Can the NCAA puzzle be solved amid a culture of mistrust?

Illustration by ESPN

During his first week on the job, Pac-12 commissioner George Kliavkoff asked some of the conference's veteran staff members who have worked with the NCAA for decades to schedule a two-hour meeting to explain how the NCAA is organized.

Even among the experienced and abundantly prepared -- and Kliavkoff's staff was both -- two hours is an impossibly small window to unpack the complicated bureaucracy that governs college sports. Kliavkoff, whose first day was July 1, quickly realized he'd need a more hands-on tutorial to navigate the labyrinth he had recently entered.

"It's so complex," he said. "There's so many responsibilities and there's so much that they do for college athletics that it's complicated."

In late August, Kliavkoff asked NCAA president Mark Emmert to arrange some time to meet at the association's headquarters in Indianapolis so he could meet the administrative staff and better understand what they do. The former executive at massive media and entertainment companies was hired by the Pac-12 for his substantial experience navigating complicated businesses. He was having trouble wrapping his head around an NCAA governance structure that seemed to be on the brink of imploding.

Kliavkoff is hardly alone in his head scratching, which is why the entire organization -- and its confusing, antiquated decision-making processes -- is currently under reconstruction. NCAA power brokers have long discussed the need to modernize how college sports are run, but a system that is ill-equipped to create change and built on an unstable, mutual trust among its diverse stakeholders has prevented any significant progress. This summer a deluge of monumental events unlike any other period in the NCAA's 115-year history further fractured that trust, but it also forced college sports leaders to reckon with a pressing need to evolve.

• In June, the College Football Playoff announced a proposal to expand the current four-team format to 12 teams.

• Three days after the CFP management committee met to discuss the new format, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously affirmed a ruling that provides for an incremental increase in how college athletes can be compensated and opens the door for future legal challenges that could deal a much more significant blow to the NCAA's current business model.

• The next week, on June 30 -- just one day before several state laws went into effect that would have made such rules illegal -- the NCAA announced it was dropping its long-held prohibition on athletes making money from their names, images and likenesses.

• By the end of July, Oklahoma and Texas dropped the bombshell that they were leaving their conference home in the Big 12 and heading to the SEC, officially making the SEC the first 16-team superconference.

• While the Big 12 fast-tracked its own expansion plans, the Pac-12, Big Ten and ACC in August decided to form an alliance to help stabilize their conferences and the entire landscape.

These major shifts occurred while decision-makers at colleges and universities across the country were already under assault from the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on the industry of higher education.

"Being a university president right now is like getting a 1,000-piece puzzle on your doorstep every morning, and then the next morning you get another 1,000-piece puzzle and it's totally different," West Virginia University president Gordon Gee said on June 22 in Dallas after a meeting about playoff expansion. "I've been a university president for 41 years. I've never dealt with a pandemic, I've never dealt with all of the mix-up in terms of college athletics. I've never dealt with all of the mental health issues. Our students are under tremendous strain. The country is sort of upside down in its political configuration. As a university president, we're in the middle of the storm. We're catching javelins, and we don't know where they're coming from."

After years of the NCAA squeezing itself into a wardrobe that has not fit properly in a generation, its seams have burst wide open amid an ever-present question about who is steering the association of 1,102 schools that generates billions of dollars annually.

"I think that question identifies part of the problem," SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told ESPN. "We've got such a diverse and diffused decision-making structure it's hard to point to: Here's the entity that will solve this."

Change will require a shared vision and cooperation. There are two groups with the power to get all of the NCAA's diverse membership pulling in the same direction. Both have major obstacles to overcome if they will lead the way to a new working order.

Emmert and his team in Indianapolis are, in part, responsible for building consensus among member schools. Their vehicle for doing so, however, is convoluted and ineffective. They cannot make unilateral decisions for college sports but instead have to effect change by shepherding it through a complex web of member-led committees and boards. This summer, Emmert assembled a 28-member committee representing schools in all three divisions that has been tasked with redefining the organization's fundamental purpose. To many in the college sports world who have already lost faith in their president and the system he oversees, it seemed destined to fall as flat as several reform-minded committees that have failed to bring about real change in the past.

