NCAA president supports 4-team football playoff

Posted Jan. 12, 2012, at 8:46 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 12, 2012, at 10:39 p.m.

INDIANAPOLIS — NCAA President Mark Emmert would support a four-team playoff in college football — as long as the field doesn’t grow.

After giving his annual state of the association speech Thursday in Indianapolis, Emmert acknowledged he would back a small playoff if that’s what Bowl Championship Series officials decide to adopt.

“The notion of having a Final Four approach is probably a sound one,” Emmert said when asked what he heard coming out of New Orleans this week. “Moving toward a 16-team playoff is highly problematic because I think that’s too much to ask a young man’s body to do. It’s too many games, it intrudes into the school year and, of course, it would probably necessitate a complete end to the bowl system that so many people like now.”

Emmert spoke two days after the 11 Bowl Championship Series conferences met to discuss possible changes to the system starting in 2014, but there is no consensus yet.

BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock said Tuesday that 50-60 possibilities for various changes were presented during a deliberate meeting in New Orleans, where Alabama beat LSU in the BCS title game Monday night. Hancock anticipates it will take another five to seven meetings to reach a conclusion in July.

One possibility is the four-team playoff, or the so-called plus-one approach, that would create two national semifinals and a championship game played one week later. The original proposal, made in 2008 by the commissioners of the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference, was emphatically shot down by the leaders of the Big Ten, Pac-10, Big East, Big 12 and Notre Dame.

The BCS title game pits the nation’s top two teams based on poll and computer rankings.

But momentum is clearly growing for a larger playoff system.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany acknowledged this week that he would now consider the prospect of a four-team field.

“Four years ago, five of us didn’t want to have the conversation,” Delany told reporters earlier this week. “Now we all want to have the conversation.”

Then on Thursday, the BCS picked up another major endorsement for a potential playoff.

Emmert has long said he expected changes to the BCS system and has repeatedly offered to help the BCS debate if they want it. The NCAA licenses bowl games, but does not run them. It also has no direct authority over the BCS system.

But a small, four-team tournament could be the perfect remedy for what many still consider a flawed system.

“I see a lot of ways that a Final Four model could be successful,” Emmert said.

In his annual state of the association speech, Emmert asked university leaders to help him turn the page on a disastrous 2011 that included a child sex abuse scandal at Penn State that overshadowed NCAA violations at a handful of major football programs.

Emmert wants to restore some of college sports’ core principles — choosing education over money, amateurism over professionalism and abiding by the rules rather than ignoring them.

“What we have to do is work together to act on those values, to let the world know which fork in the road we’ve taken so we don’t have the same story line this year that we had last year,” he told about 2,000 delegates at the annual convention, just a few blocks from the NCAA headquarters. “I know we can do it. We can do it in 2012.”

For roughly 30 minutes, Emmert again expressed frustration with the rash of infractions charges, alleged ethical breaches and possible criminal conduct in 2011.

And Emmert made it perfectly clear how upset he was by striking a far different tone Thursday than he did in his first state of the association address last year in San Antonio, Texas.

There, Emmert paraded “model” student-athletes across the stage, a production that even included eventual Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III.

This time, speaking sternly and with few laugh lines, Emmert broadly recounted some of the most damaging phrases he’d heard: College sports is about winning at all costs, it’s all about the money, everybody cheats and the term student-athlete is an oxymoron.

Then, just a few blocks from the NCAA headquarters, Emmert uttered words rarely heard in these quarters — in some cases, the critics were right.

“I’ve heard people say that there are no ethics and no integrity in college sports and the whole system is broken. But here’s the really bad news. There’s truth in some of those criticisms,” Emmert said. “What parts of those stories are true? Sometimes we have seen behaviors that don’t match our values. We do have some people that want to win at all costs. We have some student-athletes that don’t care about getting an education and some that simply don’t get the education they deserve. The worst thing to me is that they completely overshadow all of the good things that are going on in intercollegiate athletics.”

The push for change has already begun.

In October, the Division I Board of Directors approved rules giving conferences the option of paying an additional $2,000 toward athletes’ living expenses and multi-year scholarships that could end the practice of coaches stripping away financial aid based solely on athletic performance.

Both rules have become targets of override measures, and the board is scheduled to consider modifications Saturday. Emmert expects both rules to withstand the challenges, though the stipend could face some modifications.

The NCAA also has approved tougher academic standards, which could lead to postseason ineligibility. Under the new guidelines, last year’s men’s basketball national champion Connecticut would have missed the tournament and also is likely to miss the tourney next year.

Some say the academic reforms still are not tough enough.

“I don’t believe the academic reforms are anything more than a P.R. move because there are too many loopholes in it,” said Ohio University professor David Ridpath, past president of an NCAA watchdog called The Drake Group.

On Wednesday, the Legislative Council also passed a proposal that would tighten the definition of an agent to include third parties. That would eliminate the loophole that allowed Cam Newton to retain his eligibility even after the NCAA determined Newton’s father attempted to shop his son’s services.

The rule could be approved Saturday.

“I think it’s a great start,” he said. “It will go to the board, and I think they’ll put in place, and we’ll see if we get the change we want. If not, we’ll change it.”

It’s only a start.

On Friday, the NCAA has carved out a three-hour session to brief delegates about tougher penalties for infractions, a three-tiered new penalty structure, a quicker enforcement process and the rewriting of the massive 400-plus page rulebook.

Regardless of the changes sure to come in 2012, Emmert and others within the organization understand this process can only work if university presidents and athletic directors are on board.

“I don’t think it has to be sold,” enforcement director Julie Roe Lach said. “What I’ve seen and heard is that there is a collective momentum that we’ve got to do something. I think the time is ripe for change, and not only is it ripe for a change, there’s a need for change.”

What can Emmert do?

He wants to make integrity chic again in college sports.

“We need to clarify who is in charge,” he said. “University presidents and boards need to be fully in charge. Athletic departments need to be in charge of maximizing revenue. But it’s about more than that. If you are part of university environment, your conduct has to be the same as anyone else at that college. Student-athletes have to be able to take advantage of the educational opportunities, and they have to play by the rules. That’s not too much to ask, I don’t think. And supporters have to understand that just because you’re a fan doesn’t mean you’re in charge.”

Emmert also awarded the organization’s President Gerald R. Ford Award to Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summit, who could not attend Thursday because her team was playing at Kentucky.

Joan Cronan, Tennessee’s women’s athletic director, accepted the award on Summitt’s behalf following a short video recounting the Hall of Fame coach’s contributions to the game.

“I am truly humbled to receive an award named after a man who led this country as the 38th president,” Summitt said at the end of the video. “As a head coach, I have a daily responsibility to make sure our Lady Vol players are students first and athletes second and I do that every day in words and in actions. I tell them they are at Tennessee to earn a degree. I love teaching the game and I love teaching life skills. I accompany that with the phrase that the gym is my classroom, and along the way we’ve been fortunate enough to win a few games, too.”

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