who know the school well enough and do not want to take official visits during the year.

“We think it benefits the student-athlete and the team that’s recruiting him.”

The benefits for the teams recruiting the players to the Big 65 schools are likely only beginning.

It may not be what everyone in the NCAA wants. But if they want there to be an NCAA long term, they are going to have to agree.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.