When asked by ESPN in August if he had the authority needed to push NCAA members in a new direction, Emmert said: "Right now, no."

"I would love to be in a place where Mark Emmert can single-handedly do anything like that," he said. "But, you know, that's nonsense."

The other group with the potential to take the wheel is the Power 5 commissioners. By nature of controlling the most lucrative aspects of the enterprise, those five men and the 65 schools they represent have increasingly shaped reality for the NCAA in the 21st century. If Kliavkoff, Sankey and their three colleagues all agreed on how the future should look, they would pull the rest of the association along with them by sheer force of will. The summer's chaos, though, took a major toll on the already-fraying trust among those schools and their willingness to work together.

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby stopped short of saying trust throughout the industry is at an all-time low but did say it's "the lowest level I've witnessed."

And so the NCAA finds itself at an existential crossroads without a clear choice of where to turn next.

Whom do I trust? 'Myself'

The mood was light in late June as the 10 FBS commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick were each making their way to the Hyatt Regency DFW International Airport to meet with the 11 presidents and chancellors empowered to change the College Football Playoff.

It was the commissioners' second major playoff meeting in less than a week, and momentum to expand the field to 12 teams seemed strong, opening the door to a more inclusive field that fans and pundits had been clamoring for since the four-team format was introduced in 2014.

For almost two years, Sankey, Bowlsby, Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson and Swarbrick worked closely together as members of a CFP subcommittee that developed the 12-team model under consideration.

The longtime colleagues had already been communicating more than usual because all commissioners were simultaneously navigating their respective leagues through the ongoing pandemic -- an unprecedented challenge that delayed their work on the playoff because of an inability to meet in person. On June 10, the plan was released, and the meeting in Dallas was another critical step in the approval process.

Even before everyone's flights had landed, college athletics was rocked by the Supreme Court's NCAA v. Alston decision.

Bowlsby was driving from his house to the conference office in Irving, Texas, on June 21, the day before the CFP meeting, when the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously affirmed a ruling that changed the way college athletes can be compensated.

Bowlsby took the first exit he saw and pulled into a convenience store parking lot to quickly read what he could. He was already scrolling through emails from the league's lawyers. Kevin Warren, Bowlsby's colleague from the Big Ten with a background in law, printed a copy of the opinion and began dissecting it with a highlighter and red pen.

The justices' decision swiftly dismantled the legal arguments that had been used for a generation to uphold the association's defining principle of amateurism. The leniency that the Supreme Court has previously granted the NCAA to create blanket rules to place limits on what schools could provide to their athletes -- an arrangement that multiple justices pointed out would be flatly illegal in any other American industry -- was gone. When coupled with the state name, image and likeness laws set to go into effect less than 10 days later, the message was clear. The time for putting off challenges to amateurism had come to an end. Change was coming, and it was up to these leaders to decide whether they would take an active role in shaping the future or let outside forces guide their fate.

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, who was flying from Ohio to Dallas to join everyone for the most significant playoff meeting since the BCS ended, was on a Southwest flight when the decision was announced.

"I had internet service, so I'm watching this play out," Steinbrecher said. "I'm going, 'Oh boy, here we go.'"

While everyone recognized the NCAA was at one of its most vulnerable points in history, nobody had any inkling that a month later, Sankey would emerge as a key figure in one of the best-kept secrets in college sports. His conference was on the verge of adding two of college football's biggest brand-name schools and a renewed dose of realignment instability. It's unclear when university officials at Texas and Oklahoma first approached the SEC about membership, and Sankey declined to provide specifics, saying it's up to Texas and OU to speak about the timeline. Both schools declined to provide further clarity to ESPN.

