Rice and Shine

My alma mater has its first national title and the NCAA's best graduation rate. If President Malcom Gillis could reform college athletics, we'd be unbeatable.

August 2003By Comments

MALCOLM GILLIS, THE PRESIDENT of Rice University, likes to tell the story of the football player who was being recruited by Rice and another Texas university of, shall we say, less intellectual rigor. The coach of the other school asked the prospect about his scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test. “Fifteen-fifty” was the answer—a breathtakingly high score that is close to the maximum score of 1600. There was a moment of stunned silence, and then the coach said, “Hell, son, you could get into school here twice for that.”

I went to see Gillis in early July because he is a distinguished economist, and I wanted to discuss with him a most unlikely variant of the law of supply and demand: Two weeks earlier, the Rice baseball team had supplied enough hitting and pitching prowess at the College World Series to meet the demand of its fans for the university’s first national championship in any sport. Next to the fall of the Berlin Wall and my children learning to get themselves up in the morning without vigorous parental prompting, nothing I have encountered in life has come as a greater surprise. I say this not only as a Rice alumnus but also as a former sports editor of the unfortunately named Rice Thresher.

During the sixties, when I was at Rice, success in athletics eluded the university with great regularity, particularly in baseball. As I recall, the rivalry between the Owls and the Texas Longhorns at the time of my tenure on the Thresher stood at something like 117 wins for Texas, 13 wins for Rice. Rice played its home games at a ballpark whose main feature was a sinkhole in right center field, so that when opposing batters smote the ball in that direction, only the head and shoulders of our outfielders remained in view as they gave chase. Attendance was sparse, except on the roof of a nearby residence hall, where engineering students used a coat hanger and surgical tubing to fashion a slingshot that propelled water balloons toward the pitcher's mound in the hope of disconcerting the enemy hurler as he warmed up. I hadn't thought of these things in decades, but as I watched Rice extend its lead over Stanford in the 2003 championship game to the final score of 14-2, I savored the memories. In the eighth and ninth innings, my phone rang again and again, bringing voices I hadn't heard in thirty years.

I met Gillis at his summer retreat, ten acres of pines, ponds, and pasture north of Durham, North Carolina, where he served as provost at Duke University before taking over the presidency of Rice in 1993. (He will step down in June 2004.) But I did not make the trip just to reminisce about the humble origins of Rice's baseball success. Gillis has been an outspoken critic of the direction in which college athletics is headed—toward more and more professionalization of the major revenue sports, football and men's basketball, which in turn leads to the recruiting of players who don't really belong in college and the frantic pursuit of more and more revenue. As I flew eastward, newspaper headlines bore testimony to his concerns. The Atlantic Coast Conference was raiding the not-so-Big East for Miami and Virginia Tech, and closer to home, the Baylor basketball program was under scrutiny following the disappearance of one its players, who is presumed to have been murdered, possibly by one of his teammates. Perhaps in Rice's success lay some lessons from which the rest of college athletics could learn.

When I drove onto his property, Gillis was wielding a farm implement I hope never to know the name of, tearing out dead pampas grass near a fence line. He looked anything but academic in sweatpants and a blue T-shirt whose sleeves had been cut off. I followed him onto a screened porch, and we sat down at a table. A wasp crawled lazily across its surface. Bang! His left fist smashed down upon it, bringing its life to an instantaneous conclusion.

Gillis believes that the big football powers are crushing the athletic aspirations of schools like Rice, with no more effort than it took him to dispatch the wasp, by denying them the financial benefits of megaconferences enjoyed by other private schools with high academic standards, such as Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, and Vanderbilt. At least Rice is a reasonable-sized fish in its smaller pond, the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), which is an improvement over the way things were when I was in school. "From 1966 to 1994," Gillis told me, "Rice went twenty-eight years without winning a conference championship in any sport. Then we won the Southwest Conference track championship. The next year we won the last Southwest Conference baseball tournament. We're SWC champions forever. Altogether we've won twenty-three conference championships and a national championship since '94. And we've done it while raising our admissions standards for athletes."

