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USC’s Harris Pastides sees storm clouds, successes as NCAA chair

USC president Harris Pastides, right, with athletics director Ray Tanner, left, and football coach Will Muschamp.
USC president Harris Pastides, right, with athletics director Ray Tanner, left, and football coach Will Muschamp. gmelendez@thestate.com

As USC president Harris Pastides enters his final summer at the helm of the NCAA’s board of directors, he’s optimistic about the organization’s future, although he’ll point out for his successor some potential storm clouds on the horizon.

“I feel that I have presided over one of the most interesting and challenging, but hopefully important, periods of that organization’s modern history,” said Pastides.

Pastides and the other 13 university presidents of the Southeastern Conference – along with the athletics directors, football coaches, men’s and women’s basketball coaches and various other administrators from each league school – will gather this week at the Hilton Sandestin Beach and Golf Resort in Miramar Beach, Fla., for the league’s annual spring meetings. It will be one of Pastides’ final functions as NCAA chair. He officially hands over the reins at the end of the NCAA’s August meeting.

“I thought I had a hard job being president of the University of South Carolina, but I know that the president of the NCAA has an extremely difficult job as well,” Pastides said.

During his time as NCAA chair, the organization implemented a cost-of-attendance increase for all scholarship athletes that Pastides believes offers appropriate compensation for athletes.

“I think we got it approximately right for this period of time,” he said. “It was wrong not to allow some granting of money for these expenses, and I think it would be wrong to grant too much more. Is it perfect? No. Might it change again down the road? Maybe.”

Pastides will have at least one sobering message for his successor.

“I will tell them, ‘You’re probably going to be the DI board president when we lose a case in a courtroom some day,’ ” he said, “but I hope that we win most of them.”

The NCAA usually is the subject of several lawsuits at any given time, but the one that worries Pastides and the organization the most is an antitrust suit filed in March 2014.

“If we lost (the antitrust case), now it all depends on what the language of the ruling was, but I think it would be a little bit of an all-bets-are-off situation, let’s go back to the drawing board,” he said. “We could not continue to promulgate intercollegiate athletics along those lines. It’ll be a free-for-all situation, totally unregulated, and that’s what worries me the most.”

The prospect of a digital revolution in sports media and what it might mean for the television companies that pay so many bills in major college athletics also is a cause for concern, Pastides said.

“The March Madness deal got extended, so I think at least the financial stability of the NCAA is pretty well assured unless someone goes broke,” Pastides said. “That could happen. I don’t lose sleep about it, but I am concerned about whether people will unplug their cable, go watch it on an IPhone or an IPad.”

SEC officials will check in on the progress of their own television network while in Florida this week, Pastides said.

“People are changing their habits,” he said. “My board, I know, is concerned about what if revenues drop dramatically.”

Pastides also will urge his successor to reach out to Division I members who aren’t part of the Power 5 (the 65 schools in the SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac 12).

“I spend a lot of time with my non-autonomy fellow Division I presidents, and I note how they view us, and they do view us like the big kid on the block, occasionally arrogant, occasionally insensitive to how expensive it is to run athletics at non-autonomy schools. I would tell my successor, spend a lot of time getting to know the non-autonomy schools and then the non-football playing schools as well. It’s very important to hang together.”

Pastides declined to comment on the specifics of this week’s scandal at Baylor, where football coach Art Briles is on the way to being fired and president Ken Starr has been demoted following a report about the school’s poor handling of sexual assault allegations, but he and his fellow Power 5 presidents all understand that a problem in the athletics department can very quickly become a problem on their desk.

“I do feel as the president, when it comes to athletics and any other number of things like that, I’m skating on an icy slope with one foot raised up while I’m carrying scissors,” he said. “You could be on the happiest three-day period where things are just peaking, you’ve gotten good news on so many things, and if you take that for granted, it never fails. You wake up the next morning and there’s a crisis. That’s the way it is.”

Below is an edited transcript of The State’s conversation with Pastides, which includes his thoughts on Will Muschamp, Steve Spurrier, the future of the Power 5 conferences, the NCAA’s 20-hour rule, the academics vs. athletics tension and presidential oversight of athletics:

What have you learned from your tenure and what do you feel like you’ve accomplished during your tenure as NCAA board chairman?

