The satellite camp vote saga desperately needed an adult in the room.
Sure, there were adults on the NCAA Division I Council, normally responsible ones, but those adults bungled a ruling on a fringe item that has summer-swarmed its way to the forefront of college football’s offseason.
To recap the events of April 8:
• UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, the Pac-12’s voting representative, voted for an ACC proposal to ban satellite camps, even though the Pac-12 had instructed him to vote no. (Pac-12 schools had voted 11-0 to keep the camps; UCLA, curiously, was the lone abstention.) This led to a stunning, public rebuke of Guerrero by league commissioner Larry Scott.
• Texas State athletic director Larry Teis also voted to ban the camps, even though a majority of Sun Belt schools wanted to keep them. Texas State coach Everett Withers later called the ban a “snap decision” and a “bad decision.” Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson made several confusing attempts to explain the decision.
• Iowa State faculty athletics representative Tim Day, the Big 12’s voting designee, reflected the league’s view and voted to ban the camps. Later that day, Iowa State coach Matt Campbell said of the ruling, “I’m furious.”
• There were other oddities before the vote, according to sources, as some leagues had indicated a certain position, only to reverse course.
Even those supporting the ruling weren’t completely satisfied, noting that Group of 5 coaches should still get to attend Power 5 camps. But the ban, at least for now, is absolute.
So much for the latest attempt by NCAA members, particularly the autonomous conferences — ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC — to streamline the legislative process and build consensus on national issues. They made Congress look cohesive.
The ruling was portrayed as an SEC victory and a Big Ten loss, but no one could really celebrate. The decision also was mischaracterized as an NCAA action. The membership did this, not Mark Emmert, but many immediately jumped on the NCAA president.
Although Emmert had no role, perhaps someone in a similar position could be an arbiter on such issues, without the weight of league affiliation.
We’re talking about a commissioner for major college football: the Power 5 or the entire FBS.
The commissioner concept has traction among some prominent coaches, frustrated with a factionalized process. Others argue that college football isn’t set up for a commissioner and urge greater coach engagement and faith in a still-evolving legislative structure.
But after the satellite camp silliness, it’s foolish to discount an alternative.
“There’s a great need,” Tennessee coach Butch Jones said, “for leadership.”
The case for a commissioner
Stanford coach David Shaw prefaces his remarks by restating he’s not going to the NFL — since everyone asks — but he is a product of the league, having worked for three NFL teams from 1997 to 2005. The NFL’s administrative structure shapes his perception.
Shaw thinks the launch of the College Football Playoff marked the “end of the old ways,” and mandates greater standardization in areas like scheduling, recruiting rules and staff sizes.
“When we get to a point where we can normalize our lives as Power 5 college football,” Shaw said, “then you’d love to have a committee and then on top of that, a commissioner, someone who doesn’t work for anybody other than college football. It would make the absolute most sense.
“We’re no longer complete and separate entities. We’re all feeding into one system.”
Coaches like Michigan State’s Mark Dantonio and TCU’s Gary Patterson think whoever oversees the system, and ultimately decides policies for it, must speak with a single, independent voice. So why not have one person delivering the message?
“Somebody could finally say, ‘Well, I listened to everybody, but here’s what we need,'” Patterson said. “When you have one voice, it just helps you. Instead of, ‘The Big 12 says they want this, and then the SEC, nah, we hate that. And the Pac-12 says this.’
“We don’t make ourselves look too intelligent, to be honest with you, because we don’t have one common message coming out.”
Coaches believe those who sit on key committees, like the Division I Council or the newly formed football oversight committee, do so with good intentions and open minds. But whether they’re administrators, league commissioners or coaches — especially coaches — they have obstructed-view seats because of their affiliations.
As Alabama coach Nick Saban, Dantonio’s former boss, often told him: Everybody tends to see life through a straw.
“We speak in factions,” Dantonio said. “That’s the problem.”
Like Shaw, Saban coached in the NFL and appreciates how the NFL’s model — led by a commissioner but also committees with team representation, like the competition committee — shapes policy for all 32 organizations rather than 2-3 divisions.
“It would be good if there was somebody, and I don’t know who, but somebody that looked at the game from 1,000 feet,” Saban said. “Not as an AD. Not as a conference commissioner. Not as an offensive guy or a defensive guy, but somebody who’s looking at it from the entire scope.
“It’s not what’s best for the SEC or the Big Ten or the Pac-12, but what’s best for the game. That way, there’s no self-interest.”
Commissioner advocates agree the individual would need an independent office and support staff. Former Big Eight/Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas, who from 1980 to 1997 led the College Football Association, which negotiated television deals and created forums for major conferences to find consensus on key national issues, said the CFA’s organizational structure would be an effective model for a hypothetical commissioner.
