Dr. Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, took to the podium on Tuesday morning to address the state of the conference and the NCAA at large, as per tradition at MAC Media Day.
Though the location was different, with this year’s speech having Cleveland’s famous House of Blues serving as the backdrop, the contents of Steinbrecher’s speech were familiar, as the long-time commissioner once again pontificated on the state of collegiate sports.
Steinbrecher started his address by discussing the plethora of changes over the last two seasons in realignment structure at the FBS level, stating that six of the 10 major FBS conferences had seen shifting members.
Steinbrecher attributed the recent membership changes directly to the economic impacts of the Supreme Court’s ruling in NCAA vs. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma in 1984, which allowed conferences and universities to pursue such moves.
In regards to the MAC’s stance on conference expansion, Steinbrecher expressed confidence in the direction the conference took.
“I advised out membership to be patient, evaluate any information with a critical eye and continue to look for opportunities,” Steinbrecher said, stating the conference would “continue to monitor all the conference realignment and affiliations happening in college football.”
When asked by media to clarify the remarks later on, Steinbrecher stated the conference had “tremendous geography” and that “it works”, noting during the media questioning session there were “many” schools which had reached out regarding the possibility of joining the MAC.
“Our culture and our philosophies are very well-aligned, and we’re very protective of that,” Steinbrecher said.
Steinbrecher addressed the general landscape of college realignment more directly as well, expressing several doubts about the short-and long-term implications.
“While much has been written or spoken [about conference realignment], many if not most of those make no sense,” Steinbrecher said. “In scanning the landscape of the FBS, there’s few pieces on board which bring additive value.”
“Adding for the sake of adding members may bring some level of security, but it may not bring any additional value to the membership,” Steinbrecher continued.
Steinbrecher noted that historically, “no conference of 16 members has been sustainable,” though he also vouched the statement by adding the conferences which recently expanded to 16 members were “the financially strongest,” which was likely a factor.
Steinbrecher said he does not believe there will be a massive conference consolidation, but also noted that there hasn’t been a lot of news regarding realignment rumors, so only time could tell.
“What I do think and feel strongly about is that the enterprise of intercollegiate athletics is more robust and more healthier when it has a number of vibrant, sound, stable conferences all filled with member institutions,” Steinbrecher said regarding the changing landscape.
Steinbrecher then shifted his thoughts to the College Football Playoff, with Bill Hancock, the executive director of the College Football Playoff in attendance, coming out as a strong proponent of expansion, expressing support for a potential 12-or-16-team Playoff which would “have increased value to each television conference package and... ticket sales” by “intensifying interest” in the end of the season.
Steinbrecher stated the 10 conferences and Notre Dame agreed expansion was necessary back in June, saying the meetings were “frankly, the most productive in over a year,” but ultimately could not agree on a framework.
“A four-team playoff has worked well, but it has some unintended consequences that we need to be mindful of,” Steinbrecher said. “Inevitably, the focus in any given season is who will make the Playoff, and currently, with a four-team field, by September, we’ve gone from thinking 130 teams to 10 or 15, or less. That devalues the last two months of the regular season.”
Steinbrecher expressed optimism that could change, saying he hoped ”in short order” the committee could find a way to “make this tremendous event even better.”
After touching on the playoff, Steinbrecher expressed disdain for the glacial progress on NCAA reforms, saying attempts to evolve the NCAA gradually have failed.
“For years, the NCAA has attempted to implement change via evolution. This was inefficient, and often ineffective,” Steinbrecher said. “As an association, we are particularly good at writing new rules, and exceptionally unproductive at eliminating rules.”
Steinbrecher noted it took over seven years to change the transfer rules which had been in place since the mid-1960s, and even after changing those rules, they have been brought back to the table for re-adjustment just two years later.
“Change by evolution did not work, so now we will have change by revolution,” Steinbrecher emphasized. “... If the transformation effort is to be successful, it will be because all of us, all our member institutions are engaged in that effort, not just a committee.”
Steinbrecher put pressure on the NCAA and fellow institutional members to address big questions in regards to the future of the framework, asking for definitions of what rules are national rules, what rules can be managed at the conference and institutional levels, and how to define a student-athlete by modern standards, giving a nod to changing economic models around Name, Image and License agreements and generational changes regarding student-athlete mental health.
“While others may drift in the direction of an extreme emphasis of the athletic, we believe we can and do deliver both,” Steinbrecher said.
Steinbrecher discussed the MAC’s dedication to bettering the student-athlete experience, having worked alongside them since 2014, with student-athletes having recently been formally added to the MAC’s leadership structure as the Council of Student-Athletes for a more direct voice in conference matters.
Steinbrecher hoped the conference’s experience with working with student-athletes could influence other conferences to do something similar, noting that only 2.9 percent of high school athletes play at the Division I level, making them a valuable resource to conference leadership.
The commissioner concluded his opening remarks by commending Central Michigan’s performance against Washington State in the 2021 Sun Bowl, stating he hoped it would “set the tone” for the conference going into 2022.
The MAC football season kicks off on Thursday, Sept. 1, with several MAC teams in action that night.