The days of the full D-I Independent may be numbered
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Amid massive structural changes in college athletics (realignment, NIL, legal challenges, etc.), and regularly scheduled ones (the start of the Fall sports season, the start of class, etc.), members of the D-I Transformation Committee are continuing to talk and work towards their original mission...redefining what it means to be a D-I institution.
As the D-1 Transformation Committee evaluates proposals regarding transfers, infractions, coaching staff limits, and other reform concepts, the group is also focusing on reevaluating D-I membership benchmarks.
Those recommendations aren't finalized, and won't be finalized for several months, but industry sources have told Extra Points that in addition to proposals that have been reported elsewhere, two other elements are considered likely to be a part of the final recommendations.
Beyond potential changes to minimum sport sponsorship requirements (currently, schools must sponsor a minimum of 14 sports, among other benchmarks), we're told that the Committee is likely to recommend changes in staffing requirements. An example of this might be to require D-I schools to hire and maintain X number of personal trainers per scholarship athlete, or X number of compliance professionals, or mental health professionals. Multiple AD of low and mid-major schools have told me that they are trying to budget for anticipated staff increases in order to comply with new regulations.
I've also been told that the Committee is likely to require D-I schools to maintain conference membership. That doesn't mean that individual sports can't maintain affiliate memberships or compete as independents. It would simply mean that the athletic department as a whole could not operate as an independent.
So no, this rule wouldn't force Notre Dame to join a conference in football.
The NCAA already requires schools hoping to reclassify from D-II to secure conference membership before moving to D-I. The proposed rule change, as I understand it, would apply to schools that were already D-I, but suddenly find themselves without a primary conference.
It's not very common for schools to compete without primary conference affiliation. There are 358 D-I institutions, but only one, Chicago State, currently operates an institutional independent. Prior to Chicago State, the last time a D-I program operated as an independent was in 2015, with NJIT. The Highlanders currently compete in the America East Conference.
There is a possibility that conference realignment could dissolve a low-major conference at a future date, potentially leaving a few schools without immediate homes, but such scenarios do not happen often.
If it isn't very common, why make the change?
Part of the reason could be because other NCAA regulations or requirements will be tied to conference-specific rules, such as sport sponsorship, scholarship allotments, etc. From a streamlined governance perspective, it would make sense to require all schools to hew to some specific conference set of rules and regulations.
The other possibility is that quite frankly, if a school isn't able to find a conference that wants to add them over a specified period of time, they may not be the kind of athletic department that the Committee feels should remain at the D-I level anyway.
Part of the entire purpose of the Committee was to take a closer look at redefining what it means to be a D-I institution. A major source of frustration in college athletics, from the biggest P5 budget to mid-majors, is that shared governance is increasingly difficult across vast differences in resources and mission. Not only is the financial difference between Illinois and Illinois-Chicago massive, but so is the difference between Illinois-Chicago and Chicago State.
"Raising the floor", so to speak, creates an opportunity for some lower-budget D-I schools to either raise their financial commitments to become more in line with their D-I peers, or determine that a different classification is more appropriate.
Any Committee changes, from sport sponsorship to staffing levels to conference affiliation, would almost certainly have a grace period to move into compliance.
It is not immediately clear what the potential impact would be, if any, on D-III or D-II schools currently competing at the D-I level for other sports, if only because there are so many other unresolved questions about single-sport conferences, fluidity between classification levels, etc. I believe it is fair to say that the Transformation Committee does not view the concept of Johns Hopkins Lacrosse as a critical problem that must be solved....but exactly how all of those pieces fit together for hockey and other Olympic sports is still to be determined.
In fact, nothing is finalized until the ink is dry on the paperwork on each school's desk. Committee members are constantly evaluating a number of concerns, from financial to legal to political, and circumstances could change.
But for now, it appears to be a safe bet that mid-majors should plan on making a few more hires over the coming years...and anybody who isn't certain of their conference affiliation in the immediate future ought to consider contingency plans with some urgency.
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