Athletic directors recently have found themselves stuck in the middle of a smoldering debate: defending a besieged collegiate model while acknowledging that athletes deserve more, including a stronger voice in decisions impacting their welfare.
It's an awkward position for the ADs, many of whom once were college athletes but have spent most or all of their professional careers as administrators. It's also a surprisingly empathetic position. See, the men and women leading athletic departments also have felt muzzled by a plodding, convoluted NCAA governance system that, in its effort to satisfy its many interest groups, has discouraged and ignored two of its most important constituents.
"We all felt," Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne said, "like our voices had been muted."
As revenues soar for schools, athletes receiving minimal compensation beyond scholarships have an easier time drumming up support. Salaries for athletic directors have grown -- nine earned $1 million or more in 2013, according to USA Today -- as has their influence, at least on their own campuses.
But a more effective governance system for athletes might first require a power surge for the athletic directors, which appears to be on the horizon. In April, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors endorsed a restructuring model that would give athletic directors a permanent spot on the future board. That spot would go to the chair of a group tentatively being called the "Council," which would be charged with handling day-to-day policy and legislative issues.
Although the board still would include mostly university presidents -- right now, it is made up entirely of presidents and chancellors -- it would focus primarily on oversight and big-picture strategies. The Council would have final say on decisions regarding shared-governance rules among the conferences. And here's the kicker: the 38-member Council would be at least 60 percent athletic directors.
"There's been a general agreement that athletic directors need more of a central role in NCAA governance," said Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch, chair of the Division I Board of Directors. "That's not been a debated matter. Athletic directors are the professionals on our campus."
The board is now seeking feedback from the member institutions on the proposed changes before voting on the new Division I structure in August.
"It's absolutely critical," said Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips, vice president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA). "We will not be able to get to this better place for college athletics without the leadership of athletic directors."
There's strong agreement among presidents, conference commissioners, faculty representatives and NCAA administrators that athletic directors are the most qualified group to manage operations and possibly drive change. They are, as many say, the practitioners of the system. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany calls ADs "the CEOs running day-to-day operations."
More athletic directors these days have backgrounds in business (Michigan's Dave Brandon) or law (Notre Dame's Jack Swarbrick, Indiana's Fred Glass). They oversee large departments, manage growing budgets and interact directly with coaches and athletes.
"They are the ones who really make these programs work," Hatch said. "They're responsible for them on our campuses. Plus, they're in the best position to make wise decisions. The details of legislation get very complicated. These are the best people to see that."
The NCAA must address several athlete welfare issues, including increasing the value of scholarships up to federal cost-of-attendance figures, re-evaluating the amount of time spent on sports, and managing special assistance funds, Pell grants and other programs.
"There [are] a lot of questions, and that's understandable," Byrne said. "What does unlimited meals mean? What does full cost of attendance mean? There are so many things we are already doing from a student-athlete welfare standpoint."
Even if ADs don't have expertise in a certain area, their leadership could create more efficient and effective methods to get things done, a chief criticism of the current NCAA governance model.
"The system has suffered," Delany said, "for the lack of practitioner input."
Purdue athletic director Morgan Burke thinks there are too many standing committees. If there's no pressing need for a particular committee to exist, Burke said, get rid of it. Burke prefers "issue-specific groups where you can pick the people who really understand what's going on."
It's a better approach, ADs say, than assembling groups rich with diversity but lacking in expertise.
"If we're going to change time demands for student-athletes, my view is we get most experienced coaches in the right sports," Ohio State AD Gene Smith said. "You put them in a room and say, 'You've got eight months to come up with a plan.' They're experts in the field. They've been doing it for a long time. You don't put together a committee with two faculty reps, two [senior woman administrators], two ADs, two coaches, two people from the East Coast, two people from the West Coast.
"That's what we've done before, which is why we're where we are today."
How did it reach a point where the so-called CEOs felt more like mailroom clerks when it came to shaping policy?
The NCAA used to be governed by a one-school, one-vote model. Each school received legislative proposals several months before the annual NCAA convention, and ADs, presidents and faculty representatives would meet to determine how they would vote on each item.
