Back in April, I wrote a piece which discussed Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick’s candid vision for the future of college athletics. At the time, Swarbrick heavily foreshadowed seismic changes in the college sports landscape, suggesting that the cultural differences inherent amongst current NCAA members will ultimately prove to be so profound that they will necessitate a schism between those “comfortable with a sort of semi-pro model” and those opposed to such an arrangement. Perhaps most interestingly, Swarbrick eschewed the conventional wisdom that most differences among NCAA members stem from pecuniary reasons, and instead focused on the institutional outlooks of the individual members. Distilled to its most basic level, in Swarbrick’s own words, “[f]orget the economics, the cultural divide in college athletics is getting too big.”
It was against this general backdrop that I found Vanderbilt Athletic Director David Williams’ statements, in an interview with AL.com posted just yesterday morning, so interesting. While Williams seemingly conceded that there are fundamental differences in the emphasis that various member institutions place on athletics, he left little in the way of doubt regarding where he, and by extension, his university, stand. Specifically, Williams stated, “We can make this really work or we can blow it. I would hope that we wouldn’t create more divisions.” Leaving little in the way of equivocation, Williams wasn’t done, further stating, “I think it’s going to be a matter of us working really hard to stay under the same tent. We have to be very careful that we don’t create more divisions within divisions.”
When juxtaposed with Swarbrick’s comments from a few months ago, the disparity in messages here is particularly stark. One would assume that if the split Swarbrick alluded to were to eventually come to fruition that Vanderbilt and Notre Dame would end up on the same side of the ledger. Both are world-class universities that routinely find themselves ranked among the best undergraduate institutions in the nation (indeed, both were tied for 16th place in the latest iteration of the U.S. News & World Report rankings, a compendium as reviled by academics as it is slavishly adhered to and referenced by the general public). Both routinely find themselves lumped into the collection of schools – along with Stanford, Northwestern, Duke, Virginia and few select others not named UNC – that are considered unwilling to sacrifice academic reputation in favor of athletic competitiveness. Paraphrasing Swarbrick, both Notre Dame and Vanderbilt would seem decidedly entrenched on the same side of the “cultural divide.”
This divergence in opinion is even more interesting when one considers that, a mere dozen years ago, Vanderbilt actually disbanded their athletic department. In 2003, then-Vanderbilt President Gordon Gee, disillusioned by his perception that student-athletes were becoming increasingly isolated from the rest of the university, took the almost unprecedented step of firing the incumbent athletic director and folding the entire athletic department into the division of the university that oversaw student life. Roundly criticized at the time for being the equivalent of waving the proverbial white-flag in the ultra-competitive SEC, the Commodore athletic program has instead gone on to enjoy what is unquestionably its most prosperous decade (culminating in three bowl victories since 2008 and the 2014 College World Series title, the first men’s championship in school history).
Which, of course, raises the question of how can a university that took such a defiant stand against the allegedly pervasive and divisive influence of “big money” college athletics a mere dozen years ago apparently not be on the same page as the group that now seeks to stem its advance to a purely semi-pro model? While I’m not nearly cynical enough to suggest that recent on-field successes have caused the Vanderbilt administration to recalibrate their priorities, the advent of the metaphorical cash register that is the SEC Network has certainly added an interesting new wrinkle to the calculus. As I mentioned back in April, I don’t purport to have a definitive idea of where things are heading here, other than that Swarbrick’s vision for the future of college athletics is so captivating (in large part due to its foreignness compared to the way the NCAA has been always been configured). And when the leadership of similarly-situated bedfellows like Vanderbilt and Notre Dame articulate such diametrically opposed viewpoints just a few months apart from one another, it only heightens the sense that we are living in extraordinary times, at least as it relates to the future of the NCAA.
Feature image via The Tennessean