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IOWA CITY - Proposed NCAA recruiting legislation last winter prompted swift, forceful and somewhat contentious responses from Big Ten officials, who feared the changes negatively would affect the future of college football.
The Gazette obtained a series of email exchanges that showed league officials were afraid the adjustments could send recruiting costs skyrocketing and create havoc for football prospects. The information was provided via an open-records request through University of Iowa President Sally Mason, who is the chair of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors.
As part of its deregulating agenda, the NCAA announced 25 recruiting revisions in January. Three proposals, which eventually were tabled and suspended, would have granted programs unlimited contact - including through text messaging - with athletes before their junior seasons. Another would have allowed programs to hire non-coach personnel directors for recruiting and a third would have eliminated restrictions on sending printed recruiting materials to recruits.
Less than a week after national signing day, the league's football coaches and athletics directors issued a statement admitting there are “serious concerns” about the three rule changes and how they would impact the sport and the schools. The statement also questioned if the changes “are in the best interest of high school student-athletes, their families and their coaches.”
Several Big Ten coaches voiced their concerns publicly to the changes, including Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, who said college athletics could become like Major League Baseball where the New York Yankees “start in the inside lane every year. They've got the biggest payroll.”
Other Big Ten coaches shared similar concerns. In mid-February, Ohio State Coach Urban Meyer sent a text message to Northwestern counterpart Pat Fitzgerald, writing “that there are already teams that have made plans to have separate scouting depts. [sic]. there has already been nfl scouts that have been told they will be hired to run the dept. (hired for over 200k). I checked with an NFL friend and he confirmed that there was much conversation about this. Appealing to scouts because of no travel. Also, there has been movement to hire Frmr players/coaches with big names to work in that dept. and recruit full time. This will all happen immediately once rule is passed. Thought u should be aware if [sic] this nonsense to share with who u feel can assist.”
Meyer's text was circulated among Big Ten presidents and officials on Feb. 14. The email also included a scholarship offer of a freshman running back, which prompted Fitzgerald to write “This is what's wrong with recruiting.”
The legislation ignited an email chain among league presidents, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and NCAA President Mark Emmert. Delany wrote Emmert on Feb. 14 apologizing for not calling him before the league's Feb. 11 release but hoped the NCAA would delay the rules' implementation or risk presidents overriding the legislation. Delany wrote that he wanted to maintain the NCAA's reform deregulation agenda but feared the rules would result in “another level of staffing” for football programs.
Emmert retorted that the proposals were vetted for months by the NCAA's membership committee with opposition from only Rice University, “who I don't believe is a mainstream D1 school,” Emmert wrote.
“If now the membership doesn't want some of these changes, fine by me,” Emmert wrote. “But to be honest, I don't know how the membership wants to make decisions. The process used to make these changes was as open, representative and democratic and I could imagine - other than the old town hall convention model I suppose.” Emmert also mentioned Big Ten staff worked on the group. Michigan State President Lou Anna Simon chairs the NCAA executive committee.
Delany passed along his exchange with Emmert to six Big Ten presidents. Delany wrote that administrators understand the need for simpler rules, but added “I'm not sure anyone has an appreciation of the compulsions, competitiveness and energy that underlies that pursuit of a 16 year old recruit by an assistant coach at our institutions. This process of pursuing athletic talent nationally and globally is something we have never found even a half way healthy way of managing/regulating. This continues to be the case.”
Simon initially was furious with the league's about-face on the legislation. In a pointed email, Simon asked why the coaches and athletics directors weren't engaged “during this lengthy process?” She added, “I find it interesting that I was advised by the conference to vote for these rules being assured that they had been discussed within the conference and we were involved in the committee process.”
She adds, “I must admit after all of our integrity and power coach discussions, I found the press release - the tone, the method and lack of conversation with Mark (Emmert) or me prior to release - very disturbing.”
Delany responded 33 minutes later, saying proposals were vetted among campus officials. But, “These issues somehow did not get vetted on campus during football season or if they did minds were other places. With respect to tone I think the tone was quite responsible and the concerns were narrowly drawn.”
League officials met support nationally. Big Ten associate commissioner of governance, Jennifer Heppel, wrote on Feb. 15 that the other power conferences “are on the same page” regarding the proposals. Within a week, Emmert supported delaying the proposals after initially writing he'd let the override process take place.
“So, despite the cartwheels that we've been through in the last 10 days, we have reached the solution we initially requested,” Heppel wrote.
Simon: “Given where we are, this is the right course of action. Mark (Emmert) is doing the right thing upon reflection and nudging.”
On May 2, the Division I board of directors formally suspended the three football proposals. All football recruiting concepts now will be examined by a new NCAA rules working group.
“I think that's a good thing,” Iowa Athletics Director Gary Barta told The Gazette.