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Bucking the BCS: Tulane CEO demands reform

 
Tulane University president Scott Cowen (above) granted an exclusive telephone interview to staff writer Denny O'Brien. In addition to compiling a report on Dr. Cowen's extensive comments about a campaign to overhaul the BCS-dominated economic structure of Division I-A football, O'Brien captured a digital recording of the session. The unedited audio is linked below.

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This Bonesville report and the accompanying audio file of an exclusive interview with Tulane University president Scott Cowen were written and digitally recorded by staff writer and columnist Denny O'Brien.

 

 
 

REALIGNMENT IN THE NEWS
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By Denny O'Brien
©2003 Bonesville.net

It sounds like the classic tale of a modern day Robin Hood. A true leader of the have nots steps forward to challenge the oppressive tactics of the haves.

In the simplest of terms, Tulane President Scott Cowen sees his mission to terminate the Bowl Championship Series as a case of right versus wrong.

That the six leagues composing the BCS have formed what Cowen describes as a cartel — monopolizing the big-money bowls that determine what is billed as the national championship of college football — is taking its toll on programs like the Green Wave.

Cowen's school competes in Conference USA, which is not guaranteed an automatic bid to the BCS. Because of that, Tulane suffered the cruelest of snubs in 1998 when it finished undefeated and among the nation's Top 10 — yet was relegated to play in the Liberty Bowl instead of performing on one of college football's bigger stages.

That meant no shot at a national title and a negative difference of more than $8 million in bowl revenue to the school and its league partners.

The natural inclination would be to expect Cowen to grab a set of utensils and fight for a seat at the BCS banquet table. Intriguingly, though, Cowen wants no invitation to the exclusive buffet, because that course of action wouldn't square with what he sees as a fight for the soul of college football. Instead, he has his sights set on a bigger meal and is seeking an invitation for all.

"I think the solution is not for us to try to get East Carolina or Tulane into the BCS," Cowen said. "I think the solution is to get rid of the BCS and go to a playoff system.

"The NCAA in every other single sport that it sponsors has a playoff system. There is no reason why we can't have a playoff system in football. To me, that's the answer. It's not to get one or two more schools into the BCS. All that will do is help one or two more schools, and there are still going to be a lot more schools outside of it."

Schools like Tulane.

Five months after the Green Wave punctuated a winning 2002 football campaign with a 36-28 win over Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl, the school's governing board convened to determine the fate of Tulane's gridiron future. But instead of discussing a potential pay hike or contract extension for head coach Chris Scelfo, Tulane's pigskin existence was in question.

The Tulane athletic department was losing, on average, $7 million per year, and the football program was a big reason why. So, among the proposals the board considered was to drop football to a lower division or eliminate it altogether.

An 11th-hour push by galvanized fans, high-profile alumni, faculty members and coaches kept the unthinkable from occurring. And almost immediately following the board's 27-0 vote to stay in Division I-A, Cowen launched his campaign against the BCS.

"When we went through the year-long review of intercollegiate athletics here at Tulane, we obviously learned a lot about our program here and the issues that we have to confront," Cowen said. "But we also really looked at the system-wide issues affecting Division I-A.

"So, once we made a decision here to stay Division I-A (in football), I felt like it was time for us to see if we could do anything about some of the larger issues affecting Division I-A, and that's why I've gotten involved in it.

"If we can't change some of those things, I can guarantee you that other schools will be thinking about dropping programs as a result of it. We have a significant issue affecting Division I-A that's got to be attended to. If not, you're going to see attrition, I think, in the next two, three, or four years."

That attrition could come very close to home.

UAB and Houston, both fellow C-USA members, find themselves in similar situations. Increased expenses — coupled with the recruiting disadvantages and arbitrarily limited revenue opportunities that go hand in hand with being outside the BCS — has the football futures of both the Blazers and Cougars in question.

For many, the worst scenario imaginable could soon become a reality. If the doomsday outcome materializes, Cowen believes many of his executive colleagues at schools around the country would belatedly become aware of what they should have been paying attention to all along.

"None of us were sensitive enough or knowledgeable enough to know what long-term impact the BCS arrangement was going to have on college athletics," he said. "The contract was originally signed back in '96 or '97 and I'm not sure how much was on the radar screen of presidents.

"Well, now we've gone through five, six, seven years, and we're seeing the cumulative effect that that arrangement is having on not just football, but departments in general. We're seeing that it is having some really adverse impacts. If we don't try to find some way to minimize or eliminate that impact, it really is going to run havoc on Division I-A."

And the aftershocks, he says, will extend much further than the football field.

"The BCS arrangement is not just affecting postseason play in football, it also is allowing those (BCS) schools to get more lucrative television contracts and sponsorships, which is having an impact on all sports," Cowen said. "That's something I'm not sure my colleagues fully understand. They're beginning to understand that right now."

