Brit Kirwan was first introduced to college athletics more than 70 years ago, when he ran around as a 5-year-old on a practice field while his father coached the University of Kentucky football team. A.D. Kirwan would later become a dean at the school, where he played a key role in imposing an unprecedented one-year ban on Kentucky’s basketball team for its role in a point-shaving scandal in the early 1950s, and became its seventh president in the late 1960s.
His son, whose full name is William English Kirwan but has been affectionately known as Brit since childhood, followed in his father’s footsteps. The 78-year-old has become a respected leader in higher education over the past 30 years, which has included stints as president at the University of Maryland and Ohio State University.
Kirwan, who served as chancellor of the University System of Maryland from 2002 to 2015, will close another chapter of his career at the end of December when he steps down as chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, where for the past 11 years he has been outspoken against the big business of college athletics.
“I have some concerns about where we are today with intercollegiate athletics. That’s why it has been such a privilege to serve on the Knight Commission,” said Kirwan, who began his career in higher education as a mathematics professor at Maryland in the 1960s.
While athletic revenue for the 50 public universities in the Power Five conferences rose by $304 million in 2015, according to an analysis conducted by USA Today, spending also rose by $332 million. That statistic illustrated the dilemma facing many major athletic departments today, according to Kirwan. As athletic departments are bolstered by television rights fees and other lucrative revenue streams, they also are spending millions more than they generate and are often forced to turn to state and university funds — including student fees — to keep up in the arms race of college sports.
“The amount of money I fear is compromising the basic mission and purpose of our institutions in many cases. The problem is compounded by the fact that there are a handful of schools, let’s say 15 or 20, that can generate seemingly unlimited amounts of money,” Kirwan said. “Well, what about the other schools? Well, in an effort to compete for coaches, facilities with this handful of richer schools, the rest have fallen into shifting institutional resources that should be spent for academic purposes to prop up these programs.”
Kirwan has been a leader at institutions that are at the forefront of the issue. He has witnessed the transformation of college sports as president at Maryland (1988-1998) and at Ohio State (1998-2002) and later as chancellor for the University System of Maryland, a position he held when the school made the controversial decision to leave the ACC to join the Big Ten in 2014. The addition of Maryland and Rutgers, which also joined the Big Ten in 2014, has helped increase television revenue for the conference, which reportedly garnered a 33 percent revenue increase in 2015 and in June inked a $2.64 billion media rights deal.
While Kirwan has accepted the inevitably of athletic programs becoming increasingly commercial enterprises — Maryland alone made $24.1 million from Big Ten revenue shares last year — he has made it part of his life’s work to help align big business in college sports with educational values.
“It’s a never-ending mission,” he said. “I honestly believe the day is going to come that some form of collective action is going to be required. Whether it is through antitrust legislation, going to Congress, creating spending caps by sports . . . but we just cannot continue on the current path.”
Therein lies the core value of the Knight Commission, which was founded in 1989 as a response to a wave of scandals in college athletics and, as Kirwan put it, focuses on “promoting intercollegiate athletics within the context of a university environment.” While the Knight Commission has no legal authority, a number of academic initiatives have led to reform under Kirwan, including multiyear scholarships, reducing athletic time demands and a 2011 NCAA mandate that requires teams to be on track to graduate at least 50 percent of their players to be eligible for postseason competition.
“There was a real logical bent to him,” said Len Elmore, a former Maryland basketball standout who was later appointed by Kirwan to serve on the school’s board of trustees. “He’s the kind of guy that can utilize some of those traits, to go along with honesty and forthrightness, you use those traits to get things done.”
The commission is also pushing for the NCAA to pass a measure this week that would allow athletic departments that reach certain academic benchmarks to be a determining factor in the revenue they receive from any future increase in the NCAA’s media rights fees.
Kirwan is confident the measure will be adopted by the NCAA, and he further discussed the Knight Commission’s push on the initiative during his final meeting with the group this week. He admits that he has been “incensed” by certain issues over the years — including the NCAA’s position in the Ed O’Bannon antitrust case, which challenged the association’s use of images of former student-athletes for commercial purposes — but he has largely been known to have a steady, workmanlike demeanor as the chairman of the Knight Commission, which has brought together a diverse collection of minds over his tenure.
“It’s a tremendous loss for us for him to retire. . . . I think he is perhaps ready to put his feet up,” said Janet Hill, a Duke trustee who has served on the Knight Commission for 10 years. “His leadership has contributed to what I call a very steady state for the Knight Commission. We have been able to a lot of original research. We have been able to take a position, if you will, on certain issues that were important to college athletics.”
Hill can attest to the changing climate in college athletics — aside from her work at Duke and with the Knight Commission, her husband, Calvin, played college football at Yale in the 1960s and her son, Grant, was a two-time national champion forward at Duke in the early 1990s before playing 19 years in the NBA — but she believes Kirwan has helped stoke a greater conversation about the Knight Commission’s purpose over the past decade.
Kirwan, who lives in Rockville, said he will remain involved in advocacy after he retires, which will give him more time to spend with family and to work on his tennis game. He was thinking of his father late last week, wondering what he would think of how radically different the college sports landscape has become. A.D. Kirwan passed away in 1971, but his son never forgot his teachings on the importance of academics.
“His views and his values certainly greatly influenced my thinking,” Kirwan said. “I would hope that if he is looking down on all of this, he would feel that I have been faithful to the things he taught me.”