The saber-rattling has begun. It started with SEC Commissioner Mike Slive lecturing the NCAA — in front of 1,200 members of the media — about its inability to get anything accomplished. He was followed by Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who said many of the same things and threw in the notion of a separate division for the football power conferences. And then came Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany proposing his own reforms for college athletics — a pretty clear indication he is on the bandwagon heading for the NCAA exit.
If NCAA President Mark Emmert and his minions in Indianapolis do not understand they are about to be under siege from the most powerful leagues and schools in college sports, then someone needs to hit them all over the head to get their attention.
Saber-rattling is almost always followed by a weapon being pointed at an opponent’s heart.
There is, of course, a sad irony attached to the commissioners claiming frustration with the mothership because Slive, Delany and ACC Commissioner John Swofford were among those who plundered the so-called traditions of college athletics — through conference realignment, the Bowl Championship Series and other such atrocities — in pursuit of the almighty television dollar.
For those men to bemoan the lack of leadership coming out of Indianapolis is both accurate and hypocritical. Years ago, long before Emmert’s arrival, the NCAA passed on trying to govern football. It allowed the commissioners and college presidents to continue to perpetrate the hoax that is the BCS and stood by helplessly while conferences raided one another mercilessly in the name of all that is mercenary.
Now Slive and Bowlsby are wringing their hands and saying, “The situation is so terrible that we may have to leave.”
They’re not wrong. But what they’re doing is crying “fire” and running from the burning building after lighting the match.
College athletics doesn’t need the “Division 4” Bowlsby suggested during his news conference at the Big 12 media days earlier this week. Instead, it needs a complete makeover, whether from within the NCAA or through a new organization. As incompetent as Emmert is, he is not the problem; he’s merely a symptom. He may be a lousy fireman, but no fireman is terribly effective if there’s no water.
The NCAA was asked to perform two fairly simple tasks: come up with reasonable — and enforceable — recruiting rules and figure out a way to pay for the full cost of a scholarship rather than coming up a couple thousand dollars short. That was two years ago. The NCAA is still working on it. Maybe by 2020 or so it will have a solution.
You can hardly blame anyone for being frustrated by the NCAA bureaucracy that makes it necessary to form a committee, have a discussion and take a vote on the issue of what to order for lunch. If the commissioners of the five power conferences — the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 and the ACC — simply take a walk and set up their own division or break away completely, they will continue to thrive, especially with the TV contracts that are now in place as their financial foundation.
For fans who care only about football — which is many of them — that’s all fine. There’s only one true football power that isn’t be a member of the big five conferences: Boise State. Chances are not good but great that one of them will scoop the Broncos up on the way out the door.
But the commissioners, technically at least, are supposed to be responsible for all sports and all “student-athletes,” as they like to call them, and men’s basketball is a completely different entity from football. What makes the men’s basketball tournament worth billions in TV revenue isn’t the power schools such as Duke, North Carolina, Kansas and Kentucky. They’re critically important of course, but so are Wichita State, Butler, VCU and George Mason. The best story of the 2013 tournament wasn’t Louisville; it was Florida Gulf Coast.
If Slive, Delany, Bowlsby, Swofford and Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott — who was a tennis player at Harvard and should have an understanding that there’s more to life than football — try to stage a basketball tournament on their own, it’s no longer March Madness. It is the BCS in shorts, and that can’t be good for anyone.
The answer to all of this isn’t that complicated. Football should be a separate entity — under the NCAA flag or not. So should men’s basketball. And so should the nonrevenue sports. The money still gets divided up in such a way that field hockey players will be funded, but they won’t be operating under the same set of rules as football or basketball.
Each division (or whatever you want to call them) must have its own commissioner and leadership — no more college presidents pretending they understand what athletics are about. No more Emmerts saying, “I’m in charge because I think I’m smarter than all of you.”
College football must be run by someone who is smart, experienced and understands what rules are reasonable and what rules are not. Slive fits that profile. Basketball needs someone like that, too — whether it is an older, near the end of his career legendary coach such as Mike Krzyzewski or Jim Boeheim or someone who has been around forever and knows everyone and everything such as ex-USC coach George Raveling. The same goes for the nonrevenue sports, where someone such as ex-Harvard basketball coach Frank Sullivan would be perfect.
The bottom line is that a new structure is inevitable. The NCAA has been out of its depth in dealing with real issues for a long time. All of those problems have been crystallized in recent years by terrible leadership at the top and by a bureaucracy that moves at a glacial pace in a lightspeed world.
Slive started the drumbeat in Birmingham. It is only going to get louder in the coming months. Attention must be paid. Not soon. Now.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.