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The Old College Try

By any measure, Oliver Luck is the likeable poster boy for the positive opportunities offered by college athletics. He starred at West Virginia University as a quarterback, and though Luck played in the NFL, his football career remains a blip on a resume that includes a law degree, time spent as an executive in two professional sporting leagues, a run at Congress, and, most recently, a stint as a trustee and an athletic director. Perhaps not coincidentally, Luck’s arrival in Indianapolis for a high-profile position with the NCAA comes at a time when the very definition of the ideals that defined him—student-athlete—is in flux, and the mere mention of his employer prompts cynicism. Luck, father of Colts star Andrew, seems like a breath of fresh air after years of lawsuits and charges of greed have fouled the organization. The heavier lifting, though, demands that Luck demystify and update a Byzantine college-athletics system, some of which requires decoding (and footnotes on our end). Here, a playbook for understanding Luck and his task:

What drew you to the NCAA? Was it tough to leave your alma mater?

I thoroughly enjoyed working in Morgantown and for my alma mater. The challenges that our industry is facing are one of the reasons that I was attracted to the position. As president [Mark] Emmert has said a number of times and said to me before I took the job, the next three-to-five years is going to be a very interesting time for the enterprise given all of the things that we do, the changing times, and the external concerns that exist. I guess I’m stubborn enough to think I can make a difference 1  —because I sincerely do love college athletics and what it does for young men and young women.

I assume this is something you’d be interested in even if your son weren’t here playing football. But it’s a nice side benefit, yes?

Well, as they say in Louisiana, that’s just lagniappe.

Can you translate that?

It’s just that sort of Creole word for—I think I can spell it. L-A-G-N-I-A-P-P-E. Yep—lagniappe. Having lived in Houston 2  for a little bit and going to New Orleans a lot, it’s sort of that extra scoop of ice cream on top of the flambe. Not necessary, but a nice thing. The short answer is that if the NCAA were still in Kansas City, I would’ve gladly moved to Kansas City.

Have you had a chance to get your feet wet here?

Yeah, I’ve gotten to know the city a little bit, just from my wife and me coming to ballgames over the last three years. I don’t know it well—just the center part of the city. We’ve just kind of stayed downtown, but I’ve come to enjoy it. I grew up in Cleveland, 3  so I’ve always enjoyed the Midwest.

Job-wise, this is a newly created position. What does it entail?

My role is to oversee three divisions: enforcement; what we call AMA, or academic and membership affairs, which is really legislation and waivers; and eligibility. The idea is that those groups touch membership 4  a lot. Usually, if you’re on a campus somewhere and interfacing with the NCAA, you’re very often dealing with all three. So we wanted to create some efficiencies. These groups have always cooperated, but we wanted to make things as simple as possible for our membership folks. Those three areas touch our membership a lot, both in good and bad ways. 5  [Laughs]

You mentioned that the landscape is changing, and that the next three-to-five years are going to refine things. How do you see the landscape now? Look into the crystal ball: How do things play out?

First of all, I think that intercollegiate athletics is very healthy. We spend a lot of time in this office—and on campus as well—worrying about the future. If you take a step back, which I don’t think we do enough, and look at the overall health of our enterprise, it’s vibrant, and there’s an incredible equity 6  that’s been built up over a number of years. Many of the problems we have are a result of our success. It’s not just the success 7  of the NCAA as an organization, but of the 1,200 schools that exist in Division I, II, and III, and the 46,000 student-athletes who are going through the system. There’s almost $3 billion in scholarships that we’re offering. That’s a real healthy—in my mind—position to be in.

The challenges, I think, are numerous. There are external factors—lawsuits 8  —telling us how to run the business. There is a new governance structure that is going to be a great thing for our enterprise, but also highlights one of the challenges, which is working with the autonomous group 9  —the 65 schools that make up the Power Five. 10  You’ve got that growing gap between the 65 schools and many of the remaining schools in Division I. So it’s a big tent, and you have 351 schools in that tent. It’s a big ol’ tent, you know—a circus tent, and it covers a lot of institutions that have different systems in place and are in different places in terms of their revenue and what they can do. And all of those schools are facing the challenge of full cost of attendance. 11  That’s something the autonomous group passed in their first get-together a few weeks ago. 12  But that’s a very tough decision for a lot of schools. It’s a qualitative decision that has fiscal consequences. And right on the heels of a full-cost-of-attendance debate, in August, the second part of the so-called O’Bannon injunction 13  will go into place, which is this name-image-likeness trust-fund concept that’s also a very important debate to have on campus and within conferences. So I think what that shows is that you’ve got an increasing gap that exists among the 351 schools. That shouldn’t be a surprise, I suppose. But that growth is a topic we’re all grappling with in different ways.