Bowlsby has said publicly that he and the rest of the conference had no idea of the SEC's discussions with OU and Texas for months. The overlap prompted some to question Sankey's ability to objectively work on a playoff model while knowing his league was on the brink of expansion.

"That intermingles issues," Sankey told ESPN. "Those are separate realities. One is, in January of '19, the CFP set an expectation for an ongoing review of the format. A subcommittee was appointed well before any conversations about potential membership transition took place. ... As I've referenced before, things certainly accelerated this summer."

On July 21 -- almost exactly one month after the Dallas meeting, where the CFP's board of managers gave the commissioners the green light to solicit feedback on a 12-team playoff -- the Houston Chronicle reported that Oklahoma and Texas were preparing to leave the Big 12.

The move left a stinging sense of betrayal and anger in its wake. Although mistrust has always been pervasive in college athletics, it ballooned this summer after the SEC became college football's first 16-team superconference.

After the announcement, Bowlsby accused ESPN of encouraging other conferences to poach from the league so Texas and Oklahoma can move to the SEC more quickly and without paying a massive buyout.

He sent a cease-and-desist letter to the network, stating the Big 12 had learned ESPN had taken actions "to not only harm the Big 12 Conference but to result in financial benefits for ESPN."

ESPN responded with a statement saying, "The claims in the letter have no merit."

Kliavkoff, who is still relatively new to the five-man group, sounded off to The Athletic, saying there was "some concern about the way the 12-team proposal was constructed, with a limited number of folks in the room and imperfect information between the people who were in the room," he said. "The proper process is: Everybody who has a say should have a say, and everybody should be operating with the same information."

In late August, Kliavkoff said that Sankey explained to him how Oklahoma and Texas approached the SEC about becoming members.

"Greg has stated how this happened, and I believe him," Kliavkoff said. "I agree with his statement that if Texas and Oklahoma would have called one of the other Power 5 conferences, we would have taken the call and acted the same way he did."

Thompson agreed.

"So, should Greg have pulled Bob aside in the hallway -- one of our many, many meetings in Dallas DFW Hyatt -- saying, 'Hey, just so you know, Oklahoma and Texas called me.'" Thompson said. "That doesn't happen.

"Is Greg supposed to have daily press conferences, or emails -- which [are subject to] FOIA [public records laws] -- and everything else are detailing everything that he's doing, and who he's doing it with, and who he spoke to, and what's happening and what the next steps are?" Thompson said. "No, you keep those things to the circle that will ultimately say yea or nay, let's invite Oklahoma and Texas into the league."

One high-ranking SEC university official involved in the expansion discussions said there was "no correlation" between Sankey's role in the CFP working group and the SEC expansion.

Nevertheless, the decision made by Texas and Oklahoma to jump to a new league has damaged relationships within the Big 12 and beyond.

When asked on Sept. 3 whom he trusts, Bowlsby told ESPN, "myself."

Meanwhile, American Athletic Conference commissioner Mike Aresco was firing back at Bowlsby on ESPN's Paul Finebaum Show as media outlets reported the Big 12 was hastening its timetable to add UCF, Houston, Cincinnati and BYU.

"We were accused unfairly and ESPN has been accused unfairly of trying to somehow destroy the Big 12," Aresco told Finebaum. "Ridiculous ... I don't know what's going on at this point."

Bowlsby said that he and Sankey are still "good friends" and "talk frequently" but that "it's not a pleasant thing to go through."

Now, it's Aresco's turn to "go through" it, as Big 12 presidents are on the brink of approving AAC schools UCF, Houston and Cincinnati along with BYU for membership -- just weeks before the commissioners are heading to a Sept. 28 CFP meeting near the Big Ten offices in Rosemont, Illinois, to revisit the 12-team format.

"I think there's a lot of frustration, there's a lot of distrust in the industry," Thompson said. "You can point fingers, you can blame. Bottom line is, Texas and Oklahoma had an interest in looking at a different model for themselves. Is that the SEC's fault for answering the phone? Is that Oklahoma and Texas' fault for not telling the other eight members that, hey, we're looking around?

