Emmert embraces tourney expansion

INDIANAPOLIS -- New NCAA president Mark Emmert wants to resolve the thorniest issues in college sports.

Does the men's basketball tournament need more than 68 teams? Should there be a college football playoff? How will universities and athletic departments deal with tighter budgets?

Emmert doesn't pretend to have all those answers less than 24 hours after accepting his new job, but the University of Washington president but the way he intends to find the solutions has a familiar look.

"I think that [being a president] is one of the most important attributes that I have here," Emmert said during a conference call Wednesday. "I've sat in those chairs, I've worked in a variety of contexts in higher education, I've seen the situation on the ground and I understand the trade-offs one has to make."

Emmert's first priority is to meet with longtime NCAA executives and listen to their advice.

The style rekindles memories of the late Myles Brand, the first university president to lead the NCAA and Emmert's predecessor. Brand, like Emmert, had no experience running a college athletics department and started his tenure by immersing himself into the college sports world.

Brand used those early meetings to build support in the NCAA headquarters, establish relationships with coaches and students, and then used his experience and friendships to help build a consensus for change.

Emmert intends to take a similar approach with one of sports' toughest jobs.

The 57-year-old Emmert will preside over 400,000 student-athletes, most of whom are looking to earn degrees rather than become pro athletes, and thousands of schools, most of which do not have the resources or national reputation of Washington.

Emmert also arrives just at a tricky time for the NCAA.

Some are calling for modifications to the academic reforms Brand championed, something Emmert said needs to be considered. One proposal would force all players with concussions to get medical clearance before returning to the field, and the NCAA is contending with a lawsuit over the use of players' images for commercial products.

But the most high-profile issue now involves the NCAA's marquee event, the men's basketball tourney.

Last week, interim president Jim Isch announced the NCAA had agreed to a new $10.8 billion television deal with CBS and Turner Broadcasting to carry the games. On Thursday, the Board of Directors could approve the other part of that package, expanding the field from 65 to 68 teams, and many think this is only the start.

Earlier this month, NCAA officials announced there were proposals to go to 80 or 96 teams before opting for the more modest number after the TV networks said more games were not needed to increase the bid. Emmert said he will wait until after the new expansion is approved before discussing any future move.

Meanwhile, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called on the NCAA to link academic performance to team eligibility in the postseason tourney.

Emmert agrees with the sentiment, not the approach.

"The broader issue is making sure that every institution has appropriate graduation rates regardless of whether they compete in the tournament," he said. "I think at the end of the day, Secretary Duncan had the right idea but probably the wrong metric. We need to make sure that we get high quality performance in the classroom as well as on the field."

The NCAA tourney isn't the only championship being discussed these days.

Emmert has been asked for his thoughts on a college football playoff, one of the biggest debates every year. Officially, Emmert is following the company line, saying a decision rests with the university presidents, not NCAA officials who sanction the bowl games.

Still, Emmert sounds more prepared to play a role in the discussion than his predecessors.

"We're standing ready and willing to help them and think those things through," he said. "But at the end of the day, that's something the presidents will have to address."

The biggest challenge, however, may be finances.

With most states cutting funding to higher education, schools, such as Washington, are facing tighter budgets at a time that building or upgrading athletic facilities has become an essential part of attracting recruits.

Emmert understands the issue better than most.

Since taking over as Washington's president in 2004, Emmert demonstrated his acumen for raising money by completing the most successful fundraising campaign in university history -- $2.68 billion.

He won't have to raise that kind of money at the NCAA, thanks to the television deal, but with billions to dole out to schools, Emmert believes the NCAA needs to play an advisory role.

"Athletics tend to be a very small fraction of institutional budgets," Emmert said. "At Washington, for instance, it's about 2 percent of the budget. So the question is how do you make sure athletics is integrated with the students? The role of the NCAA isn't, of course, to make the decisions, but to inform campuses by providing them with good information on how they can mitigate those costs and make sure no unfunded mandates are imposed on them."