I feel that I have presided over one of the most interesting, challenging but hopefully important periods of that organization’s modern history. I certainly believe in teamwork, and I have come to know that there are a lot of very committed individuals both in Indianapolis and across the spectrum of Division I athletics. I came to realize the presidents are not the only repository of information or commitment to student-athletes. I learned that athletic directors and senior women administrators and faculty athletics reps and coaches by in large need to work together. Presidents have a bully pulpit, but I learned for example, we opened up the board to all these individuals and it has enriched the process a great deal. I learned that litigation and things that play out in courtrooms are very important, that the organization lives in courtrooms, it lives in the press, it lives in student-athletes homes and it lives with fans. I thought I had a hard job being president of the University of South Carolina, but I know that the president of the NCAA has an extremely difficult job as well. But I have actually optimistic about the future.

What makes you optimistic about the future? What things make you feel you’re headed in the right direction?

I would say reform in general, governance reform. I feel that both the board of governors and the Division I board have undergone a lot of democratization in regard to its membership, relative to how we operate, relative to consensus-building. We have gotten more strategic. We used to be a little bit of what we would call rubber stamping organization at the board level and now I think we are extremely engaged. The biggest issue during my tenure has been the amount of compensation that goes to scholarship athletes, and I think we got it approximately right for this period of time. Our student-athletes get $4,500, and I think that’s about right. It was wrong not to allow some granting of money for these expenses, and I think it would be wrong to grant too much more. Is it perfect? No. Might it change again down the road? Maybe, but I feel a lot more comfortable. I talk to some of our student-athletes, who say, ‘I don’t feel any richer,’ and I’m like, ‘Good.’ But they say, ‘It is helpful.’ The issues of the day that continue relate to time to be a student, time away from the sport, that’s a central issue, and then other things related to health and concussion and other kind of health and medical information.

As you turn over your chairmanship, what would you tell the next person to be aware of or to keep their eye on?

I think first of all, the autonomy conferences we have a possibility if we don’t hang together of spinning out even more. I know people thought the real risk was before the reform that we would start our own organization so that’s not in the near-term horizon, but… I spend a lot of time with my non-autonomy fellow Division I presidents, and I note how they view us and they do view us like the big kid on the block, occasionally arrogant, occasionally insensitive to either how expensive it is to run athletics at a non-autonomy schools. I would tell my successor, spend a lot of time getting to know the non-autonomy schools and then the non-football playing schools as well. It’s very important to hang together in that. Listen to the student voice because it’s really important. They are not, ‘Give me more,’ they really are colleagues more than anything. I will tell the successor, ‘You’re probably going to be the DI board president when we lose a case in a courtroom some day but I hope that we win most of them. By in large, what we do is so important to millions of Americans. It’s kind of become part of the fabric of America, and they’re going to be stewards of all of that.

You have mentioned court cases a couple times. What’s the case that worries you, that would really deal a blow to what you’re trying to do?

I think if the courts ruled that all of the rule-setting we do violates antitrust law of the land and we can no longer internally regulate ourselves in so many practices, a lot will be lost. We could not continue to promulgate intercollegiate athletics along those lines. It’ll be a free-for-all situation, totally unregulated, and that’s what worries me the most. Beyond that, I worry about changes in digital media and whether the patterns of either attending sporting events. The March Madness deal got extended so I think at least the financial stability of the NCAA is pretty well assured unless someone goes broke. That could happen, so I am concerned, I don’t lose sleep about it, but I am concerned about whether people will unplug their cable, go watch it on an IPhone or an IPad. I worry that people may stop coming to live sporting events in the numbers we like them to come because of the hassle, the parking, the expense, the heat, and than all bets are off, but I don’t think that’s a one-, two- or three-year issue. I think that’s a probably a 10-year issue.

What happens if you lose the antitrust suit? Does the NCAA completely dissolve?

I’m going to sound like a politician now and say I don’t think we are going to lose it. The O’Bannon case was portrayed at some level as a loss, but I think a lot of what came out of there was really a victory, and now we have asked the Supreme Court to examine that Ninth Circuit ruling so I think we’ll win, but if we lost (the antitrust case), now it all depends on what the language of the ruling was, but I think it would be a little bit of an all-bets-are-off situation, let’s go back to the drawing board and see what we can do.

How worried are you that the Power 5 conferences are moving toward a model that is incompatible with the university mission and the two are not going to be able to co-exist?