For the most part, BCS schools have dominated postseason play in all sports, though there have been rare exceptions.

C-USA member Marquette, for example, culminated a fine season on the hardwood with a trip to the Final Four. Rice, which competes in the Western Athletic Conference and was one of two non-BCS schools (Southwest Missouri State being the other) to reach the College World Series this year, won the national championship in baseball.

However, those stories have been few and far between since the inception of the BCS, and unless the uneven arrangement is eliminated, Cowen suspects the gap will widen in all sports. That's why he passionately supports the elimination of the BCS and the creation of a 16-team playoff.

It's a concept that, for various reasons, has its detractors, but Cowen doesn't buy the idea that a playoff is too big a strain logistically.

"I think it's very, very doable," he said. "I've heard a lot of BCS presidents say it's not doable, that it will infringe on student-athlete welfare. Well, they're assuming that you keep the regular season games at 12.  I say, let's cut back to ten games in the regular season and then have a playoff and it's going to be no more adverse on student-athlete welfare than what we have now, and it will probably be better.

"I think the solution is a playoff system involving 16 teams. It will not hurt the bowls because some of those games can be played in the existing bowl games. In fact, it will make more of the bowls more meaningful than they've been before.

"In addition to that, you can still have all the bowls because teams that don't qualify for the playoff can still play in bowl games, just as they do right now. There is no argument that can be made for a BCS to continue other than if you want to make sure that you have concentration of power and money at a few schools."

So, why hasn't the NCAA gotten involved? After all, the NCAA does field a playoff in all Division I sports besides football, so it would seem to make sense to do the same on the gridiron.

Cowen says the NCAA is cautious of retaliation from the members of the BCS syndicate.

"There is a fear by the part of the NCAA that, if they got too involved in it and pushed too hard, those (BCS) schools would break out of the NCAA and form their own association," he said. "I do not believe that threat is real. It's a possibility, but I think it is very remote.

"Remember, they have all their other sports involved in the NCAA and to break off from the NCAA and start your own association would be a huge undertaking. I think the NCAA has always had that little bit of fear that that would serve as a catalyst. I, myself, think that there is no merit to that."

Reemphasizing academics

Disarming the BCS isn't the only battle on Cowen's agenda. Among the list of items he would like to see changed is academic standards, which he says are eroding in college athletics.

"In recent years, there have been a number of schools that have participated in postseason play in football and basketball that have actually had very, very low graduation rates for their student athletes," Cowen said. "In some cases, it's been 0%.

"I think it is unacceptable that we would allow those schools to participate in postseason play and get the visibility and money if they have unacceptable graduation rates for their student-athletes. I think we have to be more diligent than we have before in promoting higher academic standards and performance on behalf of student athletes and graduation rates."

It would seem Cowen has great reason to cry foul. Academically, Tulane is one of the nation's most prestigious universities, and that same reputation has carried over to its student athletes.

According to the most recent report by the NCAA, Tulane graduates 80 percent of its football players. In contrast, Oklahoma, which won the Rose Bowl last season, graduates a paltry 26 percent.

Oregon State has participated in a BCS bowl in recent years and graduates only 35 percent of its football players. Cincinnati, a perennial basketball power that has been criticized heavily for its neglect on academics, graduates 17 percent.

Cowen would like to see schools get more than just a pat on the back for performing well in the classroom and envisions an environment in which programs with sub-par academics would see their rewards dwindle.

He has at least one prominent ally of that mindset.

NCAA president Myles Brand, who earned fame after firing former Indiana coach Bob Knight for breaching IU's so-called "zero-tolerance" behavior policy, also is in favor of academic reform.

Recently, Brand proposed some status-quo-shattering ideas, including financial incentives for graduating players. If Brand's plan goes through, schools that do a poor job of shepherding players to degrees could suffer the loss of scholarships or be banned from postseason play.

"I think that proposal has a lot of merit," Cowen said. "I wish it were a little bit stricter and tougher than what it is, but I think it goes to the core of the problem.

"We've got to make sure when all is said and done that we are institutions of higher learning and education. We've got to be graduating our student-athletes. Those schools that are not doing a good job should not be allowed to participate in postseason play. I'm pushing very hard for higher standards."

Decreasing the costs

In addition to the strains the BCS has imposed, last year the NCAA enacted criteria for continued membership in Division I-A that also could make life increasingly difficult for some non-BCS schools.

Among the items on the NCAA's punchlist are strict guidelines for annual football attendance and a minimum number of scholarships that must be given by member schools.

That, Cowen says, increases the cost to compete at the highest level, and that's money to which many schools outside the BCS don't have access.

