Recruiting deregulation fiasco underscores deeper NCAA disconnect
Recruiting deregulation fiasco underscores NCAA disconnect (cont.)
Last January, the NCAA Board of Directors announced with much fanfare the passage of 25 measures designed to streamline its famously oversized rulebook, including a handful created to deregulate recruiting. It marked the culmination of more than a year of work by Mark Emmert's specially appointed Division I Presidential Working Group on Rules. "There was virtually no debate on it," Emmert said of the approval of the measures at the time. "Everyone agreed that those rules need to be changed."
However, within days of the Board enacting the new recruiting proposals, football coaches across the country expressed near-universal shock and dismay. It was immediately evident that unrestricted phone calls and text messages would wreak havoc on both coaches' free time and prospects' phones. Meanwhile, two other measures -- one allowing any staff member (not just coaches) to contact recruits and another allowing schools to send unlimited printed materials -- were ripe for abuse and could prompt an inevitable arms race among the sport's richest programs.
In early February, Big Ten coaches took the unusual step of releasing a statement denouncing the changes. In March, the Board took the even rarer step of preemptively suspending two proposals, while the members cast the 75 override votes necessary to put the unlimited calls/text measure on the shelf.
The proposals will go back before the Board of Directors on Thursday, when it can either reauthorize them or send them back to the drawing board. Given the blowback, it's assumed the Board will do the latter.
Whoever is to blame, there was clearly a colossal breakdown in communication and possibly a misunderstanding from the beginning as to the working group's charge. The fiasco underscores the perhaps misguided notion of lumping football in with all other sports when enacting certain NCAA legislation and a greater resistance to the NCAA's attempt to shift away from legislating a "level playing field."
Some feel deregulation has become a microcosm of the disconnect between many ground-level college athletics officials and the NCAA community under Emmert's leadership. And months after the fact, many coaches are still miffed that a committee composed primarily of presidents, athletic directors and conference officials could author such industry-rattling initiatives without their input.
"Three rules that were passed would have changed the livelihood of every football coach in the country," said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer. "I have a problem with that, and so do a lot of coaches, that these committees don't have coaches on them. People who recruit should be making recruiting decisions."
"We did an extensive outreach for over a year on all of those proposals," said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA's vice president of academic and membership affairs and staff liaison to the committee. "We reached out through our websites, mailings, involvement from coaches meetings. ... You have an example of busy people in some instances that didn't pay attention, quite frankly, when it was coming down the pike."
During a Q&A session last week in Los Angeles with representatives of college football's bowl games, Emmert expressed his frustration about coaches' recent resistance to deregulation, calling it "crazy" and "insane" that compliance officials must continue monitoring text messages and phone calls. Emmert chastised coaches for rebuffing a proposal that would have lifted any such restrictions. He noted, "We had the Football Coaches Association represented on the committee."
He was wrong. AFCA president Grant Teaff said he learned of the pending rules changes just days before the Board was set to meet on Jan. 19 to approve them. If not for an 11th-hour stopgap, the Board likely would have approved another measure opening the official recruitment of prospects 13 months earlier in their careers than is presently allowed. "The collateral damage to high school students and their academics would be significant," said Teaff.
Whether the breakdown occurred on the NCAA's end, the coaches' end or both, somehow, the Rules Working Group wound up straying into an alternate reality than that of the coaches, administrators and athletes who deal with recruiting on a daily basis.
"The term that makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck is 'deregulate,'" said Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. "The question we should be asking is how can we re-regulate, get up to the 21st century and make best practices in recruiting for all those involved?"
The Rules Working Group was one of five specially appointed committees initiated by Emmert following his August 2011 NCAA presidential retreat. It set out to make the NCAA's rules more sensible and efficient; at the time, there was a rule stating schools could provide athletes with bagels but not cream cheese.
"The charge was to rewrite the book -- let's get away from the ticky tack," said committee member Chad Hawley, the Big Ten's associate commissioner for compliance. "You sort of had this idealism coming out of the gate. At some point, idealism can run into realism."
The groups, which also dealt with issues such as enforcement and academics, were purposely intended to bypass the NCAA's traditional and often laborious legislative process, placing the implementation of significant reforms (like Emmert's rebuffed $2,000 cost-of-attendance scholarship stipend) in the hands of a select few. A consultant who the NCAA asked to survey the membership about governance issues found that the working groups have, "created a perception that that the Board doesn't trust what is happening under them."
The Rules Working Group -- whose diverse membership included representatives from several power conferences (including Clemson's James Barker, the chairman) but also the commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference, the presidents of Tulsa and Georgetown, the chancellors of North Carolina Central and UC-Riverside, a Duke women's lacrosse player and a Maryland-Baltimore County baseball player -- wound up successfully pushing through 21 changes, many related to expenses and benefits for athletes. But it was always the recruiting proposals that were sure to garner the most attention. The group wound up publishing changes that, for football at least, seemed obviously littered with unwanted consequences.