That’s not a new concern. There was something that happened at Baylor. I don’t think that Power 5 conferences play dirtier. They play in a much bigger sandlot and there is more at stake maybe, but I think it is very important that all the laws apply the same to the big schools and the small schools. I don’t see in our conference a tendency toward neglecting the rules, whether it’s drugs or sexual assaults or recruiting at all costs. I see all of us wanting to tone down the tendencies of anything-goes all the time.

In relation to the 20-hour rule, what do you expect the SEC to do next week?

I think it’s a let’s-talk-about-it issue. I think we’ll certainly be on the side of being more restrictive, but the specificity of it I am not sure yet. Maybe but I think it would take an unusual set of consistent viewpoints to get to that. I think it’s fair to say that the commissioner and the presidents want some more prohibition of practice and/or travel at certain times. If that were it, we would pass it. I think the real issue is it’s not the same. I think it’s really hard to promulgate legislation that applies overall. That’s where the rub is. I don’t think any of us want it to remain the way it is, but I’m not sure we can come up with a supportable plan in that time.

What is your feeling on the Pac-12 report last week that said that athletes can have a tough time majoring in their chosen field because of the demands of their sport?

Non-student-athletes have restrictions all the time on things they can or can’t major in. There are tons of examples. Have to work. At some schools, the fees related are high. In others, there are intern opportunities that wouldn’t work. Student-athletes should absolutely not be tracked into a small number of majors. No, that’s not college, absolutely not. There aren’t many pre-med football players, and there are a 100 reasons for that. If the issue is, ‘Son, let’s be realistic here and what are your interests. What do you see yourself doing if you’re not a pro athlete? And then you work with them to find a suitable major, I think that’s OK. And this is just me and I’m talking about students not athletes, I think sometimes students have too much flexibility in choosing majors in college in general. I think the reason we don’t graduate students on time is students don’t get enough strategic instruction and direction relative to interest, aptitude, workforce needs. I always tell students by the first day of your sophomore year pick a major and stick with it unless something drastic happens. That’s kind of where I start with the subject. I wouldn’t argue that every student-athlete needs every major at the school to be available to them or they are being gypped out of the college experience, I don’t really but that.

What’s your impression of the first five months of the Will Muschamp era?

Extremely favorable. I am extremely pleased with his start. He exudes the Gamecock passion. He’s an indefatigable recruiter. He, I think, always wants to play by the rules. We’re all desperate to get back on a winning track, and I have really high hope and confidence about that.

Is Steve Spurrier’s ambassador role something that has value for you?

Yes. I sometimes think that he needs more. He wants more. He’s been extremely generous. He’s never said no to a request that we’ve had. My hope would be that he wouldn’t leave this position completely, but that he might be able to juggle a few things and keep being an ambassador to the university. I think he’s pleased with it. There may not be quite enough to keep him as active as he’d like to be.

Do you feel that at the Power 5 level there is enough oversight of athletics?

I believe their must be. I am aware that several years ago Vanderbilt moved the A.D.’s reporting line to be under the provost. I think that’s dramatic and unnecessary here, but I can tell you that Ray Tanner is a full participating member of my cabinet. He knows everybody and we know him. He calls me a lot. The reason I know he calls me the right amount of times is sometimes I say to myself, ‘He didn’t need to call me on that,’ but I’d rather have that issue. I think presidents are very savvy and realize that not only are our jobs on the line but that the need to win can if you’re not careful become a driver that leads to occasions where something happens that you wouldn’t want to happen. That hasn’t happened in my presidency but you’ve got to be vigilant all the time.

What other issues to do you expect to be discussed in the SEC’s meetings this week?

I think we’ll revisit the summer camp issue. I think there will be more conversation about that. I think the ongoing issues with ESPN and the network and what the trends are. It is so fluid. You can’t just say, ‘We’ll look at it in 12 months.’ You kind of have to be looking at it all the time. We know the quality is there, but people are changing their habits. My board, I know, is concerned about what if revenues drop dramatically are we going to be able to continue to borrow the money that Ray is asking for for the new football operations building. Where’s the money coming from? We are borrowing it. Who pays the debt? Ray does and fundamentally from the SEC, that’s the biggest chunk of his money and the biggest chunk of that money is from the network. It would just be like if you’re about to borrow money for a 30-year mortgage, you’d want to be pretty sure you could afford it long term. We’re going to look more carefully about that.

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