On Saturday afternoon at the sauna known as Finley Stadium, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga football team did what college football teams do this time of year. It scrimmaged, the humidity be darned.
And the Mocs looked pretty good in that scrimmage, completely befitting of their preseason FCS rankings.
But with the NCAA voting this past week to give the Fat Cat Five conferences their beloved "autonomy" -- which just might be Greek for "to heck with everybody else" -- one couldn't help but wonder what this could mean for UTC and its FCS brethren down the road. And not just in football, though most folks are focusing only on the oblong ball at this time.
"I've been on both sides," said UTC athletic director David Blackburn, who worked for 22 years at big brother Tennessee in Knoxville. "And now that I'm on this side, it's a little bit alarming."
Two scenarios at or near the top of Blackburn's alarm list have to do with recruiting.
"If some of the permissible legislation goes through, paying players the cost of attendance would also be permissible on our level," he noted, referring to the actual estimated cost of attendance as opposed to the scholarship. "But we can't fund it. If some schools at our level determined they could, it could put us at a real disadvantage in recruiting."
There's also the very real concern that a recruit could realize after a year in the program that he might be good enough to contribute to the success of a Fat Cat Five outfit in the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 or Southeastern conference, his motivation at least partly driven by the estimated $2,000 to $5,000 he'd get in cost-of-attendance dollars.
"My wife (Andrea) was actually the first person to bring that up to me," Blackburn said. "Would a player who's pretty good at our level consider transferring in order to get the cost-of-attendance money if we can't pay it? You could certainly see that happening."
Yet what most worries Blackburn is what happens outside of football, where the Mocs technically are on the same level as the Fat Cat Five, chasing the same NCAA Division I championship dreams in every other sport they compete in.
"The thing that most concerns us is what's considered autonomous," he said. "The power five conferences have to submit a wish list by Oct. 1, I think. It primarily concerns sports outside of football. For instance, they're probably going to want unlimited meals. They'll have a full-time chef. You can probably eat 24/7/365. Now how big a swap is that for us? How much would that hurt us in competing for championships?"
And if all this wasn't enough to keep administrators up at night, there's the Friday court decision from San Francisco that sided with former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon in his class-action lawsuit against the NCAA to allow players to receive money for their likenesses and jersey numbers when they're used for commercial means during their college years.
The judge capped the money any player could receive at $5,000 a year, which seemed smart on a number of fronts, most notably curtailing the jealousy within a team if a quarterback was raking in six figures while the left offensive tackle keeping the QB's pants clean was making a couple of hundred bucks.
Blackburn knows that no player at UTC's level is likely to generate major dollars, but it's not impossible.
"You never say never," he said. "Let's say we got a transfer in here like B.J. Coleman, someone everyone knows. You think we couldn't have sold some B.J. Coleman jerseys in this town, at least enough to make him some royalty money? It would be unusual, but it could happen."
The truth is that no one knows what will happen at this moment. Even within the Fat Cat Five there's bound to be a little division, according to Blackburn.
"Look at the budgets at Mississippi State or Iowa State," he said. "They work with so much less than the schools at the top of their leagues. So it's not just us. But the schools I'm most concerned about are those in the next five -- leagues like Conference USA, the Sun Belt, the American. What happens to them?"
The immediate concern for everyone not fortunate enough to be members of the embarrassingly wealthy Fat Cat Five is what happens to those guarantee football games, such as the one UTC will play at Tennessee on Oct. 11. Those games bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars for the little guys -- FCS programs such as the Mocs and FBS programs such as UAB, Middle Tennessee or Georgia State.
"Hopefully, wise heads will prevail," Blackburn said. "But I'm fearful they could go away."
They shouldn't. As has been written in this space before, if the big boys continue to play 12 regular-season games, and eventually move to nine league games, that leaves three nonconference games. With everyone now concerned about strength of schedule due to the new playoff format, each school should have only its 11 toughest opponents figure in any playoff talk. The 12th game should be there to help the little guy, as well as provide a break for the home team.
Another idea, first discussed by former UT coach Phillip Fulmer a decade ago, might be to have a UTC play UT in a slightly controlled spring game -- no kickoffs, for instance, since most concussions happen on those types of plays -- with all tickets going for $10 and the two schools splitting the profits.
"Remember, too, that these coaches [from the big conferences] want at least one breather a year," Blackburn noted. "And state legislatures like to see the big state school help out the smaller state school. Their involvement, should it happen, could change some of this."
When politicians become your last hope, the end of non-Fat Cat Five football as we know it can't be far behind.
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Wiedmer started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press on Valentine’s Day of 1983. At the time, he had to get an advance from his boss to buy a Valentine gift for his wife. Mark was hired as a graphic artist but quickly moved to sports, where he oversaw prep football for a time, won the “Pick’ em” box in 1985 and took over the UTC basketball beat the following year. By 1990, he was ...