State of the MAC, 2019

MAC Commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher addresses the media, players and coaches, and athletic administrators during the 2019 MAC Football Media Day function at Ford Field in Detroit on July 23, 2019.

Note: This story appears in the Sunday, July 28 newspaper on Page B1.

DETROIT — In an era when 28 million dollar locker room upgrades — see LSU — are a reality, it’s fair to wonder if conferences outside the power leagues should continue to pursue FBS football.

Mid-American Conference commissioner Dr. Jon Steinbrecher addressed that, and a host of other issues, during the MAC’s Media Day function last week at Ford Field.

And while it’s true the resources the average MAC program has to work with is dwarfed by the amassed fortune represented by the Ohio State’s and Clemson’s and Alabama’s of the college football world, Steinbrecher said nothing has changed regarding the MAC’s place in the landscape.

In short, the gap between the MAC and the Big Ten — or the Sun Belt and the SEC, and so on — is what it’s always been. The perception that the gap is only increasing year by year, thanks to the absurd broadcast money rolling in, doesn’t factor in for Steinbrecher.

“The gap is the gap. It’s always been there. It’s always going to be there,” he said.

As long as the NCAA mandated 85-scholarship limit remains in place, Steinbrecher feels the MAC can continue to compete with more monied conferences.

The ‘gap’ is the same now as it was a generation ago, Steinbrecher said. Then, and today, the MAC and other Group of Five conferences have found ways to compete with their power conference brethren.

“I’ve been doing this 25 years now,” Steinbrecher said. “This discussion is no different than I had 25 years ago. It doesn’t mean it’s not the right discussion — it is — but I have faith that we’ll figure out some way to manage it.”

Currently, MAC schools manage the commitment to FBS football by subsidizing athletics through student fees. Every school in the conference, and in fact nearly every school in every conference, takes some portion of student fees and uses it to fund the university programs.

“I guess the concern is can we continue to afford to underwrite our programs?” Steinbrecher said. “That’s a legitimate concern.

“So it’s incumbent on me, our administrators too, that we continue to grow revenue streams that we have, create new revenue streams,” he added. “You’re focused on that all the time.”

Next big thing

One hot topic that the NCAA is wrestling with is allowing student-athletes to profit their own name, image and likeness in college athletics. Currently, athletes are prohibited from doing so.

But there is gathering debate for changing or modifying the policy. Steinbrecher didn’t give an indication which side of the debate he preferred.

He said much more research was needed. He sounded pessimistic about an ‘Olympics’ model that could work.

“The best analogy I can come up with deals with institutions that seek out federal research grants,” Steinbrecher said. “Those grants come with an incredible amount of oversight and regulations necessitating a significant compliance structure. This might require something similar.”

About that portal

Many collegiate coaches have expressed concern about the NCAA Transfer Portal, the development of a data base that allows current student-athletes to declare their intention to transfer without clearance from the school in which they are currently enrolled.

Steinbrecher said more data — say another two or three years — was needed before reevaluating the program. Steinbrecher claimed “approximately half” of all players in the portal during the first year were non-scholarship athletes. Steinbrecher claimed that the number of transfers from the MAC over the last year were “remarkably similar” to the number of transfers out of the conference from the two previous years.

“The portal has done what it is intended to do, and that is to bring transparency to who is interested in transferring,” Steinbrecher said. “What we really need to be paying attention to is who actually transfers, not simply puts their name in the portal, and is there a difference in the rate of transfer year-over-year?”

Expansion thoughts

Steinbrecher, repeating his usual answer from the past two years, said the MAC would be open to expansion but declined to say if UConn reached out about joining as a football-only member.

UConn departed the AAC in June, will join the Big East in everything but football in 2020, and will forge ahead as an independent in football.

“You never say ‘never’ on any of this,” Steinbrecher said. “Conference membership is often not a rational process. It’s incumbent on the conference commissioner to make it a rational process.

“You add people for two reasons: to survive as a league or to get better, to get stronger,” he continued. “We’re clearly not in survival mode.”

The AAC has indicated with continue as an 11-team conference for now. Steinbrecher said he wasn’t concerned about a program from the MAC leaving for an AAC invite.

“I didn’t lose a lot of sleep over that,” he said. “That’s not meant in any derogatory fashion. Institutions need to go where they need to be or think they need to be.”

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