Postcard from Destin: Seven observations

semerson@macon.comMay 29, 2014 

DESTIN, Fla. - It's Day 3 of SEC meetings here on the Florida gulf coast. The head coaches have departed after two days of talks, the presidents and chancellors arrive today, and the athletics directors, commissioner and media are supposed to get Thursday morning off for some relaxation.

It's not working out. Rain has intruded on the SEC's planned golf outing, and the media's plans to finally see the beach. So everyone might be a bit grumpy when they reconvene Thursday afternoon.

It's not the only thing that hasn't quite gone according to plan this week. This were supposed to be a quiet week, with no overhanging issue, but whether it was the media's work or the coaches, the early signing period took center stage. We also managed to scrounge up some other issues, other than the one that the SEC has been spending the most time on:

Autonomy and its implications have dominated discussions behind closed doors, according to everyone I've spoken to. But even they admit the subject is hard for fans to wrap their minds around, because the actual implications don't seem very important right now. (That could change.) So when the coaches, administrators and commissioners have left their board rooms, the early signing period, James Franklin's incursion into Atlanta, football scheduling and much more has been at the forefront.

Here are five observations thus far:

1. The early signing period is unpopular.

Around the hallways and on the pool deck, when you talk off the record to people around the league it's hard to find much support for an early signing period. Publicly a few coaches, notably Les Miles and Bret Bielema, say they are for it. But opinion is at best divided, and it was clear that the SEC only grudgingly proposed that there be one after Thanksgiving. And the stipulation that anyone who signs must not have taken an official visit anywhere could be a poison pill for other conferences.

The perception around the conference is that the current system isn't really broken. Of course it benefits the bigger schools, which can poach - there's no better word for it - recruits from smaller schools the closer it gets to February. Even Vanderbilt and Kentucky, the victims of such poaching from the likes of Georgia and Alabama, don't seem that crazy about an early signing period.

But some coaches like one thing that would result from an early period: Right now coaches spend much of December and January flying and driving around to see recruits who are already committed, just because everyone has to feel a bit loved. You never know what might happen if you don't do that. If that player instead signs just after Thanksgiving, then that frees up time for more recruiting the final two months before signing day. That's something that appeals to coaches like Mark Richt.

Still, it was clear when Mike Slive addressed the media on Wednesday that the only reason they're proposing anything is the SEC senses the national mood may be against them. For whatever reason, other conferences are more in favor of it, and the SEC could get out-voted. Slive guessed that if a vote were held today it would be "a close call." So rather than just fight it, the SEC has a two-pronged effort - and the second prong, with that potential poison pill, might be aimed at accomplishing the first goal.

2. Scheduling issues aren't going away - but will work themselves out.

Slive did his best to end this as an issue leading up to the meetings, and while there was still some discussion this week about eight versus nine conference games, it was mostly when the media brought it up.

But the non-conference scheduling emerged as another sticking point. Will Muschamp made news by saying Florida wouldn't play FCS teams anymore, but a day later his athletics director Jeremy Foley hedged on that. Nick Saban would like to go further, with all non-conference games being within the five major conferences. But then in the next breath Saban admitted that was logistically impossible.

The reason this issue will be with us awhile is because of the changing landscape of the sport. The playoff, and how teams are selected for it, will have a big impact on how teams schedule. So will finances.

But two things I'm sure of after being here this week: 1. Other than Muschamp, there isn't any sentiment to stop playing FCS teams. 2. No one is wedded to the eight-game formula, but it won't go to nine unless it's perceived to have cost the SEC a team or two in the playoff.

3. Autonomy is really complicated.

And people in the SEC are still trying to figure it out.

The final two days of meetings will see more debate, as the presidents and chancellors take over the discussion. They're the ones with the real decision-making power over this in the NCAA, and they should have a better grasp on it.

The five major conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12) being able to make their own rules has a number of implications, many of them that fall into the "inside baseball" category. The most thorny issue is whether a stipend (or cost-of-attendance payment) will go to all athletes, or just the ones in revenue-producing sports. I didn't get the sense that anyone knows where that's going.

The stipend issue also raises an interesting one in basketball: Let's say Georgia or another major-conference team is competing for a recruit against someone from outside the five major conferences, which isn't very unusual. Butler, Gonzaga, VCU and many other mid-majors have become strong programs. Georgia can offer a stipend, so would one of the mid-major programs be able to offer one as well?

Autonomy could also result in the bigger getting even bigger on a football level: The SEC wants to add a 10th assistant coach in football. That's been consistently outvoted on a national level - but by the same smaller programs that will now be on a different level. So maybe that 10th assistant is coming to the five major conferences pretty soon.

4. It's a four-team playoff - really, we swear!

Bill Hancock, formerly the head of the BCS and now of the College Football Playoff (guess we gotta start shortening that to CFP) was trotted out to meet the media on Tuesday. At one point Hancock, noted for being one of the nicest people in the world, smiled and stated this about the playoff format:

“It is going to be four in 12 years. There is no talk at all in our group about any change in that. I’ll ask the first question: Bill, are you going to change? No, it’s a four-team tournament for 12 years.”

A media member interrupted to point out that Hancock also said the BCS would remain in place. Hancock smiled and replied to that by claiming the popularity of the BCS is increasing as time goes by. OK, sure.

In any event, there has been no talk about the playoff expanding to eight - at least not yet. Just wait till the SEC feels jobbed. The sense I get around the conference is that everyone's fine with it being four right now, but no one will stomp their feet and cry if it grows to eight.

5. The SEC Network doesn't mean immediate money.

Eventually the channel should make the coffers of each school even grander. But in the short term schools are actually spending more money to get ready for it.

Georgia A.D. Greg McGarity and Auburn A.D. Jay Jacobs each estimated their schools have spent between $2-$3 million on upgrades to their technical facilities to get ready for it. In Georgia's case, that meant, for instance, a new control room that the network would use at Sanford Stadium, costing about $2 million.

The SEC is still battling for cable providers to pick up the channel. The feeling around the conference is eventually it will happen, and it will be at the level of the Big Ten Network. But they know that early on there will be enough resistance that the channel won't be printing money left and right. It's going to take time.

6. The pace of play debate has ebbed.

Remember that knock-out, drag-out fight we expected over the 10-second proposal, which can be brought up again after this season?

Well, it petered out. And when it was briefly brought up in Tuesday's coaches' meeting, they quickly realized they couldn't accomplish anything and moved along. (That was according to Les Miles.)

Bielema, realizing he put his foot in his mouth recently, chose his words more carefully this week: "I love up-tempo offenses. I love going against them. I love competing against them. I respect coaches that believe in that system because it so much different than mine."

Though Bielema did add: "I don't have agendas. I have one agenda: Player safety."

And the debate over whether safety is hurt by faster offenses will be reignited later. Just not this week.

7. Football coaches are getting along.

This isn't really important in the long run, it's just interesting.

There have also been no reports of Bielema and Gus Malzahn lobbing grenades at each other. Bielema kind of laughed off questions about his relationship with Malzahn.

On Wednesday, as coaches left their own meeting to come upstairs to meet with A.D.s, you couldn't help but notice that Nick Saban, Will Muschamp and Richt were walking close together. Richt and Saban don't see eye-to-eye on a lot of stuff, though they've kept that largely under the radar. Walking together to a meeting doesn't mean they shared a beach towel earlier in the day, but hey, it's something.

Now if Saban brings his offensive coordinator to Destin, then maybe we'd have fireworks.

More from Destin today and tomorrow.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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