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Keep college presidents away from college sports

By Joe Nocera
New York Times

So are you convinced yet? Do you need any more proof that college presidents are not qualified to run a major entertainment industry like college football and men’s basketball? That whatever their academic and fundraising skills, they are in over their heads whenever they involve themselves in the $6 billion-and-counting business that big-time college sports has become? Besides, don’t they have other things to do?

A few weeks ago, I broached this idea in a column about Holden Thorp, who is leaving the sports-obsessed University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for Washington University in St. Louis, where athletics don’t matter much at all. He was visibly relieved. His tenure as North Carolina’s chancellor had been marked by a long-running football scandal that, as he himself acknowledged, his academic background left him ill-equipped to deal with.

Thorp drew criticism for saying that higher education would be better served if college presidents weren’t expected to drop everything and micromanage the athletic department every time there was a problem. But look at what’s happened since. First came the public clamor over the way the president of Rutgers University, Robert Barchi, has managed - or, rather, mismanaged - a scandal that began when Mike Rice, the former basketball coach, was caught on video physically and verbally abusing his players. Barchi’s job may be in jeopardy, even though he has held it for less than a year. And, on Tuesday, E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State, said he would retire July 1 after some crass private remarks he made in December about other college teams were reported last week.

Let’s take Gee first. He has been a college president forever. A prodigious fundraiser, he makes nearly $2 million a year and was named the country’s best college president by Time magazine in 2010.

Whenever the subject is sports, however, Gee turns into a blithering idiot. A few years ago, in the midst of an NCAA investigation, Gee was asked whether he was going to fire the football coach, Jim Tressel. “I just hope the coach doesn’t dismiss me,” he said. (He eventually had to ask Tressel to retire.) In the most incendiary of his most recent remarks, he said that Notre Dame had never been invited to join Ohio State’s conference, the Big Ten, because “you just can’t trust those damned Catholics.” Gee has said plenty of, er, quirky things over the years, but it was his foolish comments about sports that got the headlines – and finally got him.

Then there’s Rutgers, which, as it happens, recently joined the Big Ten, seduced by the riches that only a conference with its own cable television network can offer. To compete in its new conference, though, Rutgers needs a major athletic upgrade. Instead, it’s been chaos, with Barchi right in the middle of it. First, he decided not to fire the coach. Then he fired the coach. He didn’t want to fire the athletic director who had counseled against firing the coach – but had to fire him, too. Now the question is why Rutgers didn’t more thoroughly vet its new AD, Julie Hermann, who has been accused of verbally abusing her players years ago when she coached volleyball at the University of Tennessee.

What does Barchi, a physician, know about building a modern athletic department? Nothing. His previous job was as president of Thomas Jefferson University, a medical school in Philadelphia. Before that, he was the provost at the University of Pennsylvania. He was recruited to tackle the difficult job of merging the University of Medicine and Dentistry into Rutgers, which, even before the merger, was a $2.2 billion institution with more than 58,000 students. Rutgers’ athletic teams, by contrast, have 1,000 students and a budget of less than $36 million. Yet Barchi is spending all his time dealing with Rutgers sports. It’s nuts.

In recent months, I’ve begun to hear people in college athletics talk about culling the big-time football and basketball schools from the rest of the NCAA and letting them play by a different set of rules. A number of the major sports universities would like to see this happen, because they are tired of being henpecked by the NCAA and of being outvoted by Division III schools where athletics aren’t viewed as revenue-generators.

There is another reason this change makes sense. We could just finally be done with it: acknowledge that big-time college sports is a serious business that has to be managed by business executives who have an expertise in sports management. Let this new breed of athletic directors maximize revenues to their hearts’ content, but create some real separation between the teams and the universities, and stop pretending they have any “educational” value. (And while we’re at it, pay the players.)

And let college presidents get back to what they actually know how to do: run their universities.

Joe Nocera is a columnist for the New York Times.
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