So the big-deal NCAA Presidents Commission will not go unbeaten after all. In the three years of its existence, the 44-member group has been wonderfully effective in helping toughen academic standards for athletes and severely punish blatant cheaters. It got stymied this week, and on what seemed a relatively tame issue: getting football and basketball to save a few pennies.

In Dallas, the essence of that special NCAA convention could be summed up with a Texas expression -- all talk and no cattle. The blather level got ludicrously close to off the board, but then it was supposed to. Part of the reason for interrupting the summer for 1,117 delegates was to get them to consider why college sports needs reform and how that might take shape.

The best idea, it seems here, was advanced by the president of Lawrence (Wis.) College, Richard Warch. He suggested that athletics be funded by the schools, instead of booster groups. This makes perfect sense, but it will never happen. The same forces that embarrassed the Presidents Commission on substantive matters at the convention will make sure of that.

If schools, as Warch says, want to rid themselves of meddlesome and often harmful athletic department angels, eliminate 'em. Shut off their influence by taking over the funding themselves. Simple and quick. And much more efficient, because the furor created by the sudden tightening of academic purse strings surely would bring football and basketball aid to a more realistic level.

Do Penn State, Oklahoma, Nebraska and the others who create esteem for their schools and passion for sport really need 95 football scholarships? Should the roster of hired basketball hands at Maryland be significantly larger than that of the Bullets? No, said the Presidents Commission. Yes, said those who generate the funding.

Who won?


Once more, the golden rule prevailed. Those with the gold ruled. The Presidents Commission ended up looking like the meek and well-meaning fellow who was going to return two suits and ends up not only keeping them but also being persuaded, by a domineering salesman, into buying several more. Far from cutting costs, which was one of its stated aims, the special convention actually added some.

It's not like the commission arrived in Dallas swinging a large knife at over-inflated budgets. More like small scissors for some snips. The reductions the Pacific-10 Conference recommended for football scholarships were quite mild, from 95 to 90 over four years. Unstated was this symmetrical fact: at 90 scholarships, college rosters would be closer to two times as big as those in the NFL.

Well, that was horrendous. Joe Paterno would have only a couple of extras, in case somebody in one of those eight groups of 11 players at his command got hurt. Paterno and Nebraska's Tom Osborne acted as though the Pac-10 were taking about 50 percent of their games instead of about 5 percent of their rosters.

They swayed the delegates.

That slight reduction having failed, nearly everything else even indirectly related also did. Penn State and the others somehow will make do with nine, not eight, full-time assistants and six, not five, part-time and graduate aides. And how, in good conscience, can you cut scholarships in sports that live off its crumbs if you don't harness football?

Football having been accommodated, the special convention went on to basketball. At its annual convention in January, the NCAA voted to cut the scholarship limit from 15 to 13; at its special convention Tuesday, that move was rescinded.

What a relief that is. Once more, Dean Smith can glance down his bench and see a full complement of 10 high school all-Americas instead of a paltry eight. Instead of spreading the talent among the levels of basketball, instead of more players getting more playing time at more schools, the factories remain at full capacity.

This is the first time the commission and its chairman, Maryland Chancellor John B. Slaughter, have been cuffed. It's also the initial try at tackling the major revenue sports in an unpopular way, as Slaughter knew before he left for Dallas.

"Everybody can be opposed to cheating," he said last week, "but everyone may not take precisely the same stance on whether you can afford an extra coach." Or whether you can live without a sub for the eighth-string tight end.

Some states, Maryland being one, have legislated that sports may not be funded within a state-supported school's usual financial framework. It's okay to buy pots and pans for home economics, but not shoulder pads for the football team.

In one way, this is reasonable, for proper priorities are established. And it makes more money available for books and other traditional university resources, as well as for more academic-related scholarships. Trouble is, it also encourages the sort of double standards and cheating that have distressed so many even within the college community.

"Our people figure it cost about $1.8 million to put on this convention," Big East Conference Commissioner Dave Gavitt said. "How many baseball scholarships would that pay for?"

Beats me. Maybe one per school, or half as many as would have been available if athletic elite such as Gavitt would have gone along with the reasonable reductions in basketball. The message here to Slaughter and the Presidents Commission is not the one the majority of delegates sent. The reforms are right, and worth fighting for. This is the first time you've been sacked by football. Get up and try again.