But, getting back to the crystal-ball part of this: I think in 20 years, we’re going to have a very healthy industry. It will have changed in some form or fashion, but the core mission 14  —which is to educate young men and women and allow them access to higher ed—will be there.

Luck set a record for touchdown passes and completions at West Virginia.

Luck set a record for touchdown passes and completions at West Virginia.

But that’s just the membership. Within that, you have a diverse group of student-athletes with different needs and aims. How do you wrangle all of that? It doesn’t seem like a one-size-fits-all deal.

That situation has always been there. Back when I was a freshman walking on campus at West Virginia 15  as a football student-athlete in 1978, within that group of 25 were kids from the city, kids who went to private high schools, kids from the country who went to public schools, kids from all different backgrounds. Some were prepared athletically and academically, and some were not. At the institutional level, most schools do a great job of figuring that out. They know which kids need help. They know which kids need remedial work. They’re working with more data than we have.

But the key, I think, is to really go back to the core. That’s what you do with any sort of challenge. And the core is the educational component of what we’re providing. That hasn’t changed. That shouldn’t change. That cannot change. [But at the same time], we’re having to redefine what an amateur is. Those two things—academics and amateurism—are the two pillars. You’re a student first. And, at the end of the day, you have to be an amateur. Now, you get a little more than the scholarship back in 1978 allowed you to get. You didn’t have Pell Grants 16  back in 1978. We may have a name-image-likeness component now, but the kids are still amateurs.

But how do you redefine what it means to be an amateur?

It’s a good question, and ultimately it’s the membership that will decide that. To use a phrase that I’m told Myles Brand 17  used all of the time, and he was a philosophy professor before he became president at IU down in Bloomington, amateurism is a social construct. Which is a really interesting concept.

If you look back at the history of amateurism over the last 150 years, it really has a fascinating history. Amateurism grew out of upper-class England. They were amateurs, basically, because they could afford to be. [Laughs] Not just in athletics, but in science and other disciplines. The notion has changed over the years. It’s been tweaked a number of times. Look at the Olympics. Remember the old days when the college kids would play the Russians? It was huge. But the Olympic model has changed. 18  A lot of organizations have changed their view of what an amateur is.

If we ever get to the point where student-athletes are employees of a university or an institution, we’ll have lost our way forever.

In my mind, an amateur is a student—that has to come first—and not an employee. If we ever get to the point where student-athletes are employees of a university or an institution, we’ll have lost our way forever. But some of the value that is received off the field—whether it’s full cost of attendance or the O’Bannon issue—are within the model of what I consider the 21st-century model of amateurism.

Our challenge over the next X-number of years is to define amateurism. Because this new model will be the foundation for the next couple of decades.


Right. You have to define amateurism first because everything flows from there.

If you look back at this organization over the last 10 years, at least in my perspective as a former AD, changes have been made. For example, you can be a professional baseball player and go back and play college football. You can have $10 million in the bank, play baseball, and go back and play college football. You can be a tennis player and earn a bit of prize money. There’s something like that for golf as well. You can be an Olympian and get a nice bonus for winning the bronze medal from the U.S. Olympic Committee, and that doesn’t affect your amateurism. So it is a social construct. Myles Brand, as he was with many things, was correct.

With the success of the first College Football Playoff, some people have suggested that event will eventually be as big as the Super Bowl. You sat on the selection committee for the playoff. Did it work out the way you thought it was going to?

Well, the credit really goes to the 10 conference commissioners who put the system together. There was a good bit of public discontent with the old system. I think, ultimately, the system proved its worth this first year. People often ask, “Do you think the committee got it right?” But it really doesn’t matter what I think or what anyone else on the committee thinks—the public loved it. They are the ultimate arbiter. Those three games were the three highest-rated shows in the history of cable television. That says it all about the model and the value of the model. We did our job, I suppose. But our job was really the same as the men’s basketball committee or the women’s basketball committee. Our system was based entirely on the basketball selection system. Whenever we had a question, that’s what we looked to. [The model has] worked extraordinarily well over the years.

One of the big differences, though, was that the football playoff played out like a weekly made-for-TV reality show.

One of the things that surprised us was just how much attention it got. Even starting in Week 1. I don’t think anyone on the committee expected the volume of written words, spoken words, etc. I asked the committee, I said, “Isn’t it a little bit of a zero-sum game if The New York Times, ESPN, and everybody else is writing about the new college-playoff system and nothing else?” Maybe there was a player, or a Heisman Trophy race, or a new coach doing something somewhere that deserved that coverage. So I worried that all the focus on the committee was taking away from other interesting stories. But, at the end of the day, we were surprised—and, I guess, ultimately pleased—that so much attention was focused on it.