"For 25 years, this story has been written," he said. "Is this built on a solid foundation? The answer's no."

Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill said if the CFP is waiting on stability to change [the playoff format], it "could be waiting for a long time."

"A month ago we assumed there was stability and we knew where everybody was going to be," Gill said after the OU and Texas news. "Well, do we ever know? That is really the question. If we're waiting for some sort of signal that everything is going to be stable, and all is quiet on the Western Front, I don't know if that really exists."

Many decision-makers predict the balance of power will ultimately shift from the NCAA to the individual conferences and their respective commissioners. It's one of the reasons there was so much consternation when Oklahoma and Texas announced their intent to join the SEC, beefing up what's already the wealthiest and most powerful league.

The SEC's expansion came at a time when some of college sports' most powerful practitioners were already growing weary of one another. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith has been an active member of the NCAA's policy-making arm during his 16-plus years leading one of the country's richest and strongest athletic departments. He said he has felt some collegiality slipping away in recent years.

"I think that there's a little lack of trust now that needs to be healed and resolved. ..." Smith said. "We're not talking to each other like we used to."

The different conferences have previously managed to balance competition and cooperation by relying on the shared history between leaders who had spent their whole career working together. With three of the five Power 5 commissioners stepping down within the past two years, those groups are now finding their footing under a new guard. New bonds are often forged during face-to-face meetings at the regular schedule of conventions and meetings that bring many athletic directors and other NCAA practitioners together three or four times each year. Those have disappeared recently due to COVID.

Smith said losing those in-person meetings to the pandemic has taken a toll on the kind of informal meetings that can create momentum for change and the connections that those encounters breed. Zoom calls just aren't the same, he said.

"You might have seven or eight ADs over in some corner drinking Diet Cokes and talking about an issue, and you come up with an idea," Smith said. "But all that's been lost. It's just lost. That's a part of the trust thing."

Although they weren't able to meet in person in 2020, the commissioners met weekly if not more on Zoom to compare notes on COVID-19 protocols, and they have continued those weekly meetings. Yes, one source on the call said, they have been "awkward" since the announcement of SEC expansion and the formation of the alliance between the ACC, Big Ten and Pac-12.

They will also continue.

"They've been candid and necessary," said ACC commissioner Jim Phillips," and we have had uncomfortable conversations, but we're moving forward, and we're truly trying to work together under the circumstances. There's hope there. We all have a commitment to one another to try to work through it. Sometimes these things take a little bit of time, but we have to regain some of that synergy that maybe we lost, and I'm confident we can get there."

Bowlsby agreed.

"We will work together on it because we have to work together on it," he said. "There are some strained relationships, but I think all of us acknowledge we don't need to show unity for unity's sake; we need to show unity because we have shared issues and shared problems, and we ought to try and develop shared solutions."

'I have rather low expectations'

At some point between the Supreme Court's ruling and the blockbuster announcement by Oklahoma and Texas -- the days were too filled and jumbled to recall exactly when -- NCAA president Emmert decided it was time for some candid Zoom calls of his own. The lifelong higher education administrator orchestrated a virtual gathering of a small, informal "kitchen cabinet" of his trusted advisers to take stock of the enterprise.

"It quickly settled on the fact that we needed to start all over again," Emmert says of the meeting. "Go back and revisit what the core principles around college sports are."

The first step of their fresh start was to form a committee. The association's board of governors selected 28 individuals -- most of them with many years of service entrenched in the complex world of NCAA governance -- to spearhead a Constitutional Convention that would chart a new course forward. Their mission is not to rewrite rules quite yet but to determine what common ground still exists (if any) among the more than 1,100 diverse schools that make up the NCAA's membership. They are scheduled to produce an initial report in November.

The announcement signaled that Emmert & Co. understood the gravity of the moment, but it was met with a healthy dose of skepticism. Even some who ended up as part of the 28-member team wondered whether their group would be able to produce any real-world results.

