Sands applauds academic achievement of non-revenue athletes.

Less than two months on the job as Virginia Tech’s president, Tim Sands is still acquainting himself with the institution’s culture, assets and challenges. But during an hour-long interview with the Daily Press’ editorial board Thursday, he proved very well-versed on these turbulent times in college sports.

Before writing a column on Sands’ compelling remarks for Friday’s paper, I thought it fair to give him full voice. He may be a rookie president, but he has strong views regarding ongoing NCAA reform and the long-term economic future of major college sports.

So here are the questions and answers, in sequence:

QUESTION: You’ve worked at Cal-Berkeley and Purdue and are no stranger to major college sports. How do you view its role?

ANSWER: Intercollegiate athletics tends to bring together the various communities and stakeholders of the institution, not all of them, but some very passionate (ones). … So you’ve got the current students, the recent alums, you’ve got the alums from way back. You’ve got those who engage, maybe they didn’t graduate from Virginia Tech, but they see certain sports on TV and they attach themselves to the institution.

I think that’s all important. You can document that. There have been scholarly studies on the impact of having a strong intercollegiate athletics program. The part of it though that has always excited me is the student-athlete, and I’m not talking about necessarily in the so-called revenue sports.

We have 500 student-athletes at Virginia Tech who are involved in NCAA sports, and they are inspiring people. If you sit down with them and talk with them, from an academic point of view, most of them are outstanding students. Certainly their GPA is higher than the average, or about the average. But if you look at some of the sports, they have much, much higher GPAs. They are people who are inherently driven. They are competitive, and they really want to push themselves to the limit, and they don’t do it just on the field. They do it in every aspect of their lives.

So I think in terms of preparing our leaders, that intercollegiate athletics has a lot to do with that. Of course, one of the huge benefits of Title IX is we have a lot of women now who have the opportunity to participate in intercollegiate athletics. …

And the other factor is, of our 500 student-athletes, most of them did not start (competing) because they want to become a professional. It’s really a minority who think they’re going to become professionals, and then it’s a tiny percentage who really have a productive career as a professional.

I think 90 percent, 95 percent of the (reform) discussion we’re having right now is about that 1 percent, or the aspirational 10 percent. The other 90 percent are just phenomenal assets to the institution. … To the teamwork part, it sounds, maybe a little soft, but I have to say, when I go to watch some of the competitions in-person, you look at the way they work together, it’s inspiring. I think it’s one of the reasons we focus on intercollegiate athletics as part of the institution.

Q: These are turbulent times, and next month the NCAA likely will grant autonomy to the power five conferences. One of the primary issues enhancing scholarships to include full cost of attendance. Do you support that, should they be for all sports, and should they be need-based rather than for all?

A: I’m just becoming familiar with these issues, but I’ve looked at it enough that I think I understand where we’re headed and what I support. This move to the power five autonomy I think is a practical thing. These are institutions that have the money … to be able to address some of these long-standing concerns that our student-athletes have had. And they’re legitimate, for the most part, concerns. They have to do with their futures, health insurance, cost-of-attendance, which I think most of my colleagues who I talk to support. I certainly think within reason that’s OK. It would be nice to make them need-based, (but) the mechanism for doing that is not so straight forward and I’m not sure that’s even possible. But that’s something I think is aspirational.

I do think it has to be across-the-board. I would not favor singling out a couple of sports. The so-called revenue sports, I don’t think that’s the issue. I think the issue is our student-athletes in general. So that’s the approach we’re going to take at Virginia Tech. …

It’s kind of a weird thing, if you come in from the outside, and I’m almost coming in from the outside, but if you come in from the outside of college athletics, and you look at it as just a fan or citizen reading the paper, it’s so complicated it doesn’t make any sense. But if you get inside, you see we need to be able to do these things, and not all institutions are going to be able to do it. So if we wait until everyone, all 300 or so (Division I) institutions are able to meet these needs, it will never happen. So the five conferences want to go out together. Presumably, individual institutions who aren’t in those power five will be able to do some things as well, but they may not be able to go as far.

I personally, and I think I’ll be able to be fairly firm in this moving forward, even as I learn more, but the amateur aspect of collegiate athletics is something I want to … preserve at Virginia Tech, and (athletic director) Whit Babcock feels the same way. I don’t think they should be employees, but the situation’s very complicated, and it’s going to be a very exciting 5-10 years. I wish I could predict it, but I think we’re on the right path. It’s a Band-Aid kind of thing, but I think we’re on the right path.

Q: Are you confident that Virginia Tech’s athletic department is well-positioned financially for the added costs ahead?

A: I think we’re OK. Virginia Tech is one of a small number of institutions that runs in the black. We do have (athletics) student fees, they’re about $273 a year. They’re the lowest of the public universities in Virginia. … I’d love for them to be zero. … Whenever you assess a fee across a whole population, you’re making some assumptions, you’re basically saying there’s value to the whole student body. Some of the (student-fee) numbers are pretty scary, so Virginia Tech’s in a reasonable spot. Athletics is about 5 percent of our total operating budget, and it’s an auxiliary that runs in black.

I personally think we’re in great shape at the moment … and there are a lot of institutions that aren’t. I think most of the power five are in pretty good shape. Some of them have student fees. Some of them actually have subsidies from the university, which are separate from the fees, but they effectively raise the cost of tuition. …

The real concern (at) Virginia Tech is about the whole business model and whether people will maintain their interest in the revenue sports for the foreseeable future. I presume for the next five or 10 years that March Madness will be March Madness and the college football bowl season will be exciting. But if you look at some of the things that are happening at every institution, you’ve got, as Whit Babcock likes to put it, everybody has a high-definition television in their basement almost, so they can watch the game there rather than coming to the field. There’s a lot of concerns there. … The whole thing I think is up in the air for the long term.

Q: Last season was the first in 13 that Virginia Tech didn’t sell out all of its home football games. Has college athletics become too reliant on television dollars and essentially turned over the keys to the store to the networks?