The Vanderbilt Experiment In the face of NCAA scandals, one school eliminates its athletic department--and hopes to become a model for a system in need of reform

Sept. 22, 2003
Sept. 22, 2003

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Sept. 22, 2003

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The Vanderbilt Experiment In the face of NCAA scandals, one school eliminates its athletic department--and hopes to become a model for a system in need of reform

By Mark Bechtel Edited by Hank Hersch

Last Friday, the day before Vanderbilt hosted Auburn on the
football field, a group of Commodores fans were having lunch
across the street from their campus when one assessed the SEC
matchup: "They don't have a TD, we don't have an AD." The next
day Auburn ended its touchdown drought, scoring six in a 45-7
win. Vanderbilt, however, remained without an athletic
director--and will remain without one indefinitely because of
chancellor Gordon Gee's Sept. 9 announcement that he was
eliminating the position and folding the athletic department into
his office's division of student life and university affairs.

This is an article from the Sept. 22, 2003 issue Original Layout

The summer brought a string of college sports scandals, from the
murder of Baylor basketball player Patrick Dennehy to the
suspension of Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett. School
presidents wring their hands over the state of intercollegiate
athletics, but Gee acted. He perceived athletic departments as
islands, answering to no one, spending ridiculous amounts of
money and flaunting the standards of academia--not to mention
decent society. "We have engaged in this arms race in athletics,
and we've also engaged in this culture of separation," says the
frenetic, 59-year-old Gee. "Anything we can do to coddle
athletes, to segregate and to protect them from the university in
general and from the activities of the institution, we've done."

So he took away his department's autonomy--even though it was one
of the cleanest in the country. According to the NCAA's most
recent figures, Vanderbilt's football graduation rate of 91% is
the third highest in the country. And not one of the school's 14
varsity programs has ever been on NCAA probation. "My house is a
pretty nice house," says David Williams II, the vice chancellor
for student life and university affairs. "But I paint it. I put a
porch on it. Sometimes you do things to enhance what you're
already doing. There was nothing broken, but we sat down and
thought we could be even better."

While Commodores coaches now have to placate recruits who are
being told by opposing coaches that Vanderbilt is deemphasizing
intercollegiate athletics, Gee is quick to point out that's
hardly the case. The budget isn't being slashed, and the synergy
created by having the school run athletics should benefit
them--especially in areas like marketing and fund-raising, which,
the administration believes, the university does better than the
athletic department.

Gee, who has also been president of Colorado, Ohio State and
Brown, had another motive in addition to improving the quality of
his program: to set an example. He's not so naive as to believe
his move can be replicated everywhere--"If I tried this at Ohio
State or Colorado, I'd probably be pumping gas in [my hometown
of] Vernal, Utah," he says--but it's not unreasonable to suggest
that other schools might benefit from taking steps to bridge the
chasm between athletics and academia.

However, the reaction has been largely skeptical--especially
among ADs. "It was handled inappropriately," says Bruce Van de
Velde, athletic director at Iowa State, where since May five
student-athletes have been arrested and the basketball coach
resigned after being caught cavorting with coeds at a party. "If
this is the kind of vision they have for their athletic program,
I question whether they belong in the SEC."

That's something Gee's been hearing since he took control of the
department. "There is no one more committed to Division I-A
athletics and the SEC than me," he says. "As I told [football
coach] Bobby Johnson, 'On Tuesday it was your problem. Now it's
mine.' I'm very much on the line on this."

How many other presidents are willing to join him? --M.B.


"A kid one year removed from Class A ball is no competition for