Four years ago, at age 67, the NCAA began to cure its growing aspins. Because what was good for Amherst was not necessarily good for Texas, the collegiate wizards divided their fraternity into three divisions, so schools that thought alike could act alike in matters of finance and philosophy. The ache is back, and semiamateur sport will be better because of it.
The fuss essentially involves three letters, CFA, and the roman numeral II. When finally resolved, possibly more out of anger than reason, it will affect such basics as who your favorite team plays, or if in fact it exists anymore, and how much Johnny gets to major in noseguard.
At the NCAA convention in Miami Beach earlier this month about 100 colleges - including all the locals except Maryland - were invited to take a drastic step backward in prestige, from Division I to Division II, from either bowing to the overstuffed creature called football or stepping to the back of the bus.
Through some nimble backstage maneuvering, the proposals were beaten back. As more than one of the parliamentary magicians muttered afterward, however, "the battle was won but the war might be lost." What they meant was that Bear and his crowd might not be so polite next time around. Instead of "join us, at our terms," they might well say: "Goodbye." Which probably is the best idea of all.
At the moment, there are 247 schools in Division I, 137 of which have football programs of various degrees of intensity. Most reasonable men at most schools realize football is special; in fact, the hand that feeds many of them.
Whant angers Bob Frailey of American University, Frank Rienzo of Georgetown and other athletic directors from St. John's to Marquette to San Francisco is that the no-football schools seem to be hurt more than the football schools are helped by current restructuring proposals.
How to achieve peace with pride, how to pacify the giants and still keep alumni wallets at the nonfootball schools open? A troublesome, perhaps futile, question. The Eastern colleges will assume the burden of finding solutions because they stand to lose most.
All of this began more than a year ago, when various NCAA committees decided the elite divisional class would be limited to about 80 schools. Everyone else would be claimers, or so they thought.
"We had a classification meeting in Denver last June 30 and July 1, and college presidents came ink there and said whether they stayed open or closed the doors to the school depended on being in Division I," siad a man at the meeting. "That's hard to swallow, of course, but that was their straight-up, look-you-in-the-eye statement."
So, about 80 became 97, and 97 became 143, and then some well-intended legislation and all those numbers ended as nothing after the Miami Beach convention. But the issue hardly is dead.
Everyone wants Division I but not everyone is willing, literally, to pay the price. The most recent proposal, the one that took more than a year to determine and about 10 minutes to defeat, created a point system based on various minimums in eight sports, including football and basketball.
The schools either without football or without serious football suddenly were Division II. Oh, they might be Division I in a particular sport, basketball for instance, and have a say in matters concernign that sport. But their overall program would be Division II in fact - and perhaps second-calss in the eyes of alumni and the community.
The forces working toward that goal, including most of the football factories except those in the Big 10 and Pacific-Eight-turning-10 banded into a lobby group called the College Football Association (CFA). They are not accustomed to losing, either on the field or in NCAA conventions. They will fight another day.
In truth, this fuss is rather healthy in one major respect. It moves the colleges another step toward local autonomy, which ultimately ought to help the very athletes schools are publicly committed to aiding but often hamper with too generalized legislation.
Many schools are overdue for a serious evaluation of their programs, where they are and what they want to be. The more divisions, the better the chances of each school determining its own destiny.
Football, if not the so-called football schools, ought to be somewhere off by itself because it is unlike every other sport. If Alabama wants to offer 200 football scholarships and hire 15 assistants, Appalachian State should not stand in its way.
But must tidy, efficient, broad-based programs suffer to achieve this? Probably. Unless somebody finds a means to coexistence - and quickly - CFA will be not a lobby but a reality, with television fueling its every move and the NCAA still large but not especially meaningful.