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January 19, 2004

Athletics Oversight Better By Presidents?

Critics of big-time college sports have portrayed the involvement of school presidents as key to controlling the growing commercialization on campus and maintaining academic integrity. But 2003 was filled with excesses and scandals, and this time campus chief executives figured prominently.

Nonetheless, most college sports officials cite some important successes. Presidents have toughened the NCAA’s academic rules to give athletes a better shot at earning their degrees.

College presidents "do good things at the national level, in terms of pushing megatrends like academic integrity," says Jim Delany, Big Ten Conference commissioner.

Last year’s incidents are "based on personality, management style more so than a general trend," Georgia AD Vince Dooley says.

Others say the presidents lack control of sports programs and are reluctant to make decisions for fear of angering important constituents — high-profile coaches, some donors and elected officials — for whom sports is the most important thing a university does.

"On individual campuses, the presidents really are almost powerless," says Tom McMillen, a U.S. congressman who was on the original Knight Foundation Commission. "The athletic machine is so strong, and it is very difficult for a president to stand up to it."

Twenty years ago, presidents charged into NCAA meeting rooms that had been the province of ADs and conference commissioners, billing themselves as the answer to the poor graduation rates, escalating arms race and frequent ethical lapses that plagued college sports.

That approach didn’t win them a lot of support among the coaches and ADs they were criticizing, but it heartened faculty members and others who thought college sports were raging out of control.

As evidence that college presidents bow to competitive pressures, critics cite the escalating salaries of high-profile coaches, the latest round of conference reshuffling and the firing of coaches who win but not quite enough to satisfy fans and boosters.

The incidents at Auburn and elsewhere also subjected presidents to significant criticism and threatened several of their jobs. For trying to recruit Louisville’s coach, Auburn’s William Walker was excoriated by Alabama’s governor and a few trustees sought his ouster. But he has survived.

Despite his controversial relationship with a troubled basketball player, president Elson Floyd insisted he had done nothing wrong, and Missouri’s board stood by him.

After Georgia chose to end its basketball season prematurely because of charges of wrongdoing in its program, faculty members and sports columnists attacked President Michael Adams for having pushed to hire Basketball Coach Harrick.

Some coaches and administrators find a bit of satisfaction in the difficulties presidents have encountered.  "They’ve failed in all the ways they accused us of," Temple men’s basketball coach John Chaney says.

Says Arkansas AD Frank Broyles, "I haven’t seen presidents do anything different than the people who were running the show beforehand."

Other sports officials, who are accustomed to the hot seat where competitive fires burn, tend to be more forgiving.  Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, says: "Athletics is a contact sport. Whoever has to make decisions is going to get dirty, bruised." 

After the Big East snatched five schools from Conference USA, Mike Tranghese, Big East commissioner, forgivingly remarked, "Whatever the presidents thought intercollegiate athletics was, I think they’ve found out it’s a lot more complicated."

The Knight Foundation’s Hodding Carter, is hopeful that presidents can reform college sports.  "I’m going to assume these people did not become presidents of these universities to preside over the professionalization of aspects of their student body and the corruption of the very meaning of the academy for the sake of big-time sports."  (USA TODAY  1-14-04)