BENNER: NCAA suffers under the sport it can't control

January 14, 2012

Few organizations I know work harder at getting it right than the Indianapolis-based NCAA.

Few organizations I know are accused of doing it wrong more than the NCAA.

Yes, there is a disconnect. It starts with the 800-pound gorilla—or, maybe I should say, the 325-pound offensive lineman—in the room. Football.

And it pretty much ends there, too.

In fact, it might be difficult to determine which of two gatherings that took place recently would have a greater impact:

The NCAA’s annual convention here in Indy, where representatives of member institutions grappled with the truly weighty issues involving the future of intercollegiate athletics or …

The Bowl Championship Series meetings in New Orleans, where representatives of the so-called “power six” conferences and the University of Notre Dame were trying to decide the future of major college football’s process for determining a national champion.

If you think one doesn’t have anything to do with the other, think again.

The oft-maligned NCAA absorbs much of its criticism from football, the one sport where—at the top level—it exercises little control.

This past year, for example, when there was a media-fueled sense that the college athletics enterprise had lost its bearings and the NCAA had lost control, consider from where most of the scandals arose:

The University of North Carolina (football). The University of Miami (mostly football). Ohio State University (football). Pennsylvania State University (football).

In the meantime, the nonsensical, non-geographical realignment of schools into new conferences was being driven totally by … football.

Now it’s not that men’s basketball doesn’t matter. It does, when you consider the millions of dollars CBS and Turner are paying the NCAA for the rights to March Madness.

For Division I schools without football, that revenue is a lifeline.

But for members of the BCS leagues, that revenue is a nice—but not necessary—add-on. Football is the beast that must be fed. And regulated. And perhaps treated entirely differently.

Indeed, there are some who believe the NCAA should sever its ties with football and tell the BCS guys to have at it: Acknowledge that it’s a semi-professional entity that serves as a development league for the NFL, pay the players or let them earn whatever their skills can bring, and give up the pretense that it has anything to do with higher education.

Others would argue (as I have) that it needs to go the other way: that if the NCAA is responsible for the academic and rules oversight of BCS programs, it should have control of all postseason competition.

What is clear is the status quo no longer works for either the NCAA or the BCS leagues. The larger question is, can they co-exist?

Speaking of BCS football the championship game between Alabama and Louisiana State had the lowest ratings since the BCS endeavored to match the No. 1- and No. 2-ranked teams.

In their post-championship game meetings, the BCS leaders said all options are being considered, including a possible four-team playoff with semifinals in two of the major bowl games and then a “plus-one” championship game a week later.

Perhaps it’s the best of both worlds: leaving the bowl system intact but delivering a playoff. But if they choose four, please know that No. 5 and its fans will be irate at being excluded.

Finally, another sign I’m getting old: when “kids” I used to cover for the local daily grow up to become general managers in the National Football League.

Hello, Ryan Grigson, the former Purdue University Boilermaker offensive lineman whom Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay tapped—to some surprise—to become the team’s new GM.

I recall Grigson as a smart and well-liked player on some pretty mediocre Jim Colletto-coached Purdue teams. He’s obviously had a major behind-the-scenes role in some (mostly) sustained success by the Philadelphia Eagles.

How he expresses his authority will be interesting as he deals with whether to retain head coach Jim Caldwell, followed by the Peyton Manning drama, followed by the draft.

In any case, I’m a sucker for the local-guy-makes-good story. Welcome home.•


Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.


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