The commissioner would not have absolute power. Shaw envisions “a system of checks and balances” where a commissioner would work with league officials to build consensus. But when necessary, the commissioner would rule.
“If we had a commissioner of the Power 5, we’d all be a lot better off,” Patterson said. “You’d have a stronger selling point, instead of being regional. And you wouldn’t argue about so many things.”
The case against a commissioner
Placing a commissioner atop college football sounds nice in theory. But critics say the sport simply isn’t structured that way.
“We don’t operate in the world of a dictatorship,” Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said. “At the FBS, you have 10 conferences, each with its own hierarchy. We all interact with each other. It’s unrealistic to think a model with one person at the top could work.”
Added Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby: “The idea of having a commissioner over football is probably imposing a structure over college sports that is better in place for professional sports.”
An FBS commissioner would oversee 128 schools with varying budgets, structures and objectives. A Power 5 commissioner would oversee 65 entities, more than double of any major pro league.
FBS members make game rules and other national policies, while leagues structure schedules and television contracts to their regions and needs.
“We have far too many schools. The whole model’s just different than the NFL model,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. “As much as it sounds like it’d be positive, I don’t know that it would.”
Todd Berry, the new executive director of the American Football Coaches Association, wonders whether a sole commissioner could handle so many schools, and so much power. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith notes that the commissioner would need a national office with staff and expenses. It would be “building a bureaucracy,” Smith said, a common critique of the NCAA model.
Smith also doubts whether a commissioner could be truly independent unless that person’s salary was funded from an outside source.
“Think about the lobbying that individual person will get from East Coast to West Coast, North to South,” Smith added. “If you had a commissioner and that person was czar, I can’t even begin to think about how they would even operate.
“It would be crazy. Who would want that job?”
The more pertinent question might be: Who would want to give up their power? The Power 5 leagues essentially run the sport, and their well-paid commissioners wield tremendous influence. Neinas doesn’t envision any of them willingly ceding authority to an independent commissioner.
Shaw and other coaches want standardization. But college football, perhaps more than any other sport, is inherently region-driven.
“The one thing I learned at the College Football Association, because we had such a diverse membership, is each conference had its own culture,” Neinas said. “And that still exists today, not as it did back then because of realignment, but basically, the Big Ten’s not like the SEC, and the SEC’s not like the Pac-12.
“It’s the old saying: Where you stand is where you sit.”
Consequently, the leagues compete with one another in a legislative process designed for widespread representation, not top-down directives. That process is still evolving with new elements, Smith said, and while “there’s a lot of fumbling going on,” it needs a chance to develop.
“At the end of the day, it’s still a representative form of government, so people are going to win or lose,” Smith said. “You’re not going to find kumbaya.”
Is there a compromise?
A college football commissioner likely won’t be implemented soon (although a few more mistakes like the satellite camp vote could change things). Are there alternatives?
Texas Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt, who interned at the College Football Association after college, thinks Neinas was “ahead of his time” and could see the value in an organization like the CFA.
Many hope the football oversight committee, still in its infancy, has the focus and composition to shape policy for the good of the game.
The committee doesn’t act independently on legislation but makes recommendations to the Division I Council. Bowlsby, who chairs the group, thinks there is a consensus to “modernize” elements of the game, like recruiting rules.
“That body is intended to provide some consistency that we haven’t had previously,” Bowlsby said. “This is the first time that all things football are reporting through the same structure.
“Time will tell if it has a favorable effect on the game.”
Some coaches, like Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, are willing to be patient. Fitzgerald expressed excitement about the football oversight committee and praised Bowlsby’s leadership. Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen recently was named the committee’s coaching representative, and Berry also will be involved in a nonvoting role.
Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity thinks Berry, as an independent entity, could provide the perspective and the voice that coaches want.
“Maybe it’s empowering him more to carry the message,” McGarity said, “but the coaches have to be a participant in that.”
Getting the coaches involved is a major challenge. When Bowlsby addressed FBS coaches at the AFCA Convention in January, he saw a “very low understanding” of time-demand items that were set to be approved days later at the NCAA convention. (The proposals ultimately were tabled.)
Asked if coaches understand how to get more involved in the national legislative process, Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly replied, “No idea. I’m the head coach at Notre Dame, and I have no idea. Zero.”
“The communication is not very good, obviously,” Kelly continued. “There’s great information that needs to be discussed. We haven’t figured out how to get everybody together.”
