Do college presidents have too much power over athletics? That's a question that SI's Stewart Mandel attempts to answer in a column today, posted in reaction to the news that Big East Commissioner John Marinatto abruptly resigned over the weekend.
Reports that surfaced during the day indicated that Marinatto was forced out, and that the decision to make a change had been percolating for weeks.
Mandel notes that the top executives at major schools have taken an about-step over the last several years. No longer are they leaving critical athletics negotiations regarding conference alignments and media rights deals to the athletic directors and their staffs.
Instead, they're much more ahh... what's the word... tactile.
Kudos to former Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg (who left in 2007) and Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese (2009) for getting out when they did.
Over the past decade, university presidents and chancellors have exercised a more hands-on role in major athletics decisions, and while the intent is noble, it's hard to see how athletics has benefited. Having a bunch of distinguished physics professors and English scholars help negotiate billion-dollar television packages makes about as much sense as having conference commissioners deliver physics and English lectures.
In the ideal working dynamic, the presidents put their trust in the hands of a capable commissioner like Mike Slive or Jim Delany to do the heavy lifting, then come in at the end to give their stamp of approval. Pac-12 presidents took little time before entrusting their 2009 hire Larry Scott, and in turn he's radically reinvented that conference and made the presidents' institutions a whole lot of money.
Contrast that to the Big 12, where Beebe walked into a mess of conflicting egos and political grandstanding that only grew worse when Realignment Mania kicked into high gear two years ago. First Texas and Nebraska butted heads, then Texas A&M and everybody else. When schools started fleeing, the presidents first kicked Beebe to the curb, then, under the direction of interim successor Chuck Neinas, proceeded to adopt nearly all the key recommendations (equal revenue sharing, grants of TV rights) Beebe had been pushing for years.
It's true that presidents are also becoming more attuned to the financial performance of their institutions, and it's also true that during an era of increased state budget pressure, athletics revenues are playing a larger role in that financial performance.
Anyone who doesn’t think college athletics isn’t time business today hasn’t been paying attention.
We haven't conducted any detailed financial studies, but after laughing at and throwing away the farcical financial submittals made to the NCAA by member institutions, we'd lay some strong odds that athletics have become a massively bigger pump on the income side of the balance sheet.
Last year, The Big East conference turned down a $1.9 billion media rights deal with ESPN. Reports at the time indicated that Marinatto's hands were tied by the conference's presidents, who thought they could get a better deal in negotiations with other outlets, including NBC and CBS.
But note well in the story linked above: At the same time those presidents were instructing Marinatto to say "no thanks" to the World Wide Schemer, at least two of them were in behind-the-scenes discussions with the Atlantic Coast Conference to abandon the Big East and join the ACC.
Note well also that the gist of the story linked above isn't that the presidents were playing hanky panky and hanging Marinatto out to dry. It was that ESPN was allegedly advising the ACC on which schools to rob from the Big East.
Pitt and Syracuse later announced plans to join the ACC.
Look, ESPN is part of the Disney corporation. Disney--and by extension ESPN--has a fiduciary duty to seek business relationships that deliver the greatest value to their shareholders. That is their sole responsibility under their articles of incorporation. If you have shares in a mutual fund, a 401(k) contribution or some other managed retirement account, be thankful for that. They owe nothing to the conferences, their commissioners or the schools they represent.
When that much money is dangled in front of a president facing tightening budgets and increasing pressure from boards of regents and trustees, they might do something that benefits the school at the expense of athletics.
They might also put good men—like Marinatto, Beebe and Weiberg—in impossible situations, then vote to fire them when they don’t deliver a miracle.
Who can you trust, in situations like that?