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Bill Brill's Take On The Game

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As you may know, we have started a symposium on the
state of the game. Our first contributor was Jay Bilas. His essay generated some
e-mail which was great, and he responded to that, and now Brill is picking up on
some of Jay's idea. This is really great. We hope a lot of people will
participate. Many thanks to Bill for contributing.

 

 

Basketball Reflections 
Bill Brill

I have read with great interest the comments of my friend (and now media colleague) Jay Bilas, as well as his responses to the intriguing e-mails.
Having more than 45 years experience in following college basketball - God that makes me feel antique - I want to offer a perspective that deals not so much with how I feel about the state of the game, but what I think should happen and what may occur.

I think its pointless to wring hands about the current state of affairs, whether it is as simplistic as Duke losing four players for four different reasons, or to debate the quality of play at a national level. Two things should be obvious: the teams aren't as good as they were in the recent past because too many stars leave early, and the rivalries and post-season play can still be just as exciting. People are going to get just as whipped up over Duke-Carolina 2000 (and in the future) as they would have if all of the Devils and Heels had remained in school.

It's the names of the front of the uniforms, folks, and I believe that always will be the case.

That said, let's take a look at the new millenium:

For more than 20 years, I attended NCAA conventions. I never went for the news value, which often was insignificant, but to observe the people in charge of, and connected with, intercollegiate athletics.

I can tell you I always came away with the opinion that the ACC was, by far, the best conference because its members usually voted as a block for what was good for the particular game, rather than what might be good for their particular school.

It was a rare quality, and pointed out the hypocrisy that threatened to envelope the NCAA. It became obvious that the smaller schools, representing a minority, were envious of, and didn't trust, the big schools. The frustration of the largest Division I-A programs was apparent.

For example, it was a cost-cutting move that led to the disastrous decision to have restricted-earnings coaches, primarily in basketball. That ended up costing the NCAA, i.e., the member institutions, a neat $54 million.

This was the problem: The NCAA is (obscenely) politically correct. It needed cutbacks, and men's basketball had to feel the pain too, regardless of the fact that it produces the revenue that drives the entire train.

I recall writing at the time, mostly because Duke had played Campbell in the first round of the NCAAs, that there was a vast difference in the two programs, and that while Campbell might well need only two assistant coaches, Duke needed three, even though another reduction had trimmed the roster to 13 scholarship players. (Some of you may be unaware that women still have 15 scholarships available).

Legally, the restricted-earnings decision was a bitter pill for the NCAA. There are other items in the future which will have to be dealt with, and hopefully the $54 million penalty will be forever in administrator's minds.

Last year, for example, the NCAA had a 27-person committee, headed by Syracuse chancellor Buzz Shaw, study basketball issues. In the end, it made a few minor proposals, but nothing really significant.

The reason that happened, I submit (and with information from a committee member), is because the body was far too large, and didn't have enough basketball people on it. Dean Smith and Terry Holland were included, but also many persons who understand little about big time college basketball.

Take one of the major issues (which still must be dealt with), summer recruiting: It has gotten out of hand, and AAU coaches often have far more control than high school coaches. We won't deal with the issue that shoe company reps and some of these AAU types are shady characters.

But the fact remained there was no way any committee would vote to eliminate summer camps and recruiting, because having hundreds of players in one spot is a major financial saving for the smaller schools, who always will support it no matter what.

There are other issues of similar nature. What the NCAA must do, and too few people understand it, is to create a study group that works on college basketball all year long. It needs to be a small group of basketball people, not chancellors. Eventually, any proposals made by such a group will have to be approved by college presidents, but at least they would have a chance to present the various issues logically, and explain the need for change.

The NCAA always has resisted sports-specific legislation. Now, it is closer than ever to reality. What works for football does not necessarily work for basketball.

Basketball is a rarity, a two-semester sport. When the presidents tried to make it a winter sport a few years back, they evened passed the time table. No game could be played before Dec. 15. Then somebody brought to proposal back to the table, and pointed out that meant the critical two weeks before the season began would come at exam time for virtually all schools. The vote was reversed immediately.

That's a round-about way to get to another issue, television, which dominates what happens in basketball. Currently, negotiations are ongoing concerning the next NCAA Tournament contract. CBS paid $1.8 billion for the current deal, which expires in 2001.

The competition among various networks is driving up the price, so much so that some experts believe the next contract could be worth as much as $4 billion.

Who gets the contract and what happens to the money are major considerations into the future of basketball.
For example, even though most coaches believe the season starts too early - Duke plays on Nov. 11, for example - it's also difficult to compress a conference schedule into two months, which is needed to meet the 2000 calendar.

The NCAA might want to move its tournament a week later some years, but that always will be resisted by CBS, because of the dates of the Masters, which it also televises. On the other hand, ABC/ESPN might be happy to play the finals the first week in April. So might the other network bidders.

That's just one possibility that I hope the NCAA explores, with the good of the college game in mind. If it means changing networks to do so, that's a consideration, although I understand the best bid will win out.

But no matter where the tournament lands, much more money will be available to the NCAA schools. That's when things are certain to get sticky.
There simply is no way colleges should pay stipends to basketball players, and legally - I'm sure lawyer Bilas would agree - it wouldn't stand. Every scholarship athlete would have to get the same stipend, and nobody could afford that.

But there are creative things that basketball could do, if it were given a chance. I have no idea what those things might be, but I do know that for anything to work, the NCAA must forget for once about being a democracy, and let the major athletic schools propose the agenda.

I don't want to see the NCAA break up, no matter how inept it appears on occasions. It needs to simply be pragmatic, let the top 40-50 basketball (and football) schools make the rules, and everybody else can follow along. For those who might concern themselves about academics, be assured that past history indicates the big schools are the ones who always made the toughest demands, many of which were voted down.

The last issue that is going to happen, I believe, is the foundation of some rookie, or under-23, minor league, aimed at players who really don't want to go to college at all, but who are forced to because of the system.

Baseball has a wonderful setup with its minor leagues, and its rule that forbids a college player from turning pro until after his junior year. Football doesn't need anything, because physically, only a handful of players are ready for the NFL until after three or four years of college.

The college game would not be hurt by players who turned pro out of high school. We never knew Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett. Of the Duke group, I believe Elton Brand and Corey Maggette would still have chosen college, and my guess is that William Avery would not.

If there was no rule in place about when a player could leave, Brand surely would have departed. He maximized his status perfectly. He couldn't have done better by remaining in school. Who knows what Maggette would have done?

But that gets us back to the financial decisions that Jay referred to in his column and responses. I think the fact that there was an alternative to college would be beneficial, and would force the players to make a choice. If all they wanted was basketball, go pro immediately. At least those who chose college would have made at least one vote for academics, too.

I'm convinced that much, if not all, of this will happen in the future, perhaps the immediate future. What college basketball needs now is some vision from the authorities and more stability. The game has changed; it will continue to change. What we need is a positive direction, not chaos in the making.

I believe wiser heads will understand that eventually, and act appropriately.