Kelly doesn’t think college football needs a sole commissioner, noting that the Power 5 chiefs can achieve consensus. But more coach input is needed — Kelly says no one consulted him on the satellite camp issue — to “really get the heartbeat of what’s going on.” Berry said the coaches’ group historically has been relatively reactionary and hopes it will push its priorities more in the future.
“The process is to get engaged,” Smith said. “Quite frankly, I’d imagine a commissioner would want the same thing.”
Who would make a good commissioner?
Those who oppose a commissioner for college football make some valid points. It would be an incredibly hard job requiring a uniquely qualified individual.
What criteria would this hypothetical overlord need? Widespread respect among the different constituent groups — coaches, athletic directors, league commissioners, university presidents, television executives — is a must. So is elephant-thick skin, the confidence to make tough decisions and the ability to make decisions for the entire sport, not one region.
College football is different, and it’s hard to envision a commissioner without intimate knowledge of the game.
“It’s got to be an individual who completely understands the coaching profession, the world of the student-athlete and the world of recruiting,” Tennessee’s Jones said. “And they have to understand the level of scrutiny that’s associated with our business.”
Other commissioner advocates think managerial experience is vital, including a strong knowledge of NCAA compliance and the ability to work closely with other administrators and commissioners. Dantonio would want “a great administrator” with “a great staff.”
“You would love to have someone who has been an athletic director, been a commissioner, been in the college football world, preferably in multiple places so you know how things are done,” Shaw said.
With that in mind, here are 10 candidates (in alphabetical order) for college football commissioner:
Bob Bowlsby: His appointment as chair of the football oversight committee drew positive reviews around the sport. He brings multi-region experience as an athletic director at both Iowa and Stanford, and as Big 12 commissioner since 2012. He has led many NCAA groups and has worked with coaches, athletic directors, presidents and television executives.
Joe Castiglione: A Power 5 athletic director since 1993, Castiglione has been entrenched at two schools (Oklahoma and Missouri) but also immersed in NCAA circles. He has tremendous credibility among athletic directors and has been a strong voice on many important issues. Castiglione chaired the NCAA football issues committee and in 2013 received the John L. Toner Award from the National Football Foundation for his work in the college game.
Mark Hollis: It might take an out-of-the-box thinker to succeed as college football commissioner, and Hollis certainly checks that box. He has been a visionary in scheduling and branding, elevating Michigan State’s program to historic heights since taking over as athletic director in 2008. Hollis also has won the NFF’s Toner Award and other national honors. A popular choice to succeed Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, Hollis could be good for a national role.
Bobby Johnson: The former Vanderbilt and Furman coach is revered around college football for his wisdom and integrity. He has both FCS and FBS experience and recently was appointed to the College Football Playoff selection committee. His teams excelled academically and were among the national leaders in graduation rate.
Jeff Long: Don’t judge Long on three-minute television segments he did as chair of the College Football Playoff selection committee. It was a tough spot, especially with the system in its infancy. Long’s background is in football, as he coached at Miami (Ohio), Rice, Duke and NC State before entering athletic administration at Michigan under Bo Schembechler. He has worked at Pitt, Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and other schools, and has won several national athletic director awards.
Oliver Luck: Few potential commissioners bring a better cross-section of experience. The former NFL quarterback has been an executive with the NFL and now the NCAA. He also has served as West Virginia’s athletic director, a general manager in the World League and president of a Major League Soccer franchise. Luck understands the NCAA structure and can work with all the necessary constituencies.
Nick Saban: His success and hard-boiled exterior rankle some, but few candidates bring more knowledge about college football. Saban has been in the game for all but eight seasons since 1973, coaching mainly in the SEC, Big Ten and Mid-American. He hasn’t been afraid to veer from the SEC stance on issues like scheduling, advocating for a nine-game league schedule. Saban is sharp, would command more respect and would not shy away from tough decisions.
Jack Swarbrick: A college football commissioner needs to have an independent voice, and Swarbrick’s experience with Notre Dame football seemingly would benefit him. He has led Notre Dame’s athletic department since 2008 after a long career as an attorney in Indianapolis. He chaired Indiana Sports Corporation, which brought many major events to Indianapolis, from 1992 to 2001.
John Swofford: Other than twice poaching the Big East, Swofford has been an uncontroversial veteran commissioner, which could be good for this new role. The ACC commissioner since 1997, Swofford has worked with the power players for a long time. He was president of the NCAA football board of directors from 2004 to 2005 and twice served as BCS coordinator.
David Shaw: Arguably no current FBS coach is better suited for the commissioner role. He’s passionate about the need to standardize the sport, particularly in scheduling but also areas like recruiting rules. Shaw is smart, thoughtful and respected in many different circles. Stanford has become a model program under his watch, succeeding both on the field and academically.
Chris Low contributed to this story.