"The athletic director was guiding all of that," Smith said. "And when we went to the convention, conversations occurred about issues. There was a sense of community."
The ADs had more influence, and so did the faculty representatives. Two groups in the backdrop were presidents, who delegated rather than directed, and league commissioners.
The landscape fundamentally changed in 1997 when Division I restructured with a representative form of governance. It brought about two major shifts:
1. Presidential involvement increased substantially, as the Division I Board of Directors, comprised exclusively of presidents and chancellors, was established. University presidents started becoming NCAA presidents, first with Indiana's Myles Brand in 2003 and then with Washington's Mark Emmert in 2010.
2. Conferences rather than individual schools provided representation for policy decisions. Commissioners and league offices gained greater roles in shaping votes, and often league representatives weren't athletic directors, but lower-level administrators. According to Smith, some representatives could change their votes after debate at the NCAA convention. Others showed up with instructions from their leagues that had to be followed.
"That was the beginning of the morass," said San Jose State AD Gene Bleymaier, who held the same post at Boise State from 1982 to 2012. "The NCAA convention no longer meant anything. ADs and presidents quit going.
"When we went away from that, it has not been good. It was the gradual disengagement."
The presidential push in 1997 surprised Gene Corrigan, who served both as NCAA president and ACC commissioner during the restructuring. Corrigan wondered why presidents, with an already full plate, wanted to digest a bigger piece of the athletics pie.
But the popularity of college sports was surging, bringing increased attention and money to schools.
"They don't have four pages for the English department in the daily paper," Corrigan said. "In a college town, what you read about is college athletics. Trustees are aware of the amount of publicity, and if your board of trustees says do something, you do it.
"I look back on it now and wonder if the presidents really ought to have done that or was it better to have someone else in charge of the NCAA."
Athletic directors think presidents are needed at a leadership level, but not as day-to-day managers.
"When they started getting into the weeds," Smith said, "it really disenfranchised the athletic directors."
Presidential involvement varied significantly from campus to campus, and remains that way to this day. Byrne meets bi-monthly with Arizona president Ann Weaver Hart and can easily get her on the phone if need be.
Michigan State AD Mark Hollis speaks almost daily with president Lou Anna K. Simon, who chairs the NCAA's executive committee.
"I take it for granted sometimes," Hollis said.
Hollis also knows colleagues of his who don't talk to their presidents for the entire academic year. Barry Alvarez has worked for six chancellors at Wisconsin in his 24 years as the school's football coach and athletic director. Some, like Donna Shalala, now president at the University of Miami, closely monitored athletics and kept in regular contact with Alvarez. Others did not.
"Some are more engaged, some know the business more than others," said Alvarez, Wisconsin's athletic director since 2004. "One of my former chancellors said, 'It's not that I dislike athletics. I've never played anything. I don't know anything about athletics -- nothing.' He had to rely on me."
The fluctuations in presidential engagement have frustrated many ADs and raised questions about what roles truly are in NCAA governance.
Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman, who has served on the NCAA board and chaired the Bowl Championship Series presidential oversight committee, maintains that the role of presidents and chancellors in shaping college sports is "critically important."
"Intercollegiate athletics is part of the university and it's the presidents' responsibility," Perlman said. "That doesn't mean every single president has to make it their life's work."
Presidents are prepared to relinquish a lot of control in the proposed governance system, but they won't step back on one topic: clarifying academic standards.
"Proposals about academic affairs will come through the Council but will be overseen by the board," Hatch said.
The presidents' increased involvement in NCAA governance wasn't the only factor in athletic directors feeling marginalized. Although ADs saw presidents as being spread too thin to operate athletics, the ADs, too, saw their jobs broaden as budgets ballooned, fundraising demands increased and departments expanded. They also became disillusioned with the long and convoluted process for approving new rules and policies.
"We may have been too passive in 1997 when changes were made, but we just didn't have enough clout to get things done," said Burke, president of the Division I-A Athletic Directors' Association.
In October, Burke and Missouri athletic director Mike Alden, the NACDA president, presented to the NCAA Division I board a plan that would restore day-to-day operational control to ADs. The proposal stated that while presidents should have oversight over widespread policies, budgets and major legislative matters, the ADs "should be essential leaders of the new governance system and should be represented at all levels."