As football becomes more popular, we’re becoming more aware of some of the dangers inherent to the game. Those concerns seem to have the attention of the NFL. How have they grabbed the NCAA?

Ultimately, whether it’s football or any other sport, there’s been a real emphasis on the health and safety of student-athletes. I believe that over the next 10 years or so, the most important factor for all of us in this building—and at the campus and conference levels—will be the health and safety of our student-athletes.

We still don’t know a whole lot about the brain. One of these neurologists has said that we’ve learned more about the brain in the last five years than we have in all of human history. There’s all of this research out there, and part of that is being paid for by the NCAA. 19  There’s been $30 million split between the NCAA and the Department of Defense looking at head trauma and traumatic brain injuries. 20  But it’s not just football or the “collision sports.” We’re entering into an era when we’re going to be more focused on the health and safety of our kids. And not just physical, but mental 21  as well.

As you enter into this defining time, are there any current rules or regulations that you’ve looked at and thought, “This is antiquated”?

I can’t point to any one thing. But here’s what I think is happening. In Division I, we’re entering into an era when many schools—but not all—will be dealing with the full cost of attendance. Some—and I’m not sure how many—may be going to the full cost of the name-image-likeness trust fund. Those issues, I think, for recruits become front and center. So, if you’re being recruited by three different schools, you’re going to have a little cheat sheet. “Here’s the full-cost-of-attendance number at School A, School B, and School C. School A is doing this for name-image-likeness but isn’t doing this.” That may become the differentiator for recruits and could become an advantage in recruiting over things we traditionally associate with the process, like phone calls and texting. And those traditional concerns may become insignificant given that there’s a new system in place. Money usually talks. So it’s those types of things we need to be really smart about. We have to be very careful that the rulebook—it’s 375 pages—and things that have been in there for 15 or 20 years are still serving their purpose. It’s like any body of law or regulation. You have to make sure it’s keeping pace with the system.

What does the NCAA do that it doesn’t get credit for from the public?

The biggest challenge from the public-perception thing is that we are a membership-driven organization. That plays itself out in a number of areas. Mark Emmert 22  is not like Roger Goodell or Adam Silver or Rob Manfred. 23  That plays itself out most in the area of infractions. There’s not one person who decides what a punishment should be. It’s a jury of their peers. People on the infractions committee are ADs, attorneys, former student-athletes. It’s not some draconian group. It’s not a Star Chamber. It’s a group of people who are involved with the industry on a daily basis. So I think there’s a misconception from the public that there’s one person who sits in a dark room somewhere deciding they’re going to do this or that to School X. 24  That’s not appreciated by the American public as much as it should be.

Do you have a role in trying to change that perception, or is that even necessary?

I think it’s important that the public knows. They love college athletics, and it’s an important institution in every state for a whole lot of people. It’s important that we try to correct those misperceptions. Everyone in this building needs to feel some sort of responsibility for going out and making sure the public understands the system is a system put in place and driven by its membership.

You have raised kids who have gone on to become student-athletes. How does that affect how you approach this position?

Well, two of my three oldest have, and hopefully No. 4 will, too—he plays soccer in junior high school. But as I watched Andrew and Mary Ellen 25  go through their experiences at Stanford, it reaffirmed the notion that it’s still a great thing in terms of the success they had with their respective sports, but also being able to handle all of their academic work and come out with a degree and a real appreciation for education. I imagine that, at some point, both will go back for advanced degrees. But, from my experience to theirs, it revealed what I think is kind of an eternal truth: It’s hard, but you can do it, and you come out at the other end a much better person.

Late in the season, The Wall Street Journal had a story about how Andrew responds to hard hits with compliments. Is this a family tactic? Something you taught him?

I never did that. [Laughs] But what I always found interesting was all the chatter that goes on during the game. There’s lots of trash-talking, but also lots of jokes. You know all of these guys—even though they’re on different teams, they are colleagues of sorts. I’ve always enjoyed the chatter. The first game I started was against the Detroit Lions. It was my second year. We were not very good. I threw a touchdown pass, like a 10-yarder to a tight end. Doug English, a defensive player for the Lions who went to the University of Texas, was right in my face. And I threw one of those blind passes where you don’t even see your receiver. You just know where he’s supposed to be and hope he got there, right? Doug was a big old guy, and [claps] just leveled me. I heard the roar of the crowd, and Doug says, “Hey, nice pass.” There’s more of that than people realize. Funny stuff.

