SAN DIEGO -- Anyone who's ever worked in corporate America has likely engaged in one of their company's morale-building exercise -- a Q&A with the CEO, a brainstorming "retreat" at a cushy resort, free cookies in the break room.
On Thursday at the NCAA's annual convention, some 800 Division I athletic directors, commissioners and other administrators participated in the organization's own version of "No really, we value your opinion." The two-day "NCAA Division I Governance Dialogue" -- believed to be the biggest such gathering in 16 years -- was billed as an open-ended discussion where everyone from the University of Iowa (Big Ten) to UC-Davis (Big West) could offer their input regarding the NCAA's impending "redesign" of Division I.
However, this was no more than a typical corporate retreat. As several industry officials told SI.com in some form, "This is all for show."
Following coordinated criticism and threats from power conference commissioners like the SEC's Mike Slive and the Big 12's Bob Bowslby last summer, a seven-person steering committee of university presidents has been formulating potentially "transformative" changes to the NCAA's cripplingly convoluted legislative process. This week, that group -- chaired by Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch -- unveiled a 14-page document detailing proposed changes.
Their vision for the new NCAA looks a whole lot like the old NCAA -- with a board and a council and a whole bunch of loosely connected sub-councils. At one point Thursday, one of the steering committee members admitted that he could not remember why some lines on the flow charts were dotted and others weren't.
Six months after oft-maligned president NCAA Mark Emmert sent a letter inviting members to this "important milestone," with several power conference commissioners at that time publicly calling for "transformative" NCAA change, 800 people flew from all corners of the country to be greeted with ... dotted lines.
The collective frustration -- simmering behind the scenes for much of the past year but never before on full public display -- was palpable both in the question-and-answer segment of Thursday's three-hour session (part II comes Friday morning) and as attendees drifted out afterward. Three administrators from different schools huddled in one part of the massive ballroom for about 15 minutes and vented about the presentation. One AD could be seen throwing the aforementioned document down on a table along with a few choice words. In a subsequent ADs meeting held later in the same room, there was a noticeable edge of disapproval and concern.
"A lot of us are concerned about where this is headed," College of Charleston AD Joe Hull said after the first seminar broke up. "We're concerned about where this thing will end up."
Interestingly, very little of Thursday's conversation centered around what would seem the most notable issue, the one that drove this movement to begin with -- the move to give a few "more well-resourced conferences" (Big Ten, SEC, etc.) the autonomy to set their own rules regarding financial issues like stipends for athletes. That figures to dominate Friday's conversation.
Interestingly, a previously bland Q&A session didn't truly heat up until moderator Jean Frankel, the NCAA's outside management consultant (think "the Bobs" from Office Space), showed a slide entitled "NCAA Core Values" (page 14), first adopted in 2004. She'd made a seemingly innocuous remark about the need to reevaluate the list annually, to which someone replied, astutely, they aren't core values if you change them every year.
And then the audience sprang to life.
"I'm concerned that our first core value isn't 'graduation of our athletes,'" said one faculty athletics representative. Touche.
Another questioned why they didn't begin the entire discussion with values, not board composition. Another faculty rep suggested that schools weren't currently living up to multiple items on the list.
And Connecticut AD Warde Manuel cynically suggested the word "revenue" should probably be included among those core values. So at least some people that work in college athletics are just as jaded about the state of college athletics as you are.
Meanwhile, most discussion about the governance issue over the past year has indicated that any overhaul would involve handing more authority to the people "on the ground" (athletic directors) rather than the current presidential-driven model. But that ubiquitous document Thursday proposed a 17-person board that "may consist entirely of presidents," with ADs (or in governance parlance, "practitioners with expertise," listed among the "groups below."
"There is only one group that 365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week is devoted to this enterprise," N.C. State athletic director Debbie Yow said in her turn at the mic. "We should be included in the leadership."
Her Iowa State colleague, Jamie Pollard, relayed "confusion" at his table, ultimately asking something to the effect of, how is this any different than what we have now?
Oh, and there was one other noticeable absence from the flow chart. The very first question from the audience: "Where do the student-athletes fit into this governance structure?" A round of applause broke out in the room.
Frankel, Hatch, Emmert and others repeatedly asserted that their document was just a starting point. "All of these issues haven't been resolved going forward," said Hatch.
The attendees certainly hope that's correct. They hope their input here this week will genuinely impact whatever the new NCAA looks like, that all the various constituents -- presidents, ADs, coaches, athletes -- will have a voice so that debacles like last year's failed recruiting deregrulations can be avoided.
The question is, will it matter? Can such a bloated, snail-paced organization ever truly become in synch with the rapidly changing industry it regulates or effectively meet the needs of so many disparate schools and sports?
Will the NCAA even look any different after a year's worth of work?
"The governance of the NCAA has become more streamlined," Hatch insisted of his group's proposal at a press conference afterward. "... Division I will probably look more like a confederation."
Asked in a follow-up to explain to the average football or basketball fan how all these purported changes will manifest themselves, Hatch replied: "You won't see much change."
And with that, Day 1 of Emmert's "important milestone" came to an end.