While they're seemingly on the verge of success, it comes with added responsibility.
"I keep telling my colleagues, 'Be careful what you ask for,'" Burke said, "because they're going to pitch this ball to us to run with, subject to their oversight, as any board would. We're going to have the opportunity to be much more engaged and, therefore, the best have to be willing to serve."
The presidents and athletic directors are aligned on two major points: the ADs need more power in shaping policies, but the presidents still have the final say.
"No one's confused about reporting lines," Phillips said.
But confusion remains about the exact makeup of the restructured governance system. The new board not only will include at least one athletic director, but a senior woman administrator, the chair of the Division I student-athlete advisory committee and the most senior Division I member of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association's executive committee.
Representation on the 38-member Council also remains a sticking point. The April proposal called for two voting seats to go to athletes and four to conference commissioners. But what about faculty representatives? Senior woman administrators?
The dilemma isn't new for the association.
"You've got so many stakeholders out there," Michigan's Brandon said. "You spend 90 percent of your time and your energy arguing over who is going to make a decision, and decisions never get made. It starts to sound like, 'Let's make a deal.' Everybody's got their personal opinions about what they would do if they had the power and nobody's ever given the power and nothing ever changes."
Perlman is concerned that a council including at least 60 percent ADs would marginalize the faculty voice. According to Perlman, there's a consensus among the Big Ten's Council of Presidents/Chancellors that there should be a more even split between ADs and faculty reps.
"I don't think the 60 percent can be sustained and get the proper balance," Perlman said.
Frank Webbe, president of the Faculty Athletics Representatives Association, said a 40 percent share of the council seats (16) would satisfy his group. But if ADs remain at 60 percent, no other groups would be represented.
"It's crucial to have a significant faculty athletic representative presence there to protect the flag of academics," said Webbe, a psychology professor at Florida Institute of Technology. "The ADs are looking more at operations and how to make things happen. Sometimes, their first thoughts aren't for academics."
Smith, meanwhile, thinks the council should be at least 60 percent ADs and that an AD majority is a must. Delany acknowledges NCAA governance "has been stuck in the mud for the last 20 years" because of the need to satisfy so many interest groups.
"We've made a mistake on a number of levels, but one of them is we tried to be all things to too many people," Smith said. "We have to stop that. I've watched us kill ourselves.
"It makes no sense to ask a faculty member to make decisions about scheduling. That'd be like taking an AD and asking him how chemistry courses should be set up."
The discussion continues before the August vote, and Phillips sees it as a positive. He has been a part of more conference calls and meetings on governance in the past six months than his previous 10 years as an AD at both Northwestern and Northern Illinois.
Hatch has seen an increased willingness among both ADs and presidents to shape the governance system. Senior NCAA officials, including Emmert, are comfortable with the proposed changes.
"No model is perfect," Hatch said, "but this model has promise."
A year ago, AD confidence in Emmert and the association leadership had reached a low point. There since has been an uptick.
"President Emmert and the board of directors have been open to hearing our voice more than they were before," Byrne said.
Added Washington State AD Bill Moos: "Our voices were lost there for a period of time. Now it looks like we are coming back in and jointly can make the right decisions on some big issues."
But the NCAA ultimately needs change, and its traditional timetable to take action won't work.
"If we spend too much more time haggling over who gets how many votes, and the internal struggle that never leads to the ultimate decision-making," Brandon said, "then in some cases we're going to deserve what we get."
Several antitrust lawsuits have been filed against the NCAA and the major conferences. The National Labor Relations Board is deciding if Northwestern players are employees of the school and can unionize.
Historic change is on the horizon. If issues of governance aren't corrected, the model that ADs and presidents have sought to protect might fall apart.
"There's considerable urgency," Perlman said. "The number of lawsuits that raise fundamental questions about what intercollegiate athletics is going to look like, there's stirrings in Congress.
"I don't think you can fiddle here while Rome burns."
ESPN.com's Kevin Gemmell and Ted Miller contributed reporting.