Bucking the BCS: Tulane CEO demands reform
Tulane University president
(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.
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
the playing field significantly. From 1994-2000, the Pirates thumped a
roster of heavyweights, but haven't defeated a Division I-A non-conference
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
"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
"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
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
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.
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02/23/2007 01:52:42 AM