Five-a-Side: Southland Conference's Tom Burnett

By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - If only the landscape in the Football Championship Subdivision had people as excited as the fourth quarter of the national championship game did on Jan. 7.

There's always plenty of off-the-field issues, of course, but Eastern Washington's 20-19 rally past Delaware for the FCS championship served as a reminder to people of how this level of NCAA Division I football can be great.

On the morning and afternoon of the championship game in Frisco, Texas, 134 stakeholders from across the FCS, including conference commissioners, athletic directors, coaches and NCAA President Mark Emmert, convened for six hours at the first FCS Summit to discuss major issues affecting the division.

Southland Conference Commissioner Tom Burnett, whose conference organized the event, said his staff was originally hopeful of about 80 participants. He believes the much larger turnout was evidence that people value the opportunity to work together toward keeping the FCS strong. Among the issues concerning the constituency were conference realignment, schools leaving the FCS for the Football Bowl Subdivision, NCAA governance, financial concerns and the overall branding of the division.

Few, if any, solutions came out of the Summit, but they weren't expected, either. The purpose, according to Burnett, was to get a national dialogue started with the issues. Ultimately, there could be further meetings and then solutions.

In Five-a-Side - In the Huddle's monthly feature of "five questions, five answers" with an influential person in the FCS - Burnett discusses the success of the FCS Summit and the next step.

Let's kick off:

TSN: Commissioner, what do you think were some of the big accomplishments to come out of the Summit?

TB: Well, I think initially just having the FCS community in the same room, at least a large number of the various stakeholders, probably for the first time in quite a while ... I think any time you can get together in the same room with a focus somewhat directed toward the same end - the benefit of FCS and its well-being in the future - is certainly a good thing.

I think what we learned was no matter how much time you spend in one day, that's never going to be enough time to spend on our issues. I think if nothing else we kind of walked out of there with a "to-be-continued" mindset on things. I was very encouraged that this group will want to do this again at a minimum and perhaps create some other meetings throughout the year.

TSN: Because you were able to touch on so many different topics, what do you think has people in the FCS the most concerned?

Tom Burnett believes the much larger turnout was evidence that people value the opportunity to work together toward keeping the FCS strong.
TB: Well, there's a number of things. Like there's some uncertainty with conference realignments and I guess an inability to predict when it's going to end, and thus what ultimate impact does that have on our conferences, our schools as some FBS conferences try to transition their way out of maybe a bad spot or maybe (to) a more-preferred destination. Again, how does all that affect us?

An ongoing issue for us is probably our collective role in the NCAA Division I governance system. How can we improve on that? I think financial issues across the country are probably impacting FCS schools more so than perhaps some of the FBS institutions or conferences - at least in great numbers. So I think that is something the Summit wasn't going to solve, but certainly is one of our issues that we all need to be talking about and perhaps we can all help each other.

We want to know that the NCAA supports this level of football and is going to provide us with a championship event that is worthy and valuable to schools at this level and shows them this is another reason why they should be competing at this level. There's a lot of things that I could answer with that question of yours. It's probably not any one thing for sure, but it's a smorgasbord so to speak.

TSN: Obviously you had some important people from the NCAA in attendance ...

TB: And that was very encouraging and kind of affirmed that this was important not just to some of us who have been talking about this for many years, but the NCAA staff was there, President (Mark) Emmert was there, spoke at the luncheon. That was certainly very promising and encouraging for all of us at this level that he is engaged in our issues. You can only imagine all that he has on his plate these days. But to take time, not only to come to the Summit and speak, but also attend the (championship) game and participate in the post-game ceremony and all that. It was great to see him, and I think this won't be the only time we see him.

We're already thinking in the future and maybe having a little bit more presidential involvement in this event down the road. We'll see if we can't get him to come back.

TSN: Obviously, you have received a lot of positive feedback since the Summit. Has anybody been pro-active with trying to foster change since that day?

TB: I think that's what the commissioners constantly do, I think that's what athletic directors constantly do. Part of our issue was we weren't meeting on a regular basis. Thus we weren't communicating perhaps like we (usually) do.

I'll tell you when the commissioners get together ... we talk about all these issues. The subject matter in the Summit was really based upon conversations that we continually have among ourselves and with the NCAA staff. And then we kind of go back home and report it out to our membership. But that's different than everybody being in the room and hearing the same thing. And whether that's from TV or from NCAA executives or other commissioners or athletic directors, there was something missing in the communications circle so to speak.

It was a good first step just to get the communications lines open, people very encouraged about participating in further meetings (such as at the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Convention in June). I think it's one of those things (in which) we just can't meet one time and just let everything die back down, we've got to keep these issues alive, we've got to continue to revisit them on an ongoing basis. I think we've got a chance to do that right now.

TSN: You mentioned perhaps getting some of the presidents involved next year. Can you explain that some more as well as what else can be added to the next Summit?

TB: A lot of our guests brought that up to me that maybe it would be great if some of our presidents were here to hear some of the same conversation. That's a group, at the end of the day, (that is) the most important group out there because they're going to make decisions on our behalf at the national level. The presidents as well as head coaches. We had talked early on about inviting head coaches, but, again, we had some modest plans to get this event started. Although there were some coaches at the Summit, we didn't actively invite all of them; we certainly didn't turn any away. But I think next year we might reach out to football coaches as well. This could be even a bigger event next year.

Some people have asked about expanded programming, exactly what I don't know. Maybe it turns into a day and a half as opposed to a day. We've got other events that week. Of course, we've got (the FCS) awards dinner the night before - that type thing - so we don't want to interfere with anything on the schedule already. But if we can enhance the week and make it even more valuable, we'd take a look at expanding the programming.

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