college football:

Mountain West commissioner has more questions than answers about future

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

Hey Reb leads the UNLV football team out for the first half of the Heart of Dallas Bowl against North Texas on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014.

Craig Thompson is entering his 16th season leading the Mountain West. He’s the only commissioner the league has ever had, and on Tuesday at the Cosmopolitan he briefly discussed that past before moving to the topic the assembled media was more interested in: the future.

Many conversations about the future of college athletics are broken into the haves and the have-nots. The Mountain West is part of the latter, one of the five FBS-level conferences that could be left behind if the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC would decide to form their own league.

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“It’s not a tipping point,” Thompson said, “… but it is a precarious position because of the unknown.”

A lot of things are coming to a head at the same time, with Thompson saying that the next three to six years could be spent as much in courtrooms as on the court. The class-action lawsuits, attempts to unionize and public support to pay players are all going to have an effect on how the collegiate sports system is run.

At this point, it’s impossible to say exactly how the Mountain West will fit into that landscape. One big hurdle that’s coming in the near future, Thompson said, is covering the cost of attendance.

Assuming the NCAA approves it, and league commissioners all seem to think they will, this one is seen as a victory for the athletes. It’s not exactly paying players, but it does ensure that a full scholarship will actually mean what it says as opposed to leaving them with extra costs.

Thompson said he believes the Mountain West programs will be able to cover that extra expense, although he admitted that with nine days until another new wrinkle there aren’t clear answers.

That change is unlimited snacks, which are now allowed but not required by the NCAA. It goes into effect on Aug. 1, and Thompson said that Mountain West teams are still comparing notes on how they plan to pay for the extra food, as well as logistics like where to keep them.

“It’s a real challenge,” Thompson said. “We’re working to develop best practices.”

Outside of paying players, offering the best unlimited snacks, and maybe eventually unlimited full meals, is one possible way the Big 5 conferences — Thompson calls them the “high-resource” leagues — could separate themselves in the future. Overall Thompson didn’t seem too worried about that or other possible advantages that the top leagues could offer to separate themselves, even if they don’t actually split apart.

The one thing that did seem like a game-changer to him, though, was scholarship limits. If those ever change, allowing the best programs to once again stockpile talent, that could be too much to overcome.

But no one’s proposing that right now, Thompson said. Could proposals change in another six months? Of course.

The most important thing to remember is that the unknown dominates these conversations right now. Even the number of teams in the College Football Playoff is likely to expand sooner than later, Thompson agreed, and there hasn’t even been a game played with that system in place.

Clarity is coming in the next few years, but for now, “there are more questions than answers,” Thompson said. And amid all that uncertainty, the Mountain West is doing fine.

At least for now, and that’s all anyone can really say for sure.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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