Q&A with East Carolina chancellor Steve Ballard
East Carolina chancellor Steve Ballard played shortstop at Arizona. His Wildcats reached the College World Series in 1970.
SI: How do you feel about the college football postseason?
Ballard: I have two strong opinions. One is we have to go to a playoff-based system that allows people to win or lose based on what happens on the field. The entire country wants to see a more rational system like we do in virtually all other sports. But for that to work, we need to be honest with the students and limit the number of football games that are being played. I don't think it's fair to the concept of the student-athlete -- if we're really serious about that concept -- to allow them to play 12, 13, 14, 15 games a year. That's just not the reason we have educational institutions. Provided that we could limit that and make it fair across the board, then I think we have to go to a one-plus system or some kind of playoff system. I don't think that's hard to design. I just think it takes some people sitting down and figuring it out.
SI: So would you consider scaling back the regular season?
Ballard: I just think you have to put a limit on it. It probably has to be the regular season. But when you add conference championships and then bowl games and a one-plus to that, you could easily get to 15 or 16 games. We either have to limit the season or have some timeframes that make sense. Student-athletes ought to be preparing for finals, and they ought to be back for classes on Jan. 10. Yes, that is being discussed. I think we have to be very careful with that. It's all about maximizing the chances these students have to be academic successes. Only about two percent of Division I college football players ever make a dime off it [in the pros]. Who are we kidding if we're not protecting the 98 percent here?"
SI: You mean when you were playing baseball at Arizona you didn't want to be voted into the College World Series?
Ballard: When we got to the World Series in 1970, we had to beat a couple of really good teams to get there.
SI: How did you feel about the multiyear scholarship rule?
Ballard: It can't be a way just to get the 25 richest schools another way to get the best athletes. They already have all the advantages.
SI: Can schools outside the power conferences legitimately compete in this environment?
Ballard: You really can't. The TV contracts and the TV distribution scheme have thrown so much out of whack. It leaves most schools -- certainly all the ones in our conference -- out in the cold. Worse than that, it creates an incentive for doing the wrong things. It creates an incentive for us to accept TV contracts that make our student-athletes play on a Tuesday night, travel 3,000 miles, get home at six in the morning. And then we ask them to go to class on a Wednesday. It's the wrong thing to do. That set of incentives, where everybody has to look for the next million dollars just to hope to keep reasonably competitive, that's what's happened to college sports in the last generation that's so wrong.
SI: Do you worry about a split within the FBS to keep people on a level playing field?
Ballard: Certainly, some schools want to do that. Usually, the rich schools are the ones talking the most about that. I don't think that's the right thing to do. I think conferences have to establish some equity in how they distribute resources. There has to be some guidelines on what we can do to get a $20 million TV distribution compared to what it means for our athletes. I think it has to be controlled by people like me and by athletic conferences. We're trying to do that in the new merger. It'll take us some time, but that's the goal of the presidents in this new conference that's trying to evolve.
SI: Did the idea of a potentially 24-team conference sound crazy at first?
Ballard: It doesn't sound crazy to me. I think it actually protects us and could create some stability. [Athletic director Terry] Holland here at ECU has been talking about it for three or four years. I think he pestered people long enough so that they finally paid attention to him. Certainly, it was partially caused by the number of schools that conferences above us in the food chain have taken. It's most valuable when we think about regional rivalries and regional competition. We'd like to play eight conference games against eastern and southeastern schools. If we can't get there in this new conference by keeping it at 16, it does make sense to probably think about 24 or maybe even larger.
SI: How should a playoff work?
Ballard: I think it probably should be a four-team experiment for maybe three years to see how it works. If there is some attempt to define the best 10 teams or 14 teams or whatever the right number is before the bowl season starts and basically have a bracket, I think everybody would accept that. You can always quibble about the computer rankings or the AP rankings and so on, but if you know what it is going in, there isn't going to be half the controversy that the current system creates.
SI: How do you feel about the concept of Automatic Qualifying status?
Ballard: I've been opposed to the automatic qualifying status for a long time. If Houston has a great year, they have every right to be considered for a major bowl.
SI: Some people have asked why continue playing in bowl games? Why not have conferences get together and stage their own games and keep the money?
Ballard: I think you probably need to incorporate the bowl situation [into the postseason] -- if we could develop some rationality to it. Most of the bowls we've been to in my eight years, nobody goes to the bowls. Not many fans at the PapaJohns.com Bowl. I think there were more players than fans. I do think the bowls are part of the tradition of college football and could serve a good purpose if we could limit the number of games we play in a year.