When asked on Sunday whether he thinks any significant change will happen in November, Sankey called it an "undefined topic," saying, "my ability to answer that's a bit limited because it's hard to understand the focus of this constitutional effort.

"It's been a bit difficult to follow the bouncing ball of the NCAA's constitutional review," he said. "It's also challenging to understand the end game. It's a 43-page document. ... There are some points where I think we need clarity around decision-making. ... We need to recognize that we're taking 350-plus colleges, universities in Division I, putting them in a decision-making system, and thinking that's going to produce satisfactory results. Not to mention the concerns I've expressed over time with the inability to bring really significant enforcement and infractions matters to timely conclusion and fair conclusion. You hope there'll be some effort to address those issues, but I've not seen the framework that explains how that will happen other than the calling of this review, and as it relates to November, I have rather low expectations. I think that's a bit early."

A college basketball commission led by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in 2018 failed to bring about substantial change to the association's sluggish enforcement process. Two years of study and proposals for regulating the marketplace of college athlete name, image and likeness (NIL) deals ended this summer with an 11th-hour decision to do the bare minimum and hope for congressional intervention.

Thompson, the Mountain West Conference commissioner, said those failed attempts leave little confidence that another committee will solve the mounting problems. He recalled a conversation with one of his colleagues who told him: "You know, we really didn't resolve NIL in a couple years, but now we're expected to have a new governance structure in 90 days? It just doesn't seem to add up."

Warren, a relative newcomer who was selected as the Big Ten's top executive in June 2019, said he's concerned the committee won't have enough time to produce a "tangible action plan" as opposed to "esoteric and theoretical" talking points. Like his West Coast colleague George Kliavkoff, Warren said he would be happy if by November the committee provided a better answer to the simple question of what the NCAA does.

"I think it would be a big step for us to get clarity." Warren said. "How do they view themselves?"

The "us" and "them" in Warren's question starts to unravel a central issue and obstacle to progress. Before reaching agreement on the what and why of the NCAA, Emmert says it's important for everyone to be on the same page about who makes up the NCAA.

In some minds, those four letters stand in for Emmert's staff in Indianapolis, which administers the bylaws of the organization. But Emmert is quick and emphatic in pointing out that his group doesn't make -- or even get a vote in deciding -- the bylaws that govern college sports. The member schools are responsible for agreeing on the rules through a broad form of representative government. And while Emmert allows that it is part of his role (a role for which he is paid nearly $3 million per year) to try to build consensus and guide the schools in a direction that is in the best interest of all of college sports, he says that large group of members constitutes the "who" of the NCAA.

In theory, opinions and ideas from members are supposed to filter up to the NCAA's board of governors -- a group of two dozen individuals, mostly university presidents and chancellors -- who vote to enact any changes to the NCAA's bylaws. Along with filling most of the spots on the that board of governors, university presidents also have the final say in College Football Playoff and conference realignment decisions.

For multiple reasons, many leaders at higher-profile schools have lost confidence in the efficacy of the board of governors as well. One Power 5 athletic director questioned whether the university presidents are well-versed enough in college sports to be making smart decisions for the entities they are supposed to be representing.

"We've given them all this power, and when they fly in for a meeting most of them probably haven't even looked at the agenda," the source said. "They make decisions, they fly back out and then they say, 'Oh, here's the decisions that we've made.'"

Sankey said that he believes university presidents should serve a role in NCAA governance in the future but that the board needs to be more transparent if it wants to incorporate meaningful feedback from others in its decision-making process. For example, Sankey said the SEC office had "no meaningful advance notice" this past March that the board of governors was gathering to decide to remove attendees from NCAA events as a COVID safety measure.

"We had to find out about that, for some people over social media, literally as we had opened doors and were working with public health officials," Sankey said. "That's just one example of that whole decision-making structure and system has to be greatly improved to recognize the important role that members and member conferences play in modern college athletics."

