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The Fresno Bee Marek Warszawski column

By Marek Warszawski, The Fresno Bee
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

May 25--You probably think Fresno State had a pretty good sports year.

Based on the football team winning 11 games and a second straight Mountain West Conference title, the men's basketball team coming on at the end of the season and the women's basketball team extending its NCAA streak. (For now, let's just forget about the baseball team. Most of you did.)

In total, the Bulldogs produced 53 all-conference selections, seven All-Americans and, most importantly, 89 college graduates.

So as the 2013-14 school year ends and we begin the long, scorching three months until football season, it's easy to kick back in the chaise lounge sipping strawberry ice tea and think everything is rosy.

Sure, Fresno State faces some serious fundraising challenges -- as I broke down last week -- but President Joseph Castro has a bold plan that will make the numbers add up.

If it were only that simple.

While Castro and Athletic Director Thomas Boeh can't even properly feed the football team, the rest of the NCAA is moving full-speed ahead on a series of reforms that will leave schools like Fresno State begging for table scraps.

Not someday in the distant future. This is happening right now.

Last week, the Associated Press obtained a letter from the Pac-12 presidents to their counterparts in the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC calling for sweeping reforms to the current structure of college sports.

Essentially, the five wealthiest conferences want the power to set their own rules without being beholden to the 22 other Division I leagues. The NCAA Board of Directors has already endorsed the plan; it comes up for vote in early August.

Some of the changes the Pac-12 is calling for:

--Allow universities to grant a cost-of-attendance stipend designed to meet out-of-pocket expenses that scholarships don't cover. How much depends on the school, but the average gap is $3,500.

--Provide ongoing medical care and insurance assistance for athletes who suffer incapacitating injuries.

--Grant scholarship athletes in good standing enough time to complete their degrees.

--Decrease time demands on student-athletes, both during and after the season.

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--Liberalize the transfer rules.

There's talk of allowing athletes to pursue careers without sacrificing their college eligibility, as well as increasing the scholarship limits for certain sports. Some schools want the ability to pay for parents' travel expenses to NCAA events.

"We acknowledge the core objectives could prove to be expensive and controversial, but the risks of inaction or moving too slowly are far greater," the letter states. "The time for tinkering with the rules and small adjustments is over."

Schools like Fresno State have always been at a disadvantage, but this creates a new penthouse of college sports the Bulldogs won't reach with any special elevator key.

Recruiting against the power conferences is tough enough. Image how tough it'll be when even a Washington State can offer scholarships worth thousands more than what Fresno State can offer.

The MW presidents meet June 1 and formulating a response to all of this will be a major agenda item.

But, right now, a few questions come to mind: Does the MW go along with the proposed reforms? Would any vote be league-wide, or would each school fend for itself?

We know Bob Kustra's feelings, as the Boise State's boisterous president seldom hides them.

One day after the Pac-12 letter went public, Kustra issued a scathing response in which he called many of the reforms "subterfuge for fueling the arms race" of college sports and urged the NCAA "not to fall prey to phony arguments about student welfare."

"This is all about trying to separate out the so-called resource five," Kustra wrote, "and leave everybody else in the dust."

While vowing to fight the reforms, Kustra gave himself enough wiggle room to do the Harlem Shake.

If they pass, Kustra told The Idaho Statesman that Boise State would have no choice but to offer cost-of-attendance stipends, too.

Because that's the only way to stay competitive.

What about Fresno State, which must borrow and beg to meet its scholarship nut as things stand now?

"I want to hear the discussion (at the MW meetings) before I make a final decision," Castro said. "The one thing that does concern me is some of the calls to increase benefits to the point where it makes it very hard for universities like Fresno State to compete effectively and have a balanced financial portfolio."

Sorry, Joe, but very hard was before. It'll soon be next-to-impossible.

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These sweeping changes may seem like they're coming all of a sudden and in a hurry. And they are, as a response to the threat posed by current unionization efforts at Northwestern.

But, really, this has been years in the making, and some people saw them coming.

Pat Hill was one of those people.

In my first long conversation with the former Bulldogs coach, way back in the spring of 2000, Hill was adamant that the big conferences would someday "break away" and form their own division.

For Fresno State to make the cut, Hill said, the university would have to grow its fan base and invest in infrastructure (i.e. a 70,000-seat stadium) so the big boys could literally not afford to leave the Bulldogs behind.

It was a big dream, one that never materialized. But the rest of the prophecy did. And reality is about to set in.

___

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

___

(c)2014 The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.)

Visit The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.) at www.fresnobee.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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