Sports and the Presidential Pedigree

Does a history of dealing with athletics give a college leader an advantage when scandal erupts? Or is it always trial by fire?
February 20, 2008

It's standard practice for a college president's job description to include the phrase "athletics oversight." What's not listed, but perhaps should be, is the ability to "respond to sports scandal with authority and grace."

As Michael A. McRobbie, president of Indiana University, is learning during his first year on the job, the latter task can be all-consuming at an institution where athletics is a multi-million-dollar enterprise and top athletes (and coaches) are known throughout the state, and often beyond.

Indiana is dealing with the kind of allegations of impropriety that the athletics department hasn't seen in decades. It's no help to McRobbie that the case involves the university's most beloved sport, men's basketball. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is accusing the head coach Kelvin Sampson and his staff of five major recruiting violations -- among them charges that Sampson lied to the NCAA and investigators about breaking rules on contacting potential athletes.

While awaiting word on possible NCAA sanctions, McRobbie has ordered an internal investigation and asked Rick Greenspan, Indiana's athletics director, to oversee that process. Many are expecting Sampson's ouster, and as the final decision rests with McRobbie, observers are curious to see how he'll react.

Part of that curiosity comes from the fact that McRobbie, an Australian-born academic, had no experience dealing with collegiate athletics prior to coming to Indiana. The university brought him to the country in 1997 as vice president of information technology. He rose up the ranks, going from vice president for research to interim provost and vice president for academic affairs.

Sampson was hired more than a year before McRobbie's presidential tenure began. But the problem still landed on his desk. And his decision will surely be compared with that of a past Indiana president, Myles Brand (now the NCAA's chief), who presided over the ousting of popular head coach Bob Knight after what the university deemed "a pattern of unacceptable (but not rule-breaking) behavior."

The question of presidential pedigree and the ability to handle emotionally charged sports scandals is one that is often lost amid conversations of institutional reaction. By hiring a president who has no or limited experience dealing with big-time athletics and requiring him to oversee that enterprise, is a college setting the leader up for failure if an early problem arises?

Many agree that Richard H. Brodhead, president of Duke University, was put in a rough spot as a leader new to the inner workings of major college sports (he had been dean of Yale College) and having to deal early in his tenure with a potentially devastating coaching departure, as well as a major scandal that had its roots in athletics.

As described in a New Yorker piece from 2006, Brodhead spent part of his first day in the president's office trying to persuade the university's iconic men's basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski, not to accept a coaching offer from the National Basketball Association's Los Angeles Lakers. Brodhead helped lead the cheers of "Stay, Coach K," and a Duke professor quoted in that article called the president's obligatory house calls "ritual humiliation, this ritual obeisance." Krzyzewski made the decision to stay at Duke one evening, but waited until the next day to assure Brodhead -- a detail that some say illustrates the power play at work.

Two years later, Brodhead would be in the middle of the lacrosse scandal and criticized by some Duke faculty as not acting quickly enough in punishing the team and not understanding the athletic culture of the university. In the New Yorker article, Brodhead admits having underestimated the amount of time he would spend dealing with weighty athletics issues.

The Duke case study is extraordinary in some regards. But it's also telling. James J. Duderstadt, president emeritus and a professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan, said presidents sometimes don't realize how disruptive athletics scandals can be to universities and to their own work.

The idea of putting athletics oversight in the hands of presidents was supposed to make them "more inclined to control the beast," Duderstadt said in an e-mail. But presidents have largely been unable to stop the enterprise from careering out of control, he added.

Claire Van Ummersen, vice president of the American Council on Education's Center for Effective Leadership, said colleges would be smart to consider all aspects of a presidential candidate's background, including dealings with collegiate sports. It's possible, she said, that in the Indiana case, McRobbie might simply not have had the time to understand the importance of the presidential role in athletics.

"It probably should have been communicated at the time [McRobbie] took over that it's important to stay abreast of what's happening in athletics," Van Ummersen said.

A former president of Cleveland State University, Van Ummersen said a college leader should spend 10 to 15 percent of her time dealing with athletics. But Robert Atwell, president emeritus of ACE, said it's important for presidents to keep collegiate sports at arm's length and intervene only when "you absolutely have to."

Otherwise, he said, "you can spend all your time deciding who gets to sit at the 50-yard line," Atwell said. "This stuff is so overpowering and fraught with potential for corruption that you have to have someone watching every day on your behalf."

That someone, he said, doesn't have to be the athletics director, but could be someone in the president's office with an athletics compliance title.

Still, Van Ummersen said the tendency for presidents to delegate supervision to their athletics directors can be dangerous, particularly if leaders do so without understanding the whole athletic operation.

"Anytime there is difficulty, given that the NCAA indicates that oversight is an area of importance for presidents, there needs to be a clear understanding from the top," she said. “If you’re familiar with the program, you can catch these kinds of [scandals] before they become national news, and take action on them.”

When an athletics director reports directly to a vice president, it's a president's responsibility to stay as much in contact with that official as she would with any other senior vice president, Van Ummersen added.

It would be difficult for a president to have risen up the ranks without becoming familiar with tenure policies and tech transfer arrangements, but who's there to tell them about athletic operations? Van Ummersen said colleges might consider going outside their campuses to find people able to train leaders about dealing with college sports.

Atwell argues that it's not so important whether a president came via a traditional academic route or not, but rather whether "you have the courage to put yourself on the line."

He said institutions should look at what kind of tough decisions candidates have made, and how they handled the controversy. “I don’t care how they manage the day-to-day stuff when it comes to athletics," he said.

David Roselle, president emeritus of the University of Delaware and former president at the University of Kentucky, said it's helpful if a president has a background in athletics, but he is a firm believer that college leaders largely get on-the-job training.

A mathematician, Roselle served on the faculty of several institutions before landing a provost job at Virginia Tech and finally the presidency at Kentucky in 1987. Much of Roselle's early time in Lexington was spent defusing a scandal involving improper payment of players and academic fraud on the men's basketball team. The NCAA put Kentucky on probation for three years for those violations.

Under Roselle's watch, the university fired its head coach and created the position of compliance director, which is now common place at many institutions.

“Generally, the difficult part of being a university administrator and president in particular is keeping control of the agenda," he said. "There are things that happen all the time, like scandals, where suddenly that becomes the agenda.”


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