University president Rodney Bennett introduces Jon Gilbert as Southern Miss athletic director Tuesday.
Jason Munz/Hattiesburg American
Rodney Bennett wants to be heard.
The University of Southern Mississippi president, who was recently elected to a two-year term as chairman of Conference USA’s board of directors, has watched over the past decade as the NCAA landscape has transformed radically. Gradually at first and more intensely so in recent years.
And the makeover, from his perspective, has not necessarily been for the good of the whole.
“Conference USA is part of a larger organization (the NCAA),” Bennett said. “And we don’t want to lose our footing as part of that organization.”
As the clear divide between the haves and have-nots has become even more distinct in college athletics, it begs the question: What is his plan to stem the current tide?
Bennett knows there is no formula that will crack the code. But as far as he’s concerned, at least part of the solution is simple: speak up.
“Our work over the next two years is to make sure our voice isn’t marginalized at the national level,” Bennett said. “Making sure the conversation is an inclusive conversation. I think there are so many institutions around the country that feel something needs to be done. That the model we’re using right now is not a sustainable model for the next 100 years. I think it’s going to require some people with a lot of courage and conviction to say and do some things that may not be very popular, that may upset the apple cart.
“What we don’t want to see happen is for the Power 5 institutions to break away and create their own division. We just want to make sure the athletic community has a deep appreciation for what many schools and institutions bring to intercollegiate athletics.”
C-USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod agrees.
“I think naturally the way the system is, it would be easy for us to get lost in there,” she said. “But (Bennett) makes a great point — we need to make sure we don’t.”
Bennett has witnessed it the same as everyone else. The Power 5 conferences — the nickname bestowed upon the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-12 — and the Group of 5 leagues, which includes C-USA, have each gravitated toward opposite ends of the financial spectrum in recent years. In 2005, Texas A&M generated $64.2 million in revenue, while Southern Miss hauled in $18.2 million. More than a decade later, Texas A&M’s (which joined the SEC in 2011) total revenue has increased by 203 percent. Over the same span, Southern Miss has seen its number grow by just 42 percent.
For Bennett, the gap became vastly more precipitous with the advent of television networks solely dedicated to the coverage of certain leagues and the influx of cash attached to them.
“I think it really started when institutions started seeing significant dollars related to TV rights and packages. The ability to market and sell TV rights to organizations in the media really set us on a different trajectory,” said Bennett, the first Southern Miss president to serve as chairman of C-USA’s board of directors in its 20-plus year history.
The course in question began moving toward the stratosphere in earnest a few years ago. The SEC reported $527.4 million worth of revenue in 2014-15, the first year of the College Football Playoff and the SEC Network. That figure represented a more than 60 percent increase over the previous year and brought in more than $33 million per SEC institution. In fiscal year 2015, the Big Ten made $448.8 million from its media rights agreement.
C-USA, on the other hand, is headed into the second and final year of a media rights deal that will net $2.8 million.
“So if you’re not one of those (Power 5) institutions that’s receiving millions and millions from TV rights, it’s hard for you to adhere to NCAA rules and regulations that benefit those schools where money’s not an issue,” Bennett said. “It goes without saying how much we’ve all suffered from the lack of revenue primarily because of the media compensation package. But we’re hopeful when it’s ready to rebid, there will be others ready to rebid, which will make the package much more desirable to a TV outlet.
“That’s sort of what we got caught in the last time. We were basically the only ones out there.”
The American Athletic Conference, Mountain West and Sun Belt each have media rights deals set to expire in 2020.
University of Southern Mississippi president Rodney Bennett was recently elected chairman of Conference USA’s board of directors. (Photo: File photo/Hattiesburg American)
Another point of contention for Bennett is the course the NCAA is on with regards to cost-of-attendance.
In August 2014, the NCAA granted college sports’ five richest — and therefore, most powerful — conferences the capacity to write many of its own rules. Otherwise known as autonomy, the move was largely made to give schools the ability to pay their respective student-athletes a stipend to be used for a variety of things not covered by the traditional scholarship, now commonly referred to as cost-of-attendance (defined by the NCAA as the cost of tuition, fees, books, room and board, transportation and personal expenses for an academic year).
Southern Miss spent $330,000 on cost-of-attendance in fiscal year 2017. Athletic department officials say $530,000 will be set aside for the same purpose next year. Two years ago, Auburn spent $2.1 million on cost-of-attendance.
“If you’re school X, and you’re just trying to keep the lights on and the uniforms in good condition and trying to get your teams playing good games, and now the NCAA is saying, ‘Think about increasing your scholarship amount,’ it becomes problematic,” Bennett said. “That decision and decisions similar to that were made without a lot of involvement from institutions outside the Power 5.
“Unless somebody says, ‘The max the system will allow any school to pay any individual person is X, Y or Z, there would be no ceiling to some of the things that happen in intercollegiate athletics.”
Both MacLeod and Southern Miss athletic director Jon Gilbert have high hopes for Bennett as C-USA’s chairman of the board.
“I think it’s important on several fronts,” Gilbert said. “No. 1, I think (Bennett) having a prominent seat at the table, it’s beneficial for Southern Miss at a time where the league continues to evolve. I’ve seen Dr. Bennett’s love for athletics, and he’s aware of the issues athletically both on the conference level and the national level.”
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MacLeod echoes those sentiments.
“If we don’t stick up for ourselves, who will (stick up for us)?” she said. “So to have someone willing to do that is certainly good.”
Also on Bennett’s agenda during his term will be a focus on strengthening C-USA as a whole — academic standards, compliance and scheduling.
The league is entering its third year with the same lineup of schools. But Bennett said the board of directors continuously monitors membership. In particular, there is the growing concern of geography and how it relates to cost effectiveness in terms of scheduling.
“The makeup of our league is very important to us,” he said. “If you’re going from (Old Dominion in) Norfolk, Virginia, to (UTEP in) El Paso, Texas, you’re basically making a cross-country trip. We’re very concerned about that from the standpoint of cost but also from the standpoint of the number of days a student is out of class for competition. So I would say that’s a very important item for discussion over the next 24 months and beyond.”
MacLeod, who became C-USA’s commissioner in October 2015, said prior to the most recent wave of conference realignment, many programs’ non-conference games involved significant travel.
“And you played your conference games close to you,” she said. “Our schools had to, sort of, reverse that. If you’re traveling a long way for your conference schedule, then try to schedule non-conference games closer to home.”
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Bennett has also heard the strident calls for Southern Miss to seek greener pastures on the conference affiliation front from segments of the Golden Eagle fan base in recent years. He explained the complexity of such a notion.
“The attractiveness to be invited to another league revolves around winning championships where you are,” he said. “If you’re not doing that from Olympic sports to the revenue-generating sports, you’ve got a difficult road ahead of you. And I’m not just speaking about USM or Conference USA. I’m speaking broadly. The academic profile of the institution is also critical. Institutional finances are very important, as is the quality of a school’s facilities.
“Part of what all of our schools in Conference USA are doing is trying to work on that and get better and be the best we can where we are to attract institutions to our league and be invited — which is the key word — to join their league.”
Conference USA board of directors’ executive committee
University of Southern Mississippi President Rodney Bennett, chairman
Louisiana Tech President Les Guice, vice chairman
Middle Tennessee President Sidney McPhee
Charlotte Chancellor Phil DuBois
Marshall President Jerry Gilbert