Do NCAA coaches have too much power?

Mark Emmert believes that the NCAA can -- and will -- examine the power of NCAA coaches. AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Former UCLA chancellor and Florida president Charles E. Young, a current member of the Knight Commission, was quoted extensively in an interesting USA Today article regarding the power wielded by college football and basketball coaches, and how much is too much. Young is a distinguished and respected administrator that has had a remarkable career in higher education. Young's words and opinions carry great weight with me.

From his comments in the article, it would seem that Young holds most coaches in very low esteem, and believes NCAA member institutions should take steps to limit the power of coaches across the entire landscape of college sports. If that is indeed the case, I find Young's position to be misplaced.

Young was quoted as saying that, years ago, former Penn State coach Joe Paterno would speak up at NCAA meetings and, with his immense power, effectively kill academic measures that Young and other presidents and ADs were attempting to pass.

"Things would be going along just swimmingly, and then Joe Paterno would get up and he'd turn the heads of ADs and others," Young was quoted. Young also said that, just as Paterno "had too much sway in the NCAA, he probably had too much power and too much room and too little oversight at Penn State." The clear implication of Young's comments was that Paterno's power led to the leadership failures at Penn State.

I came away from the article wondering if Young was asking us to believe that Paterno was too powerful or that Young's brethren were too weak and spineless to do what they believed to be right after Paterno voiced his opinion. Is Young suggesting that the intelligent, ethical and principled leaders in the NCAA structure were in agreement as to the right things to do, but all changed their tune and dropped their principles when Paterno spoke?

Young's comments left me with a mental picture of the bespectacled Paterno bullying Young's colleagues, but it was tough to visualize whether those presidents and ADs were a bunch of cowering weaklings or starstruck sycophants.

The pay and power of coaches has become a hot topic in NCAA circles since the Penn State and Syracuse matters, but the connection is weak.

Are we to believe that, after Penn State administrators failed to make a phone call to the authorities and after Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim made some insensitive and intemperate comments in defense of Bernie Fine, the pay and power of coaches are the main problems in college athletics? Are coaches standing in the way of university administrators doing what they know to be right? That is laughable.

The power of Paterno, real or perceived, didn't kill any NCAA legislation that wasn't dead already. It's impossible for me to believe that Paterno stood up and advanced an argument that killed legislation that was "swimmingly" headed toward passage. And it is also impossible for me to believe that the power of the great Paterno kept Graham Spanier, Tim Curley or Gary Schultz from notifying the authorities about an eyewitness account of the unspeakable alleged crime witnessed in the Penn State locker room. I blame Paterno for his own personal failure to notify the authorities in the Sandusky matter. But to blame Paterno for the failures of Spanier, Curley and Schultz is simply unfair. And it's wrong.

Young showed his utter disdain for coaches when he was quoted, "I think there are incorruptible people. Not too many of them are football coaches or basketball coaches."

Coaches are not the only people in and around universities who have power, or say and do questionable things. Curiously, Young didn't name any powerful alumni who privately make outrageous demands upon university administrators, or put programs in compromising positions. (With all due respect, Young was UCLA's chancellor when Bruins booster Sam Gilbert was running around, unchecked, violating NCAA rules and providing extra benefits to UCLA players during the Wooden era.)

Nor did Young reference college trustees, administrators or professors who say and do questionable or outrageous things to land a university in controversy. That certainly happened when Young was at UCLA when the Board of Regents moved to dismiss philosophy professor Angela Davis over Young's objection, and during the violent protests during the Vietnam era. Young also neglected to mention any examples of highly questionable things said and done by professors and other administrators that cost their university millions of dollars in legal judgments, such as the Duke lacrosse matter.

In addition to the comments attributed to Young, NCAA president Mark Emmert was quoted, and seemed to imply, that the NCAA could -- and would -- step in to examine the power of coaches upon admissions and disciplinary policies of universities: "There's no reason why we couldn't and shouldn't look at those kinds of policies and say, 'look, you don't run your own admissions department. You don't run your own disciplinary program.'"

Emmert seems to suggest the NCAA may consider limits to the power and influence of coaches in university decisions, or some sort of NCAA oversight of the admissions or disciplinary policies of its members. If that is indeed the case, I would like to see exactly how that is to be accomplished. It would seem practically impossible, and legally questionable. Moreover, I think it would be wrong for a centralized authority like the NCAA to presume to dictate to more than 1,000 very different autonomous institutions of higher learning exactly whom to admit, whom to educate and how to educate them.

We have lamented the pay of coaches since the NCAA was born in the early 1900s. Since the first days of the NCAA, well-meaning people have posited that big-time athletics are not in keeping with the mission of higher education, and that coaches should not make more than university administrators. Set aside the fact that university administrators should be pleased at the amount made by coaches because it has raised their pay to at least keep it within shouting distance. We can all agree that firefighters and teachers are underpaid relative to their importance to society. And perhaps university presidents are underpaid relative to coaches. But there is no way to limit the pay of anyone within a university setting, practically or legally. It is a non-starter.

I'm not suggesting that coaches do not have power or influence. Some of them do. However, the stances of Young and Emmert overstate that power and influence. Just as coaches do not make legislation, coaches do not make admissions decisions. Well trained and properly authorized university personnel make admissions decisions. If Emmert has an issue with certain admissions and disciplinary decisions or processes at certain institutions, I believe it would be helpful to name them specifically. Which institutions are being bullied into admissions decisions that compromise the integrity of the institution? Naming names and providing clear examples to define the scope of this alleged problem is preferable to blanket assertions like those of Young and Emmert, which sound more like demagoguery than policy justifications.