WKU Athletic Director: NCAA Set for Changes, but Won't Break Apart

Jul 31, 2013

WKU Athletic Director Todd Stewart

WKU’s athletic director is predicting there will be changes coming to the organization that governs collegiate athletics. But Todd Stewart doesn’t think the country’s most powerful conferences will break away from the NCAA and form their own organization, as some have suggested.

Stewart will attend a summit in January called by NCAA President Mark Emmert in response to pressure by big-revenue generating schools who want more say in how the NCAA is run. Some large schools want to increase compensation for collegiate athletes beyond what is currently allowed—something opposed by many smaller schools who say they couldn’t afford it.

Stewart came to the WKU Public Radio studio Wednesday to discuss the upcoming NCAA football summit, the future of college football, and his approach to putting together future WKU football schedules.

WKU Public Radio: WKU has been invited along with all the other Division I football schools to attend a Jan. 16-17 summit in San Diego that coincides with the NCAA’s annual convention. From what you understand so far, what’s going to be discussed?

Todd Stewart: A lot of things are being discussed right now, and I think what President Emmert wanted to do was get everybody in the room and hopefully come out with some form of solidarity. Because you have what people refer to as the “power five” conferences—the SEC, ACC, the Big 10, the PAC 12, and the Big 12—and there are some reforms they would really want to see.

And then you have what we’re commonly referred to as, the “group of five” conferences, which is Conference USA—which were going into next year—the Sun Belt, the MAC, the Mountain West, and the American Athletic Conference. There are 31 conferences altogether, and we’re fortunate that we are in the upper-third. Those are the ten conferences that tend to drive most things.

But the five power conferences would like to see some additional things. There’s been a lot of chatter about that, and I think the goal of the summit is to come away from it unified and moving forward together.

One of the things the “power five” conferences want is a revamping in how NCAA governance is carried out. Essentially, many of the elite, money-generating programs believe they should have more say in NCAA regulations and how collegiate sports are governed. Many of those schools are tired of having their ideas blocked by smaller programs. Do they have a point?

I think your perception is correct. I think they would like more say, versus what we have right now, which is “one school, one vote.” Everybody is essentially the same.

(For the bigger schools), their revenues have just exploded recently, and they will continue to do so, once we have the new BCS money coming in one year from now. And there are some things they would like to be able to do—what they can do with their athletes, what they can do with their recruiting. Things that they are currently limited in doing. I can understand that. If I was in their shoes, I could see where they are coming from.

I think cooler heads will prevail, and ultimately we’ll all move forward together. But I think the sport itself is much better  when you include more people, and I think college football is hurt if these five power conferences—and I don’t think this will happen—if they secede from the union, so to speak, and form their own group.

I don’t think it’s good for the sport, and I don’t think it’s good for their membership, to be honest with you.

Stewart says he understands why larger schools want to give their athletes more money. But he points out a $2,000 annual increase in every athletic scholarship would cost WKU $400,000 each year.

I don’t want to name names, but if you look at half the SEC, half the ACC, half the Big 10—those schools aren’t really winning a whole lot. Those aren’t the schools that are winning bowl games consistently. They aren’t the ones advancing deep into the NCAA (basketball) tournament. And if they were off on their own, there are a number of schools that go 6-6 or 7-5 in those conferences that go to a bowl, even though they have losing records in their conference.

They make a bowl game because of the non-conference games they play against Sun Belt, Conference USA, and MAC schools.

So I don’t think it’s in their best interest to secede, and that’s why I think we’ll certainly all stay together, but I think there will be some changes.

One of the changes some of the bigger schools are pushing is the desire to be able to give athletic scholarships that cover more than just what’s called “the full cost of attendance”, which consists of tuition, a meal plan, and room and board. These schools have in the past proposed the idea of giving scholarship athletes an additional $2,000-$5,000 more a year to cover other expenses. The smaller schools have so far been able to knock that idea down, saying they couldn’t afford.

Is that something you think will come up again at the January summit?

I do. I really do, and that may be #1 on the list. That’s a tough one. That’s kind of a slippery slope. On the one hand, we would all like to be able to do more for athletes than we currently do. But, I think it was actually Stanford’s head football coach who was recently asked about that.  He said ‘We do pay our student-athletes $50,000 a year in the form of an education, and we teach them how to learn.’ (He said) they are getting paid in the form of a scholarship.

And here at Western Kentucky, if you’re in-state, then the value of an annual scholarship in athletics is $20,000. If you’re out of state, it’s $30,000. So if you apply yourself in the classroom, and you’re serious about getting your degree, you’re not being taken advantage of. You’re getting an $80,000-$120,000 value during your four years here, and if you leave with a degree you have a terrific head start in life.

But what if you’re at a school that makes millions of dollars in football revenue, a school that gets to sell jerseys with a college player’s name and number on the back of it? And when the NCAA gets to make millions of dollars when it sells video games with player’s images on the merchandise, all the while telling those same college students that they aren’t entitled to any of those revenues, how is that right?

That’s a good example, and that’s a good question. And I know that on the ESPN 30 for 30 series documentary on the (Michigan Wolverines) Fab Five, Jalen Rose was talking about how he came from a poor family. He didn’t have any spending money, and he’d walk down the street and see his jersey for sale, and other people making money on his name, and yet he didn’t get any of that. And that’s an issue that’s out there.

Football games at the University of Illinois and a home-and-home series with Miami of Ohio are on tap for WKU.

I think the issue specifically to us at Western Kentucky University is really just an economic one. If all of a sudden the NCAA said schools could give up to $2,000 more for every scholarship athlete, the SEC would probably rejoice, because that’s what they would like to do. But that would be $400,000, and we have to balance our budget every year. We can’t spend what we don’t have. So unless we’re growing our revenues dramatically—and we are growing them—but $400,000 out of a $20 million budget is a pretty big percentage.

So all of a sudden if we spent that in one area, we’d probably have to cut it in another area. Ultimately, are you better off as an athletic department?

I don’t think it would be as dramatic as having to cut a sport or anything like that, but certainly $400,000 is a lot of money, and we’d certainly have to cut in some areas.

On a different topic, what’s it like to be the WKU athletic director when you call up other—larger—schools and try to get them on the football schedule? When you call an Alabama, Tennessee, or other large school and try to get them interested in WKU, how does that work?

It’s fun! It’s really exciting. Sometimes you have some breakthroughs, and sometimes it’s like diving into a brick wall.

Our schedule the first three or four years was really based on becoming a 1-A program, and playing some money games, and helping fund the program.

I’d like to see us do two things moving forward. We still have to play the one so-called “bye” game every year. I don’t see that going away anytime in the near future. It’s anywhere from an $800,000 to a $1 million payday, and we need that money. We really do.

But I would also like to see that game be a little more regional, so that our fans can go to it. Playing LSU in Baton Rouge, playing Nebraska in Lincoln—that was great. That’s a great experience, but that’s tough for fans.

So next year we’re playing Illinois in Champaign. That’s still a Big 10 program, it’s a great payday, but it’s an easy drivable game. So we’re looking at examples like that. We just signed a home-and-home series with Miami of Ohio.

And I think we need more games on our campus. Every year we want to play six homes games.  We don’t this year because the UK game—which is a home game for us—is in Nashville. But I’d like for us to have at least six games in Bowling Green every year. We could play four home conference games, but also two home non-conference games.