The solution to the NCAA’s problems is not Robert Gates or Condoleezza Rice or any of the other names being tossed around since Mark Emmert announced that he (mercifully) will retire 14 months from now after a disastrous tenure as the group’s president.
Brand, best known as the Indiana University president who fired Bob Knight, worked very hard to reform the NCAA. If pancreatic cancer hadn’t killed him at the age of 67 in 2009, the NCAA might have become at least a semi-respectable organization.
Now, it is broken beyond repair, collecting billions from television while continuing to insist its No. 1 concern is the “student-athletes.”
Which is why it is a waste of time to try to hire someone to try to fix it. The NCAA, as currently constituted, needs to go away. It needs to be replaced by three different organizations: one that governs football, one for men’s basketball and a third for nonrevenue sports. Each needs a strong, smart commissioner and its own of rules.
My colleague Sally Jenkins pointed out in her column that the current rule book has been “cut down” to 195 pages. Here’s one thing I know about rule books: If you get past 10 pages, or maybe five, no one is paying attention and almost no one will understand all the details. To make rules that are supposed to govern both SEC football and Northeast Conference soccer is ludicrous and hapless.
So, blow up the NCAA completely — and begin making plans to do so today, so new leadership can be in place by the time Emmert leaves. Find smart non-bureaucrats to write three rule books. Make clear that any cheating will result in a one-year death penalty for any program, no excuses. Get caught in any major violation, you don’t play for a year. Second time, it’s three years. Third time, well, you better find a new sport to play.
Make the rules clear and concise.
Football is already more or less separate from the NCAA, and it has a very smart, able executive director in Bill Hancock already in place with the College Football Playoff. But Hancock lacks real authority. The selection committee members have final say on most things, and like the basketball committees, they almost always find ways to screw up a one-car parade.
All you have to do is watch them warble back and forth on expanding the playoff, their decision-making always coming down to making the Power Five conferences the most money possible without giving schools in smaller leagues a chance to win anything that really matters.
Put Hancock in charge and have the committee report to him, not the other way around.
Then, go out and find real leaders for the other two organizations. No college presidents who know nothing about sports. No politicians, either. If Mike Krzyzewski is too old at 75 to run the basketball division, convince Jay Wright to do it. Or Dan Gavitt, who currently runs the NCAA men’s tournament. Gavitt would be a good choice if he can shake himself loose from the NCAA’s bureaucratic mentality and be the leader his father, Dave, was when he invented the Big East.
The most important thing for anyone running men’s college basketball in the next 10 years will be to make the Power Five schools understand that breaking away from the rest of Division I is a bad idea.
The power schools do not create March Madness or any sort of magic in the sport’s most relevant month. Saint Peter’s does; Oral Roberts does; Butler, VCU and George Mason did. Take away Saint Peter’s and its stunning run this season, and you have, for the most part, a yawn-filled NCAA tournament that was interesting only to fans of the Final Four teams.
The most difficult job might be finding someone to lead the nonrevenue sports division because there are so many sports involved. But with a viable set of rules and the right mind-set, it can be done.
Two women’s basketball coaches come to mind: Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma and Stanford’s Tara VanDerveer. Both have won national championships, both have coached Olympic teams, and both — at 68 — are still going strong after 37 seasons leading their schools. Maybe one would welcome a new challenge after reaching the Final Four yet again this past season.
“As coaches we’ve been suggesting this for 25 years,” former Maryland men’s coach Gary Williams said this week. “Change is never easy, but there are times it has to come. This needed to happen a long time ago.”
Therein lies the problem. Emmert accurately pointed out that the NCAA president serves at the pleasure of the member institutions’ presidents. As a group, these men and women tend to lack the initiative and leadership to make the sweeping changes that are needed.
There is one notable exception: Freeman Hrabowski III, who is retiring this summer after 30 years as president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Most college presidents are glorified fundraisers. Hrabowski couldn’t be more different. He marched with Martin Luther King in 1963 at the age of 12 and spent time in jail after being arrested during the march. He has a doctoral degree but refers to himself as “just a math nerd.”
He completely remade UMBC and was an education adviser to President Obama. Meet him for five minutes, and you will follow him anywhere. At 71, he has the energy of a teenager. He would be the perfect person to take charge of the reinvention of college sports.
The sooner Emmert walks out of his Indianapolis office for the last time, the better. But to fill that office with anyone is a mistake. It is time to blow everything up and start from scratch. Start with Hrabowski, an overwhelmingly impressive leader unimpressed with himself. And then start to move on.