Football: C-USA looks to boost scholarships

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North Texas linebacker Derek Akunne answer a question Conference USA media day Wednesday in Irving.

IRVING — Conference USA will move forward with plans to provide athletes with scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance, following the lead of the five major conferences in what commissioner Britton Banowsky described as a challenging time in college athletics during the league’s annual media day Wednesday.

The top five conferences in college football — the Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, ACC and Big Ten — are expected to be granted autonomy from the rest of the NCAA next month. The first four-team college football playoff will take place this year.

C-USA officials said they are prepared to adjust to a new landscape, starting with providing scholarships that will pay for the full cost of going to college.

“The collegiate model is very healthy and bedrock for what we do,” Banowsky said. “It makes college sports meaningful, but we expect there to be change. We see it on the horizon and need to make sure we manage the change in a way that is thoughtful and benefits our student-athletes.”

Banowsky estimated that each university in the league would need between $345,000 and $1.15 million more per year to cover full-cost-of-attendance scholarships, based on a rough estimate of 230 student-athletes receiving an additional $1,500 to $5,000 more than their current scholarships provide.

The top five college conferences are expected to adopt full-cost-of-attendance scholarships.

Banowsky said that the league’s presidents and chancellors support the league following suit.

“We think it is the right thing to do,” Banowsky said. “That does not violate the principles of the collegiate model.”

UNT coach Dan McCarney said he also supports giving athletes full cost of attendance scholarships that would go beyond the room, board and books that scholarships currently provide.

What is of a greater concern for McCarney is the challenge of preparing student-athletes for life after their athletic careers. McCarney arrived at Iowa, where he was a standout lineman, in 1971 and has been playing or coaching at the college level ever since.

McCarney’s scholarship amounted to $15 a month when he was a freshman with the Hawkeyes.

“If we worry more about how much money they have in their pockets instead of preparing them for the journey we call life and getting a degree, then we have problems,” McCarney said. “I will fight for that as long as I coach. Call it new school, old school, whatever. That is the No. 1 reason we are here. If you don’t think you can impact people’s lives in a positive manner and teach those lessons, then you are in the wrong profession.”

The possibility of the top five conferences in college football being granted autonomy was another issue Banowsky and C-USA officials addressed. The proposal that would allow the larger conferences the ability to make decisions that would benefit their schools and have a larger say in governance will go before the NCAA board of governors on Aug. 7.

“I believe that even they want to maintain the current college model with 85 scholarships at the Division I level, providing players with a good education and experience,” Florida Atlantic coach Charlie Partridge said of officials in the top five conferences. “I don’t think it will have as big [of] an impact as people think. Some schools will be able to provide something more than others with the size of their weight room or the number of tutors they have. That has always been the case.”

UNT will open the season on Aug. 30 at Texas and will face a program that has just as much at its disposal as any of its counterparts in the country.

The concern among some college coaches and officials is that the changing landscape in college football is making it harder for schools to compete with their counterparts with more resources.

“When we look back, we may find out that there is a bigger separation even within the power five conferences,” Marshall coach Doc Holliday said. “The separation between schools will be even bigger. Is that good for college football? I don’t think so.”

There is a chance that by the time UNT faces Texas, the Longhorns could be on the other side of the college football fence with the other teams in conferences with autonomy.

The opportunity is one UNT’s players relish.

UNT faced Georgia last season on the road and was locked in a tie game in the third quarter before the Bulldogs pulled away for a 45-21 win.

C-USA officials are committed to keeping their teams on the same level in terms of scholarships as programs like Texas and Georgia, no matter what happens with the autonomy proposal. If adopted, the Big 12 and SEC and their teams, including Texas and Georgia, would be separated in some regards from C-USA and UNT.

UNT offensive lineman Cyril Lemon said he understands a college football playoff is what college fans want to see.

What is important to Lemon, McCarney and linebacker Derek Akunne is that there will be a few constants that remain in a time of change in college football.

The opportunity to face a team like Texas is one of the most important of those opportunities.

“We get excited to play teams like that,” Akunne said of Texas. “We like being the underdog. Being on that stage with 100,000 fans and in that atmosphere is exciting.”

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.


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