GRAPEVINE, Texas — When Mark Emmert charged into the office of NCAA president 27 months ago, championing a reform agenda that was both ambitious and unusual for what has often been a ceremonial position, it marked a rare moment of opportunity for the complex organization that oversees college athletics.
Much of Emmert's presidency, however, has been viewed as an era of big talk and relatively little action when it comes to dealing with key issues like agents, rules enforcement and athlete compensation beyond a scholarship. In the one major instance when Emmert used the power of his office broadly, spearheading historic penalties against Penn State, critics claimed he trampled on due process and pushed the NCAA to overstep its bounds.
REFORM PACKAGE: NCAA's passage is a milestone
But when the NCAA Division 1 Board of Directors passed a package of 25 rules reforms Saturday — Phase 1 in a multi-step, multi-year agenda — it marked a significant milestone in the 60-year-old Emmert's tenure.
Whether any of the changes will have a significant lasting impact on college athletics is unclear. Most of them are simple deregulatory measures — for example, coaches can now text and call recruits as much as they want — that may go unnoticed by the general public.
WHAT'S NEXT: Phase II issues are more complex
But given the relative cooperation Emmert got in pushing this reform package through the various committees and processes, there is perhaps now a blueprint for how he can reshape the NCAA into the more efficient, tougher, common-sense organization he talked about when he took office as opposed to the uncontrollable beast that seemed to overwhelm his agenda for much of his first year as president.
"We're all good critics," Oregon State president Ed Ray said. "It's a lot easier to stand on the sidelines and say, 'You better fix these five things.' There's still a lot to do, and what we're doing is not going to be perfectly implemented but I'm very proud of Mark and very pleased with the effort he's putting in. His energy is unbelievable. There are a lot of people that felt a lot of meaningful changes did need to occur, but at the end of the day Mark is the one who has to make it real, and he's doing it."
Few governing bodies are as unpopular at the moment than the NCAA, which is why the 60-year old Emmert declined to take a victory lap on Saturday. A day earlier, "public and membership distrust of the NCAA's ability to police itself" was cited as one of the reasons for the creation of the organization's enforcement working group, which Ray chairs. As gratifying as it must have been to fulfill part of his promise to streamline the rulebook, these are still turbulent times for the organization.
The NCAA is facing two lawsuits from Pennsylvania politicians over the penalties given to Penn State for its handling of the Jerry Sandusky scandal. On another front, it's fighting a potentially devastating class-action lawsuit led by former UCLA star Ed O'Bannon over whether the NCAA owns the rights to their images and likenesses. In enforcement, the NCAA suffered a huge embarrassment this past fall when it had to fire an investigator over her improper handling of UCLA basketball player Shabazz Muhammad's eligibility case. Major infractions cases involving the Miami and Oregon football programs have dragged on and on.
Meanwhile, the NCAA has been powerless to control or even slow down the chaos of conference realignment, leading to speculation the power conferences could eventually break away and form their own governing body. Though Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby called that "cocktail party talk," he acknowledged there has been significant discontent among the major programs in recent years over whether the NCAA is meeting their needs.
"It's hard to take 340 Division 1 institutions and paint with a broad brush," Bowlsby said. "The deregulation agenda is right on target, and we've heard a lot about what's going to be in the second phase. He's done a remarkable job."
A classic example is how Emmert's stipend plan fell apart last year. In late 2011, Emmert got board approval on a plan that allowed schools to add up to $2,000 per year to the cost of scholarships that athletes could use on anything they wanted. Though the plan got significant public support, it got crushed in an override vote, with lower-revenue schools voting near-unanimously against adding $400,000 or more to their budgets.
Emmert is going to introduce a new, need-based stipend plan later this year, but that may generate some resistance, too. The difference now is that Emmert has learned to operate within the realm of "political inertia," as he called it, whereas last time he might have erred in trying to go big, too fast while ignoring the concerns of the disparate interests in his organization.
"I think he has one of the tougher jobs in the world," Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh said. "You've got conferences that legitimately could bolt from the NCAA if they wanted to, so that's sort of out there. He has to be a real diplomat when it comes to these kinds of negotiations."
The truth is, Emmert has already gotten more done than many of his predecessors. In addition to the deregulation measures adopted this week, which will take roughly 25 pages out of the rulebook, the Board of Directors made major changes to the enforcement structure in October that will creates four levels of violations (as opposed to two currently) and holds head coaches more accountable for the actions of their assistants if they break rules.
Meamwhile, the board will not consider any new proposals through 2014 that aren't part of Emmert's reform agenda, which was established at a retreat in the August 2011. After adopting a huge chunk of it this weekend, it is now – for better or worse – very much Emmert's NCAA.
Though Emmert disagrees with that notion, likening himself more to a fullback than a quarterback — "I'm opening the holes for (the presidents)," he said — this past weekend was a huge momentum boost to his tenure and his way of getting things done within the constraints of a very complicated structure.
"When we had that retreat we had really good discussion about how speed is our friend, and the longer you dither on making meaningful change, the more sort of forces of entrenchment are going to dig in and undercut what you do," Ray said. "I think he's doing his damndest to live a very ambitious agenda."