GREENSBORO, N.C. — John Swofford’s words have fallen on deaf ears before. Just a few short years ago, the ACC commissioner’s joint proposal with SEC commissioner Mike Slive to establish a college football playoff did not draw a negative reaction so much as it did blank stares. The Bowl Championship Series was established and raking in hundreds of millions in revenue, so talks of altering the model, controversial in its methods as it might have been, were not embraced.
"There wasn’t much reaction. That was the problem initially," Swofford said of his playoff proposal at his league’s annual Media Days event. "I mean, even for a couple of years when Mike and I would periodically bring it up, we were the only two in the room that had any interest in it."
Swofford, 65, said it wasn’t until about six months to a year before the official downfall of the BCS model that the proposal began to take root — a not-so-small victory for two men that have established themselves among the power elite in college football.
"There’s a lesson there," Swofford said, "you’ve just gotta be persistent."
So when the ACC’s headman stood on stage at the Grandover Resort, surrounded by the 14 helmets of his league’s member teams, and echoed the statements of Slive and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany that not only are the Power 5 conferences pushing hard for greater autonomy but that he expects the NCAA steering committee’s proposal regarding the matter to be passed early next month, it’s worth noting. Swofford and his brethren do know how to be persistent.
The committee’s proposal, which dictates changes to the NCAA governance model for the five most powerful athletic conferences (ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12), is set to be presented on Aug. 7. The proposal is expected to open up the opportunity for member schools to offer full cost-of-attendance and four-year scholarships, expand players’ rights and benefits, relax regulations concerning elite athletes and the draft process and other controversial mandates in the NCAA system, many of which dictating restrictions that disadvantage college athletes.
Essentially, the most profitable conferences want more financial and competitive flexibility while remaining under the NCAA umbrella.
Swofford, along with many of his colleagues, believes that day is coming and that changes could begin taking place as soon as this fall.
"The way it’s going forward from the steering committee, I think we’ll have enough votes to pass," Swofford said. "As I said earlier, I don’t think you’ll find anybody that thinks (the proposal) is absolutely perfect, but in this exercise you probably don’t expect perfection, considering what we’re trying to accomplish and the diversity of the programs and groups that are involved in this. So if this passes, the feeling among the five conferences is that this gives us the opportunity to do some things significant that need to be done but keeps us under the big tent (of the NCAA).
" … There’s going to be a lot of work to be done after Aug. 7 if this passes, as I believe and hope that it will, in order to start the ball rolling and determine how we are going to function."
Swofford stated that autonomy is "the most important aspect" of the proposal.
Last week during SEC Media Days, Slive went so far as to bring up separation from the NCAA if the proposal — or something similar — is not passed.
"If we do not achieve a positive outcome under the existing big tent of Division I, we will need to consider the establishment of a venue with similar conferences and institutions where we can enact the desired changes in the best interests of our student-athletes," Slive said at the event. "It’s important that the NCAA governance steering committee continue its support for autonomous decision-making among the five conferences, including proper voting thresholds to allow for the enactment of meaningful change."
Swofford did mention that the Power 5 conferences are not unanimous on every aspect of the steering committee’s proposal, which is headed by ACC member Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch. Instead, the ACC commissioner said they are each on the same page conceptually.
If these changes pass, as they are expected to, it will dramatically alter the landscape of college football and whatever competitive balance exists within the current model, both on and off the field. The largest and most powerful athletic programs are already competing on diffierent playing fields, autonomy will simply make it official — and then widen the gap. Swofford and the rest of the power elite of conference commissioners believe that day is less than a month away. And if not? It sounds like even bigger changes are still to come.
"I think the comment to our group (was) that the good ship status quo has sailed," Swofford said. "And it’s time for some changes and some significant changes, and it’s going to present some challenges, but it’s time for that."