"The net effect of that change was to increase the cost of being a Division I-A school for anyone who wants to come into I-A, or schools like a Tulane, which is I-A, but working with the old criteria," Cowen said. "The net effect of that is, now it is more costly for us to be a Division I-A school.

"The floor for the number of scholarships you have to give every year has gone up significantly. What that does is increase the costs for many schools to remain in Division I-A. If they don't have equal access to the revenue sources, then what does it do? It just realizes bigger losses for them.

"Now instead of sponsoring 14 sports, you have to sponsor 16 sports. There are now very specific guidelines around yearly attendance at football games. I would really like to — and I'm going to see if I can get others to support this — ask the NCAA to rescind the new membership criteria and go back to the old membership criteria that they had, so that we don't have to increase the cost."

He doesn't want the NCAA to stop there, either.

"I would like to see the number of scholarships for football reduced from 85 to 65," Cowen said. "Then they could further reduce it for I-AA.

"I have never heard a credible argument for why we need to have 85 scholarships for football. I think if we reduced it to 65, it not only reduces costs, but increases even more competitiveness across Division I-A."

It wouldn't be the first time the NCAA has reduced scholarships in football.

Within the last decade, the NCAA dropped the number of scholarships from 100 to 85, which former East Carolina coach Steve Logan often credited for leveling the playing field significantly. From 1994-2000, the Pirates thumped a roster of heavyweights, but haven't defeated a Division I-A non-conference opponent since.

It's just one example of many where BCS schools have widened a gap that was beginning to narrow.

Call to action

Cowen understands that, for his mission to be successful, he needs to build an army. That's why he is hosting a teleconference on July 22 to discuss many of the issues for which he is seeking reform.

Thus far, 35 presidents from non-BCS schools have signed up for the brainstorming session, as well as representatives from the NCAA and the esteemed Knight Commission.

"There are several things that I want to get accomplished," Cowen said. "I want to see if these other presidents share my concerns.

"If they do, then secondly, I want to see if we can organize ourselves into a series of sub-committees that would develop very specific action plans and time tables to articulate the issues we're concerned with and to develop a plan of attack for each of those issues."

If Cowen can recruit a few of his colleagues, his quest to behead the BCS could gain valuable momentum. If not, it seems the Tulane president would be entering another battle of David versus Goliath — but in that scenario, the underdog would face unbelievable odds.

The end result could be a renewal of the current BCS agreement, which Cowen suggests would produce consequences far more severe than the ones non-BCS schools currently are experiencing.

"I think it will cause Division I-A to be fractionalized to such a point that some schools will drop out of Division I-A," he said. "The financial disparities between those in the BCS and the non-BCS will be so great that there is no way that we can all be a part of the same system."

When you consider the current monetary disparities between playing in the Big Ten versus C-USA, Cowen has a point.

Since 1995, the NCAA has distributed more than $100 million to the Big Ten, compared to just over $56 million to C-USA — and that doesn't include the massive BCS payouts. Though the revenue the NCAA disburses to members is independent of the BCS, Cowen argues that BCS funds are used to upgrade facilities, which strengthens other institutions and their athletic programs across the board.

The irresistible urge by BCS leagues to pad their bank accounts took a new turn in recent months with the ACC's controversial pillage of the Big East.

"When you set up a system that is based on power and money, it's going to give rise to predatory behavior," he said. "It's going to give rise to efforts to consolidate and to make yourself stronger at the expense of others.

"The behavior that we've seen between the ACC and the Big East should be no surprise to anybody."

What has been a surprise to many is the matter-of-fact approach displayed by ACC presidents about participating in and signing off on an aggressive process that set off an upheaval in intercollegiate sports. The ACC's CEOs have been roundly criticized in the media for behaving more like sports franchise owners than university leaders.

Not surprisingly, considering the apparent divergence from principles that have long been at the core of Division I-A football, some have even questioned the role presidents should assert in shaping the ground rules, citing that it is within the jurisdiction of athletics directors.

Cowen, sensing the gravity of what he sees as a dangerous erosion of priorities, strongly disagrees with that posture.

"We (college presidents) should be the prime movers in helping to develop the strategy for athletics," Cowen said. "I do not think that should be delegated to conference commissioners or to an AD.

"So, when it comes to conference realignment, the issues dealing with the BCS, academics and so on, the presidents should be intimately involved. Openly, it reflects on our institutions, and therefore, I don't think we should delegate that. For too long, too many of us did. If I'm not personally involved in this, things likely are to happen that will affect my institution. By the time I find out about it, it will be too late."

Cowen knows it's not too late to invoke an all-inclusive system in college football.

He also knows that he'll have plenty of opposition, but this is one Green Wave building to a crest that won't crash without a fight.

Send an e-mail message to Denny O'Brien.

Click here to dig into Denny O'Brien's Bonesville archives.

02/23/2007 01:52:42 AM
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