Q&A with Tulane president Scott Cowen
Tulane president Scott Cowen is a member of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee. He also was instrumental in convincing his fellow commissioners to change the rules governing at-large bids to BCS bowls to allow teams from outside the power conferences to play in those bowls.
SI: What is the climate like now?
Cowen: Everyone is coming to realize that some change is needed. I'm less concerned whether it's a plus-one or four teams or eight teams, but what I really believe and hope will happen is that AQ status will disappear and the BCS as we know it will disappear and be replaced by some other structure to crown a postseason champion.
SI: Taking away the rules that govern BCS bowl bids also would take away the rules you fought to make. Do you worry that abandoning the AQ will mean less access to top bowls for the mid-majors?
Cowen: I don't think it would necessarily hurt us anymore than it would hurt any other team if there is a plus-one or four-team playoff. Remember, there will be many other conferences that won't have somebody in a four-team playoff. What I do like if we did a four-team playoff is that it's based strictly on performance on the field and the rankings. Therefore, there is no particular bias built into the system against any particular conference. What may be of concern to those who are in non-AQ conferences now is would we still have access to elite bowls? It all depends. My view of what should happen is we should expand the number of elite bowls to accommodate more at-large teams.
SI: Is that a market decision, or is that decision made by the schools?
Cowen: I think it's both. I think it's something the schools could aspire to, but then the market has to be able to say, "We want to do it." There would have to be cities and bowls to step up to the plate. What I'm hoping is that if they change the system that they would expand at least by one and maybe by two the number of what we call elite bowls. My view is if that happened, there's really no disadvantage. As long as we're producing winners on the field, they'll have an opportunity in one of those bowls.
SI: What is your sense of what will happen in the next few months?
Cowen: It's hard. I have to say I really don't know. I'm part of the BCS Presidential Oversight Committee, so eventually I'll be talking about it. I think there is still a lot of conversation going on among the commissioners. They have a set of goals, and they may not be able to achieve all those goals. We want to maintain the integrity of the regular season. We want to have a conference championship. We want to maintain the integrity of the bowl game. We want to maybe have a playoff to determine a national champion, but we don't want to screw up the academic calendar in any particular way. I think it's going to be hard to meet all of those goals. Something is going to have to give. The question is what will give. There's a lot of give-and-take about what the options are, and the pros and cons of each option. I'm going to reserve my opinion until I actually see what the options are, because I know they're doing a lot of good thinking on it.
SI: When did the opinion shift so dramatically?
Cowen: I think it's been an undercurrent for the last four years. What you've seen happen in the last two years is a lot of conference realignment. A lot of that conference realignment, when you look at it on paper, doesn't make any sense, but they're doing it because they want AQ status. The next thing you see is conferences that have AQ status where the top team in the conference doesn't even rank in the top 20 in the country and they're playing in an elite bowl. The third thing you see is attendance is not what it used to be at some of the bowls. You have all of that coming together in the last 24 months where people are saying that the model we put in in 1998, we've outlived that model. It's time to do something else.
SI: Do you see any chance that it stays the same?
Cowen: You never want to rule out that possibility. I think the odds are very small that it stays the same, but you can't rule anything out at this point.
SI: Conference USA and the Mountain West Conference plan to merge into a 16-team league that could get bigger. How much bigger could it get?
Cowen: We could go up to 24. We start out at at least 16, and it's possible we could go expand it up to 24. The notion of consolidation in the larger conferences is already taking place, and that's going to continue. The reason the consolidation is continuing is because of, once again, the TV contracts.
SI: How much did the concept of AQ status influence conference realignment?
Cowen: The AQ status clearly has some impact, especially on those leaving conferences and going to the Big East. It's primarily -- if not exclusively -- about AQ status for a year or two. In our particular case, we really like the possibility of creating a new association made up of the members of the Mountain West and Conference USA. We think there will be strength in numbers. We'll have more stability. Plus, we think we can do some innovative things in that conference academically and competitively that will really distinguish us. We are talking about the possibility of semifinals [for the conference championship].
SI: Where did you fall on the issue of cost-of-attendance stipends?
Cowen: We were not for the stipends. I believe the NCAA constantly is enacting new rules that increase costs and rarely ever does anything that reduces cost. Ours is a philosophical argument that says, from now on, if you're going to increase costs some place, then by God, reduce costs some place. They never seem to reduce costs. A lot of ours is philosophical. It's not about that particular issue. It's about the bigger point of when is the NCAA going to lower the cost of competition rather than always increase the cost?
SI: Are these cost issues causing a schism in the FBS?
Cowen: I don't think the model is sustainable at the FBS level. You have those conferences with extraordinarily high TV contracts. Then there's everybody else. The way it's evolving is you have five power conferences that have stability and have very large TV contracts. And then you have everybody else. There's a big gap between those, and I think that gap is going to get larger over time. Yet when the NCAA enacts rules that increase costs, it increases costs for everybody, yet if you don't have a big TV contract, you have no way to offset the costs. You can hypothesize all kinds of things. You can suggest that maybe the FBS in the future winds up being 60 schools that make up the five power conferences -- and I'm not including the Big East in the power conferences. Maybe they [the five] become an entity unto themselves, and there's another group that is the others. It's hard for me to see how the current structure of the FBS can sustain itself long into the future. Now, it may not change in the next three years or five years, but if you go out 10, 15 years, it's hard to believe it will be sustainable.
SI: With so many other things to worry about while running a university, how much time do you have to think about athletics?
Cowen: In my view, we're spending far too much time on intercollegiate athletics given the myriad of things you have to pay attention to at a university. But the reputational risks, the financial issues, the compliance issues are so immense with athletics that you have to pay attention to it. The last couple of years, because of conference realignment, because of the renegotiation of TV contracts, because of all the bad news that has come out, we all had to spend a lot more time than we wished.
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