Emmert said he believes part of the problem is that members try to rely on the NCAA to answer too many questions that could be handled at the conference level or on a school-by-school basis. He said it's common for schools to "kick issues up to the national level for convenience, for desirability ... for not wanting to deal with issues.

"There's lots of things at the national level right now that are clearly in place because, in all candor, schools don't trust each other, or more accurately, athletic departments don't trust each other. They want a national body to look over the other schools' shoulder as they say, 'Those guys are trying to get a competitive advantage by doing something we don't agree with.'" Emmert said. "Well, OK. But, how much of that needs to be a national rule? How much of that needs to be in place to allow college sports to be conducted? Or how much of that is that you all just need to get together and agree on this at your conference level as to what you are going to do?"

The Constitutional Convention group assembled this summer is intended to be the first step in addressing many of these issues, but that particular road to reform is anything but fast. Even if the group is successful in streamlining what Bob Bowlsby referred to as the "43 pages of arcane principles and redundancy" that make up the NCAA's constitution, that's only the tip of the iceberg of the work that lies ahead.

"Maybe you can complete that work by November and get it down to five pages," Bowlsby said. "But there are still 400 pages of bylaws and a whole bunch of architecture that has to change as well."

Bowlsby's level of confidence in the convention to bring about the change that college sports need is "not very high." Emmert himself acknowledges that the overhaul in front of the organization is outside its wheelhouse.

"This is a structure that works really well when you try to do incremental change," he said. "But it's not a structure that works well at all when you try to do dramatic change."

'Can we do that?'

In late August, the constitutional committee group sent an electronic survey of roughly 25 questions to three or four people on every campus in all three divisions of college athletics. The ACC's Phillips, who is one of three commissioners on the 28-person committee, estimated it was sent to several thousand people.

Among the topics were standards for athlete eligibility, standards for compensations and benefits, conducting national championships, institutional aid.

Do you agree? Strongly agree? Disagree? Strongly Disagree?

There were open text boxes to give more detailed feedback. Responses were due Sept. 1.

"I thought it was fairly superficial," Bowlsby said, when asked whether he thought it hit on the right topics. The questions centered on the principles that define college sports, seeking input as to whether they should be central to the future of the NCAA. The idea was to suss out the most inextricable common denominators of the college sports experience and use them to decide the NCAA's role in protecting those things moving forward.

Currently, the NCAA's responsibilities boil down to three main areas: making rules, enforcing rules and organizing national championships. In recent years, the organization has stumbled in all three of those areas.

Blatant gender inequities marred this past year's NCAA basketball tournaments -- its most valuable and high-profile championship stage. The proposed expansion of the College Football Playoff also serves as a reminder that the national organization doesn't control (or profit) from the largest and most influential national championship among the sports it sponsors. On making rules, the organization failed to pass substantial regulations for new name, image and likeness standards despite two years of study and proposals and provided little guidance to schools and conferences trying to decide whether they should play through the pandemic last academic year. And enforcement decisions tied to high-profile cases have languished for years despite a new approach that was supposed to streamline the process.

When asked what he thinks the NCAA does well, Sankey responded with "a lot of concerns about what's happened around the NCAA in the last few years -- a lot of concerns."

An ESPN reporter repeated the question: No, I asked you what you think it's good at.

"Yeah, well, right now I don't have glowing reviews," he said. "I think the collegiate athletics governing body must be better in many aspects of its work. Start with championships. That has always been a hallmark experience for all of us, and those expectations weren't met earlier this year. Last year, as we were going through what happened around COVID, we were all making decisions in real time, and I felt the NCAA followed on those decisions. So it's a tough time to evaluate things going well. I think there are really good people involved, but I think we've got a structure that needs more than a 90-day constitutional review to fully correct itself to ensure the kind of excellent support we want to see provided to young people for generations to come."

Emmert said there are indeed some things from the past few years that he wishes he could redo in a different way. He said he accepts responsibility for some of those things but wants members to take some ownership of those issues as well.