Within weeks of the Board's Jan. 19 approval of Proposal 11-2, which would have opened recruiting duties to non-coaches starting on Aug. 1, Alabama coach Nick Saban hired his former defensive coordinator and onetime Baylor head coach Kevin Steele for the previously administrative role of director of player personnel. USC coach Lane Kiffin said he was considering hiring some of the program's "big-time former players" just to "sit around and recruit all day." There were rumors that certain SEC schools were instructing their assistants to text high-profile recruits 125-150 times per day. One coach even suggested schools would contract call centers in India to send texts from the coaches' numbers. And the measure permitting unlimited printed materials soon became known as the Fathead Rule in anticipation of schools spending thousands of dollars to commission life-sized replicas of recruits wearing their future uniform.
"Whoever initially put it out there didn't consult many coaches," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. "It was so deregulated that everyone is in shock."
If ever there was evidence that something went haywire during the feedback process, consider that Stoops' own athletic director, Joe Castiglione, was a member of the committee (though he missed its last two meetings due to conflicts).
"Maybe somewhere along the way things got twisted in translation," said Castiglione. "Some [committee members] thought they were doing what they thought the coaches had wanted for years."
There's at least one known reason they got that impression. Teaff's counterpart in charge of the basketball coaches association, Jim Haney, did serve on the working group. Last June, basketball began a trial run of sorts for deregulation -- an earlier start date, unlimited communication with recruits, etc. -- that the sport's coaches widely supported. "We'd just put in place a modification exactly like that for basketball coaches," Emmert said last week. "They've been doing it for [nearly] a year now and it works extremely well."
A few weeks before Emmert's remarks, however, Ohio State's Meyer said: "I keep hearing, 'Well, basketball does it.' Whoever would make that comment obviously has never coached basketball or football. You're talking about 13 players versus 85, signing classes of 25 to 30 people versus three.
"When we hear comments like that, you're like, 'Who would say that?'"
There's also what one committee member called a "layering effect." Taken on their own -- and as they were intended -- none of the recruiting proposals are particularly disastrous. Recruits might receive a few extra calls. A football operations staffer can finally return a prospect's call without worrying about committing a secondary violation. But taken together, they create a potential new world order in which programs would race to build up bottomless recruiting staffs to make limitless contacts.
"In retrospect, it obviously would have been good for someone to bring the point up," said Hawley. "But as it was, I don't have a recollection of us talking through a scenario where, if we do this, athletic departments could have entire staffs that do nothing but recruit and don't coach. I don't know that we would have wanted to go down that road."
A recent Division I Governance Review conducted for the NCAA by outside management consultant Jean S. Frankel made the following observations: "The Presidential working groups that bypassed existing structures have created a perception that that the Board doesn't trust what is happening under them. ... A breakdown of trust has occurred, and has yielded surprisingly high levels of emotive response. People are angry, offended, disrespected, disconnected and/or disenfranchised."
Any or all of those adjectives best describe the college coaching fraternity, many of whom are still fired up about the attempted recruiting measures even after their demise.
"You know what would be an amazing deal?" said Cincinnati coach Tommy Tuberville. "Get all the coaches together with the people that do the rules and ask us what we think. But nobody ever asks."
That's consistent with the NCAA's recent top-down, presidential-driven governance approach.
"It's a joke," one NCAA insider said of Emmert's inner-circle of high-level staff members and board presidents. "They don't know how to talk to [coaches]. They believe they are better than them. Worst of all, they do not trust them."
However, while coaches continue to blast the proposals publicly, Lennon believes the group is more split than has been portrayed.
"I know from talking to some conferences that there were some football coaches that were very supportive of the proposals," he said. "I know specifically within major conferences where there were split votes of football coaches supporting and not supporting the proposals."
In their report back to the Board following the suspensions/override votes of the recruiting legislation, the Rules Working Group recommended the suspension of Proposal 13-3 (unlimited contact). "Such action will allow all recruiting concepts to be discussed concurrently." However, it also reiterated its support for the concept. A separate football recruiting subcommittee, led by Texas Tech AD Kirby Hocutt, has been charged with examining the issue more closely and possibly drafting new legislation for consideration next year. That 10-member group includes several athletic directors, Teaff and a coach representing both the FBS (TCU's Gary Patterson) and FCS (Richmond's Danny Rocco).
Some coaches still aren't satisfied with their representation. "It's Gary Patterson, and that's it," said one major-conference coach.
Meanwhile, the Rules Working Group goes back to work, tasked with "Phase II" of deregulation, which includes topics like agents, transfer requirements, roster limits and, again, recruiting. It is hoping for a smoother reception than before.
"One of the lessons is, until change is imminent, often it's difficult to capture the attention and imagination of people to understand what the potential change may mean," said SEC executive associate commissioner and committee member Greg Sankey. "Sometimes you have to accelerate the pace of change, and there's nothing wrong with that. We want to make sure the focus is on getting things right."
Hawley added that, "in hindsight, having seen what happened after the proposals were adopted, to the extent we could have had someone to represent the football coaches' voices, I think that would have been a good thing."
As recently as last week -- 18 months into a process that's polarized his membership -- the president of the NCAA was under the impression they'd done just that. He did not realize football coaches weren't represented on a committee that nearly turned their industry upside down.