Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 13, 2010

Where Once A Wizard Ruled, Now It’s All About Money

With the decisions by the University of Colorado to move to the Pac-10 conference and the University of Nebraska to move to the Big 10, a major realignment of collegiate athletics is underway. While it may be months (or minutes) before all of the ramifications are known, a few things are immediately clear. The Big 12 is clearly the first, though not necessarily the last conference to be a big loser in this process. Decisions about football, the cash cow that subsidizes most other sports at major universities, are driving the realignment; the possible effect on other sports is secondary. And most assuredly, the major conferences are not about student-athletes, or traditional rivalries, or crisp autumn afternoons filled with the sounds of alumni cheering on the old school team; they are about money and television contracts, period.

The goal of both the Big 10 and the Pac-10 is to expand to at least twelve teams each. That is the size at which the NCAA allows conferences to split into two divisions and hold a football championship game between the division winners. That’s one more game on the schedule, one more chance for big ratings and big dollars added to already fat TV contracts.

But it seems likely that either or both of the two growing conferences may not stop at twelve teams. Rumors are flying about sixteen team super-conferences. If that were to happen the Big 12 might very well cease to exist and the Big East might have to be renamed the Formerly Big Now Rather Small East.

This pursuit of the almighty television dollar comes hard on the heels of the NCAA imposing stiff sanctions on the University of Southern California. The NCAA found that improper benefits had been paid to both Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush and “one-and-done” basketball player O.J. Mayo. As a result, USC football was banned from post-season play for the next two years, docked ten scholarships in each of the next three seasons, and forced to vacate all of its 2004 victories. The Association also accepted penalties that USC had voluntarily imposed on its basketball program, including vacating victories from the 2006-7 season, reducing scholarships, and barring participation in the recent 2010 post-season.

Meanwhile, Bush has a Super Bowl ring with the New Orleans Saints, Mayo is playing for the Memphis Grizzlies, and former football and basketball head coaches Pete Carroll and Tim Floyd have moved on to greener pastures as well.

All of this shows how major college athletic programs have become jumbles of contradictions. On the one hand, they are expected to produce both team and individual performances that will pack stadiums and arenas, sell memorabilia, compete for championships, and induce network executives to fork over larger and larger checks for broadcast rights. On the other hand, they are supposed to do this while remaining student-athletes and adhering to some hoary “amateurism principle” of the NCAA. In that tug of war, the dollar is going to win every time. When that result inevitably drifts down to the level of individual players, no one should be surprised. Certainly not when in football and basketball the elite “student-athletes” enter college with absolutely no intention of playing for four years and actually graduating before moving on to the NFL and NBA drafts.

It’s all a bit unseemly, and rather sad. Especially right now, for within the past week we have been reminded of a profoundly different time. The death of former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden at the age of 99 took me back four decades or so, to the time when he led the Bruins to ten national titles over a twelve year period. His well-known records are likely to stand for the ages. Seven consecutive national championships from 1967 to 1973. Eighty-eight consecutive victories. Ninety-eight consecutive home wins. Four perfect 30-0 seasons.

But what was striking in the remembrances of so many of his former players, from stars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton to seldom used reserves like Andy Hill, was their focus not on wins or championships or records but on lessons learned about life. Many of them spoke of how they stayed in contact with Wooden and actually became closer to him after their collegiate career, as they became adults and began to fully appreciate all that he had taught them.

It’s well known that he hated being called the Wizard of Westwood, because the nickname focused on him instead of his teams. As a coach he considered himself a teacher first, and believed that there were more important things to be taught than how to win basketball games. By stubbornly pursuing that simple and singular belief he of course wound up molding teams that won and won and won again, with a breath-taking consistency unmatched before or since.

Yet except for the quaint concept of honor it all almost never happened, at least not at UCLA. An Indiana native, Wooden had attended Purdue where he helped the Boilermakers win a championship. After coaching high school and for two years Indiana State, Wooden went to UCLA in 1948 when he mistakenly thought that the University of Minnesota wasn’t interested in hiring him. The adjustment to the West Coast was hard on him, and especially so on his wife Nell. In 1950, the Purdue coaching job opened up, and Wooden was sorely tempted to return to his native Midwest and his alma mater. But UCLA officials reminded him that he had been the one to insist on a three-year contract. So Wooden stayed, rather than break his word. He stayed and taught; they learned and won. Oh my, how they won, and won, and won.

Keeping one’s word. Playing by the rules. Straightforward and simple ideas that a great coach, make that teacher, lived by. Be it money-grabbing expansion or money-grubbing induced sanctions, the headlines since John Wooden’s death make it clear that far too many of the leaders, coaches and stars of modern collegiate athletics believe that such ideas are as archaic as peach baskets for buckets and the single wing formation. I can’t imagine that the Wizard would have approved.

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