Who taught Andrew how to shave?

That’s a good question. I’m certainly not responsible for his beard.

Not going to take credit for that? Not a fan?

Yeah. He can do what he wants with that thing.

 

Notes:

1. This line could have been pulled from a stump speech. In 1990, Luck, a Republican, ran for West Virginia’s second congressional district and lost. [back to article]

2. Luck played quarterback for the Houston Oilers from 1982 to 1986. After his NFL days, he was president and general manager of Houston’s Major League Soccer club. He was also the chief executive officer for the Harris County–Houston Sports Authority, where he helped build Reliant Stadium and bring an NFL franchise back to the city. [back to article]

3. During his senior season at St. Ignatius High School, Luck was named the Cleveland Touchdown Club Player of the Year. [back to article]

4. “Membership” is the term used to describe the schools that comprise the NCAA. [back to article]

5. Indiana University basketball fans can empathize. In 2008, the NCAA put the Hoosiers on three years’ probation for recruiting violations under then-coach Kelvin Sampson. [back to article]

6. “Money might be the best measure of the popularity of college athletics. According to a 2014 USA Today report that examined athletic-department revenue from 225 public Division I NCAA schools, Texas topped them all with $165 million. [back to article]

7. The NCAA made almost a billion dollars ($912.8 million) in 2012–2013, the vast majority coming from its men’s basketball postseason tournament. The nonprofit retains its status be-cause of how it uses its revenue. All but 4 percent is returned either directly or indirectly to member schools. [back to article]

8. One of the most prominent lawsuits is an antitrust case filed against the organization and its five major conferences by sports-labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler, a man whose previous cases were the catalyst for NFL free agency. [back to article]

9. Last year, the NCAA agreed to allow 65 schools from the largest and richest conferences a degree of freedom in determining some of their own rules and regulations. [back to article]

10. The ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. [back to article]

11. A term that describes the model of paying student-athletes on scholarship beyond the traditional tuition, books, room, and board. [back to article]

12. In January at the NCAA’s annual conference, the autonomous group voted for the ability to provide student-athletes a full-cost-of-attendance scholarship. It’s estimated student-athletes will now receive a few thousand dollars more than in previous years. [back to article]

13. Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon was the lead plaintiff in a 2009 lawsuit that alleged that the NCAA denied O’Bannon and others profits made from using the name, image, and likeness (NILs) of athletes in the sale of videogames, jerseys, and other merchandise. In 2014, a federal judge largely agreed. Now, the NCAA can’t ban schools from creating trust funds to eventually pay student-athletes equal shares for use of their NILs. [back to article]

14. Originally named the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States, the NCAA was established in 1906. President Teddy Roosevelt led the push to reform the rules and regulations of college sports, in particular football, which at the turn of the century had been plagued by serious injuries and even deaths. [back to article]

15. Luck, a Rhodes Scholar finalist, set records for touchdown passes and completions at West Virginia and led the Mountaineers to an upset win over Florida in the 1981 Peach Bowl. [back to article]

16. Yes and no. Congress established the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant Program in 1972 to provide federal need-based grants for low-income undergraduates. It was renamed in 1980. [back to article]

17. Brand served as Indiana University president from 1994 to 2002, then left Bloomington to become the president of the NCAA until his death in 2009. [back to article]

18. In 1971, the International Olympic Committee allowed athletes to receive compensation for training, competition, and sponsorships. In 1986, professional athletes were allowed to participate. [back to article]

19. As part of a June 2014 class-action settlement, the NCAA agreed to provide $70 million for concussion testing and diagnosis of current and former student-athletes. [back to article]

20. The NCAA–DoD partnership was announced a month before the class-action settlement. The proposed study of concussion and head trauma is billed as the most comprehensive of its kind ever conducted. [back to article]

21. Last December, a defensive lineman for Ohio State committed suicide. Kosta Karageorge had reportedly struggled with concussions, and his death raised questions about the link between head trauma and severe depression. [back to article]

22. In 2014, Emmert made SI.com’s list of the Most Disliked People in Sports. He was No. 12 (out of 35). [back to article]

23. Goodell is the commissioner of the NFL, Silver heads the NBA, and Manfred is Major League Baseball’s top executive. [back to article]

24. In February, the NCAA placed West Virginia, Luck’s former employer, on two years’ probation for recruiting violations in several sports. [back to article]

25. Mary Ellen was a volleyball standout at Stanford. A second daughter, Emily, attends Stanford. Addison is the younger son of Luck and his wife, Kathy. [back to article]

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