As president of Vanderbilt University and four other prominent schools before that, Gordon Gee perceived an unhappy trend: Student-athletes were drifting away from the core of university life. They lived, ate and studied in a jock bubble.
Five years ago this week, Gee decided he’d had enough. At loggerheads with his athletic director, he summoned his top administrators and stunned them with the news: He planned to disband Vanderbilt’s athletic department, and fold it into the division of student life.
The reaction was immediate. Reporters figured Vanderbilt was giving up on competing in the powerful Southeastern Conference. Some alumni fumed. Smart alecks gibed that coaches would be renting canoes and refereeing intramurals in the offseason.
But nobody’s laughing now.
Today, the SEC’s smallest and only private university and the only one without an official, full-time athletic director is enjoying unprecedented on-field success, from high-profile sports like basketball and baseball down to tennis and even the 2007 NCAA champion bowling squad.
Even the Commodores football team, who’ve had a losing record every season for the last quarter-century, won five games last year and moved to 2-0 this season with a 24-17 upset over No. 24 South Carolina on Thursday night.
Off the field, the average GPA for student-athletes last spring rose to 3.1, narrowing the gap with other students, while Vanderbilt’s NCAA graduation success rate was a conference-best 94 percent.
But Vanderbilt says the real success is an athletics program that is no longer viewed as an appendage, a side business for entertaining students and donors. And Gee’s vision that if the whole university is responsible for the athletic program, everyone invests more to make sure it succeeds shows signs of taking hold.
David Williams, the law professor and vice chancellor of university affairs whose job now includes oversight of the athletic program, brags about the music school dean who teamed up with the baseball staff to recruit an outfielder who plays the tuba.
Administrators worked with the honor council to adjust time requirements so athletes could serve on the body — something that hadn’t happened for years. Athletes are picking an expanding range of majors, and are encouraged to study abroad.
“I can’t imagine too many places supporting their athletes to go do something that isn’t athletically related,” said Nick Cromydas, a senior tennis standout from Glenview, Ill., who got financial support to study in Barcelona. “I didn’t bring a tennis racket. I didn’t bring a pair of tennis shoes.”
The chasm between athletic programs and the universities they’re supposed to represent is a growing worry for educators and the NCAA. Some schools have tried organizational changes to address the problem. At Rice this year, the dean of undergraduates office took over academic advising and athletic compliance from the athletic department. Other schools, including Arizona State, have given their athletic directors vice-presidential titles, and it’s increasingly common for athletic directors to sit in a president’s “cabinet.”
But so far, nobody has made as dramatic a structural change as Vanderbilt.
NCAA president Myles Brand sees a countrywide movement to reintegrating athletics into the campus. He cites New Mexico, Penn State and Notre Dame among those who have also taken healthy steps. But, he adds: “We still have problem cases. I think the approach that Gordon Gee took is starting to take hold but it’s not all the way there.”
The problem is endemic: At too many programs, student-athletes are hired help. Coaches press them to attend class, but mostly to keep them eligible. Tough courses that conflict with practice are discouraged.
On the other side, too many professors write off athletes as students in name only, assuming all they’re after is a passing grade.
It isn’t just the jock schools. An influential 2003 book by two former presidents of Princeton and Harvard laid out surprising research on how separate the academic and social experience of student-athletes had become even at highly selective institutions of Vanderbilt’s academic caliber.
Gee had been talking about the issue throughout his peripatetic career as president at West Virginia, Colorado, Ohio State, Brown and finally at Vanderbilt, which he departed last year for a second stint as president of Ohio State.
Still, his 2003 announcement was stunning. While big university decisions typically bubble up through committees, Gee’s came out of the blue, an off-the-cuff solution to disagreements with athletic director Todd Turner, who quickly departed.
“I think his words were, ‘I’m going to blow up athletics,'” recalled Williams. “I don’t think we had any friends. The media killed us. The board came in that next Saturday. Gordon found something else to do, the provost did, and I spent a whole day with the board screaming at me.”
“It was like a tsunami,” Gee recalled. “The obituary for Vanderbilt and its athletic program was written by every newspaper in the country. And my personal obituary was written.”
Vanderbilt’s coaches were also shocked and angry the announcement came ahead of a big recruiting weekend.
“There was a panic that went right through the room,” said baseball coach Tim Corbin.
But Vanderbilt administrators soothed the coaches. They also showed they were still committed to sports by giving long-term contracts to key coaches who were wooed by other schools: Corbin, basketball coaches Kevin Stallings and Melanie Balcomb, and football’s Bobby Johnson. It promised $50 million in facilities improvements.
“The parents aren’t coming in here saying, ‘we know you don’t have an athletic department,'” Corbin said in an interview in his office in Vanderbilt’s sparkling baseball stadium. “If they do, you point to the cranes in right field and the scoreboard on the Monster (left field wall) here and the $10-million-dollar facilities and ask, ‘well, do you need one?'”
When Corbin arrived in 2003, Vanderbilt baseball hadn’t had a winning conference record in 23 years. Now, it’s a perennial national powerhouse. The Commodores were ranked No. 1 for much of 2007 and pitcher David Price was the top pick in Major League Baseball’s draft. This year, third-baseman Pedro Alvarez was drafted No. 2.
Baseball also became Vanderbilt’s first “revenue sport” to average a 3.0 GPA.
“When you look at some schools, and I kind of have, the kids are segregated, they have athletes-only dorms, they eat in the same spot,” said Jensen Lewis, a 2006 Vanderbilt grad now pitching in the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen. “We really developed some great relationships with some, I hate to use the word regular students, but people who weren’t involved in athletics.”
“You feel as much a part of someone winning a concerto competition as they feel part of you winning a baseball game,” he said. Ultimately, that experience was something to sell to recruits and helped build the program. He remembers telling them: “You’re coming here to one of the toughest academic universities in the nation, and you’re also coming to one of the most elite programs in college baseball. This isn’t an opportunity that presents itself just anywhere.”
Asked if he planned similar structural changes at Ohio State, Gee demurred. “This is such a big place,” he said. But he did recently make his AD an assistant vice president and says he is pursuing all the same goals.
“What I did at Vanderbilt was radical and still is radical, and I got away with it,” he said.
He sees Vanderbilt as an inspiration, not necessarily a model to copy. Its real legacy, Gee said, is “exploding the notion you have to separate, isolate and segregate athletes for them to be successful.”
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