Following the demise of the Southwest Conference in the mid-nineties, caused by the exodus of Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, and Baylor to the Big Twelve, Rice joined the WAC. The new league took the bold step of becoming a megaconference of sixteen teams, but when the bigger, richer conferences paid no attention, it broke up into two unrelated eight-team leagues, the Mountain West Conference being the other. The exclusion of conferences like the WAC from the major bowl games and fair representation in the NCAA basketball tournament is an example of what Gillis calls "the cartelization of revenue" by the big conferences. They make the TV deals and they allocate the money to themselves. Still, as an economist, Gillis of all people must know that the Golden Rule is in effect in intercollegiate athletics: He who has the gold rules.

Some members of the Rice community—including a certain sports editor of the Thresher, in his final column—have questioned whether intercollegiate athletics has a place at the university. Gillis, however, is not one of the doubters. "I'm a strong believer in diversity," he said. "All kinds of diversity. It's not just a matter of race, although for years the campus would have been lily-white if not for black athletes. Diversity also involves how we grew up, our socioeconomic backgrounds, our experiences. Athletes are different from most of our students. They help to leaven the student body. And they're loyal. Our athletes donate more than non-athletes do."

One argument Gillis does not buy is the familiar one that a winning athletic team influences alumni to make donations to the university. He believes that athletic victories boost the athletic endowment (currently around $21 million at Rice, one tenth the size of Stanford's) but have little impact on general fundraising. A 2001 study showed that a successful football team does not produce a higher level of giving by alumni at private universities, including the Ivy League.

There are three issues that Gillis and other reformers would like to see addressed to slow the movement toward professionalization: academic reform, reduced spending (especially for multimillion-dollar coaching salaries), and less commercialization of athletics (for example, banning the display of corporate logos on uniforms). These were the principal recommendations of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which issued two reports a decade apart, in 1991 and 2001, producing much publicity but little action.

Gillis, however, has instituted academic reforms of his own at Rice. One of his first actions on assuming the presidency was to abolish the separate admissions procedure for athletes that bypassed normal faculty and administrative channels. Today, athletes are judged in the same manner used for other applicants with special talents, such as architecture and music students: by a three-member faculty panel, a majority vote of which is necessary for admission. (The athletic administration can use a high graduation rate in a sport to ask for an exception.)

Rice has also gotten rid of special majors open only to athletes. In my era, these included physical education and commerce, which was a business program—but at the time, Rice had no business major, just a few courses. Today, managerial studies is a popular major for athletes and non-athletes alike, but Rice requires both groups to have a second major. For athletes, the second choice is often kinesiology. I winced when Gillis mentioned this major, having been at Rice in the boot-camp years, when freshmen were greeted at orientation with "Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you won't be here next year" and every non-athlete had to take the inscrutable Math 100. Gillis must have noticed my reaction, because he said, "Rice is one of the few private universities that still gives grades of D and F, and that's true in kinesiology too."

One reform Gillis does not have to worry about is increasing the graduation rate for athletes, which can be abysmally low at big-time athletic programs. Rice leads the NCAA's Division I-A in the graduation rate of its athletes (91 percent, compared with 89 percent of all students); the baseball team also has the highest mark in its sport. But the rates are so bad nationwide that the Knight Commission recommended that teams failing to graduate at least 50 percent of their players within six years should be barred from conference championships and post-season play.

Is it possible, I wondered, that Rice—the university with the smallest enrollment in Division I-A, just 2,700 undergraduates—could be the model for all of intercollegiate athletics?

"There are two scenarios for the future," Gillis told me. "Scenario number one is increasing commercialization until, over a period of ten to fifteen years, the teams in the big conferences will be semi-professional, with athletes getting paid. Scenario number two is that presidents and boards come to their senses and institute some reforms." He paused for a moment, and then he said, "Do you know how much I am willing to bet that never happens?"

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