"They need to do more than throw rocks," Emmert said. "They have to be an active participant in solutions rather than just saying, 'Well, this is broken and it sucks and therefore I'm mad.'"

The constitutional committee and its survey are an attempt to get beyond rock throwing, and at least those doing the work believe they can make progress. Penn State athletic director and committee member Sandy Barbour told ESPN she has a "high degree of confidence" that the committee will find success.

"I don't pretend to think that everybody's going to agree and it's all going to be this 'Kumbaya' moment," she said, "but whatever we come up with obviously is going to have some majority, some consensus behind it."

Others wonder whether any common ground still exists among the wide variety of schools and sports squeezing under the same banner. Some, including Ohio State's Smith, suggested it might be time to create different governing bodies for different sports so that football, field hockey and tennis aren't all operating as if they face the same issues. Others wonder whether even within Division I (let alone the lower two divisions) the difference in resources between different schools has become an insurmountable gap.

"We all come back to that magical umbrella, that there's 350 [Division I] schools, and by god, Maryland Baltimore County can beat Virginia if they're given a chance," said the Mountain West's Thompson, whose 35 years make him the longest active-tenured Division I commissioner. "True. They did. They won the game, but does that put them in the same operating category, governance structure?

"We'll see what this committee comes up with," he said. "Not to throw stones at the committee, but it's made up of Division I, II and III. Those are completely, entirely different structures. My point is, Division I is different within itself. Who is the right structure? When you have [Penn State athletic director] Sandy Barbour and a commissioner and an AD from Division III, you have totally different outlooks."

Still, the desire to conduct national championships isn't going away. And to conduct them fairly, the schools need a body that can make sure everyone competing for those titles is doing so on an equal playing field. If that's not Emmert's team in Indianapolis guiding members to some form of agreement, someone else will have to fill that role.

"I don't think it's the end of the NCAA," Notre Dame's Swarbrick said. "You still need an entity to run great championships. You still need an enforcement mechanism, whether it's them or not, time will tell. I think there are still national functions to be played, just not on the scale the NCAA grew into from Walter Byers to today."

While college sports' top minds ponder the bigger picture of their future, the business end of their enterprise won't be standing still. By the end of this week, the Big 12 presidents and chancellors are expected to have the eight votes needed to add UCF, Houston, Cincinnati and BYU to their conference. That move, forced by the departure of Texas and Oklahoma, will likely tip over more dominoes in the American Athletic Conference, home to three of the four Big 12 targets.

The AAC's Aresco says this ongoing game of musical chairs leads him to doubt that the NCAA will be able to solve many of its problems.

"Realignment leads to mistrust, period," he said. "Historically, it's been going on forever. Looking for the last dollar is not always the best way to operate. Conferences gobbled up other conferences. There's a domino effect, which has been unfortunate. Everyone is out for themselves."

Realignment is as much a part of the fabric of college athletics as the game-day traditions that make fall Saturdays special on each campus. Conference commissioners are responsible to act in the best interest of their schools in a competitive marketplace. At the same time, without a powerful central figure looking out for the industry's overall welfare, the same leaders are also responsible for not destroying all the potential positive impacts of college sports. The member-led NCAA has been strung with the tension of that balance between competition and cooperation for more than a century. And the balance has perhaps never seemed so tenuous as it does at the moment.

"This is where everybody, all of us have to step forward and put our differences to the side for the greater good, and that's going to be a critical question as we go forward: Can we do that?" said ACC commissioner Phillips. "We need to do that, and I'm confident that we can. Because it's not going to get done by one person, it just isn't; it's going to get done because we come together and drive whatever this new iteration of college athletics is going to be."

The power brokers of college sports agree on little, but the search for common ground reveals at least three starting points: They believe the current system is broken. They believe it will take a group effort to save it. They believe the business and the opportunities it creates for student-athletes are worth saving. Will that be enough?