Tom Yeager has spent the last 12,000-plus days administering college sports. Few, if any, were as encouraging, refreshing and downright revolutionary as Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Colonial Athletic Association's commissioner since its 1985 inception, Yeager was among approximately 50 officials invited to Indianapolis for a two-day reform summit called by NCAA president Mark Emmert. In less than two days, the group agreed to implement radical reforms that encompass every facet of Division I sports.
"As someone who's been in this for 36 years, it was really an energizing experience," Yeager said from his Richmond office. "Just to see people, and people of influence, that were willing to get it done. The commitment to get things done and to grapple with stuff in a meaningful way. 'This is what we all agree ought to happen, so let's make it happen, and let's make it happen right away.'
"It was very empowering. … You had a bunch of leaders saying, 'This is how it's going to be. Get on board or get out of the way.'"
The leaders were, predominantly, chancellors and presidents. And their three primary edicts are reasonable and fair.
First, NCAA enforcement will be streamlined and strengthened to focus on felons instead of jaywalkers. Moreover, sanctions will be harsher.
Second, in a page right out of Patrick Henry's playbook, the NCAA will resist national policy and cede to individual conferences and schools the right to add a cost-of-attendance stipend to the value of a full scholarship.
Third, and perhaps most jarring to fans, teams that fail to meet academic progress minimums will be banned from NCAA championships and football bowls.
"It's not going to get shuffled off to any number of NCAA committees that take a year-and-a-half to study it," Yeager said of the presidents' agenda. "It's coming."
Indeed, less than 24 hours after the summit adjourned, the Division I Board of Directors approved the academic component. Within 3-5 years, teams that do not attain a four-year, rolling average Academic Performance Rate of 930 — the approximate equivalent of a 50-percent graduation rate — will be excluded from that season's NCAA championship or football bowls.
Yeager believes commissioners will go further and bar those teams from their respective conference tournaments or football title games.
How drastic might that be? Well, given the most recent APR numbers, 10 of the 68 teams that made last season's men's basketball tournament would have been ineligible: Southern California, Syracuse, Florida State, Cal-Santa Barbara, UAB, St. Peter's, Morehead State, Texas-San Antonio, Alabama State and, drumroll please, eventual national champion Connecticut.
Last season's seven bowl ineligibles would have been Michigan, BYU, Maryland, North Carolina State, Louisville, Tulsa and Southern Mississippi.
NCAA researchers on hand told the presidents this measure would affect a significant number of teams. But according to Yeager, "They said, 'So be it. We're serious about this.'"
Although most, if not all, members of his conference can't afford to give full scholarship athletes an annual cost-of-attendance stipend ranging from $2,000-$4,000, Yeager is OK with schools and leagues deciding whom to offer such a benefit.
Might locker rooms divide between those receiving the stipend — in theory to cover transportation and other incidentals — and those not? Perhaps, Yeager conceded, but non-revenue sports such as baseball and lacrosse navigate similar issues among athletes whose scholarships range from a full ride to a third or quarter.
"The option is going to be there," Yeager said. "It's going to be permissive. It was very much, 'We're not trying to mandate (cost-of-attendance stipends).' Unfortunately, permissive becomes required in a lot of cases, so we'll have to wait and see how that all plays out."
My old-fashioned sensibilities still say tuition, room and board are enough, but if schools can pay the freight, and if other grants on campus include the stipend, have at it.
Given his past lives as an NCAA investigator and chair of the NCAA Committee on Infractions — "I was paroled five years ago," Yeager joked about his 2006 exit from the panel — Yeager is especially interested in the presidents' desire to target and sanction the most egregious cheaters.
"If the membership really wants to up the ante," he said, "the Committee on Infractions will carry it out and welcome that guidance and input."
But Yeager cautioned against inflexible sentencing guidelines, and he used the movie "The Blind Side" to illustrate. The film chronicles the real-life story of Michael Oher, a football lineman who played at the University of Mississippi and developed into a first-round NFL draft choice of the Baltimore Ravens.
"You have a severely socially-economically disadvantaged kid that hooks up with a very wealthy, prominent booster from an institution, and there's cars, clothes, cash, he's living in his house, he gets a tutor, he ends up going (to the booster's school), and oh by the way, he ends up being a first-round NFL draft choice," Yeager said of the film's plot.
"You take those facts and you throw away the key (on Ole' Miss). You wire those guys up for probation forever. But then you learn the context of the story, and it's very different.
"Humans can sort that out. Well-intentioned, educated humans can make those kinds of distinctions as opposed to just checking off boxes and here's the outcome. There's a balance that needs to go in."
Yeager's right. Balance and nuance will be critical as the Division I Board of Directors, which includes Hampton University president William Harvey, considers the financial and enforcement components of the presidents' reform package.
But understand that under Emmert's leadership, and after recent high-profile scandals at Ohio State, Southern California and North Carolina, these changes are inevitable. The only question is degree.
"The deal points are done," Yeager said. "We're just filling in the logistics of it. … The presidents are dead serious about this."
"Do something dramatic," Yeager said, "and do it now."
Mission accomplished.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun