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At Meeting of Faculty Athletics Reps, 2 Coaches Hold Court

Grapevine, Tex. — “I find this funny,” Charli Turner Thorne said on Sunday, sitting before a packed ballroom of professors. “We’re in this room full of faculty, and the front row is pretty much empty.”

The Arizona State University women’s basketball coach smiled: “Maybe you’re scared of us.”

Coaches and professors don’t find themselves in the same room together all that often—especially with the coaches leading the conversation. But Thorne and Trent Johnson, the men’s basketball coach at Texas Christian University, shared a stage on Sunday for a spirited discussion about academic challenges in big-time sports.

For more than an hour, Thorne, who is president of the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, and Johnson, a member of the Board of Directors of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, rolled through a litany of issues affecting elite programs. Their comments—which touched on everything from concern over students’ meeting the NCAA’s new initial-eligibility requirements to the lack of adequate oversight of preparatory schools—came on the first day of the annual meetings of Division I-A faculty representatives and athletic directors.

The three-day conference (the faculty reps wrap up mid-Monday, with the AD’s meeting until midday Tuesday) comes amid a period of increased scrutiny of big-time athletics. The discussions here ranged from worry over the NCAA’s process for punishing Penn State University to questions about how the courts might evaluate amateurism.

That last question—stemming from a brief discussion about Ed O’Bannon, the former UCLA standout, and his federal class-action lawsuit, in which he and several other former high-profile basketball players have sued the NCAA over their right to be compensated for the commercial use of their names and likenesses—is likely to grab attention among the athletic directors gathering here. Last week ESPN.com revealed a series of depositions and e-mails in the case, in which top NCAA leaders privately described concern over some of the association’s positions.

On Sunday the two coaches—who spoke on a panel with Bart Byrd, president of the National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics, and Mike Walker, a former basketball player at Southern Methodist University—said they were largely in favor of the NCAA’s stricter initial-eligibility requirements, which go into effect in 2016.

But both coaches expressed concern over getting the message to young players in enough time. The changes require a 2.3 grade-point average (up from a 2.0) and a new mandate that students’ required core courses must be completed before their senior year. The new rules, which also mandate that students complete their core classes in four years, are designed in part to curb the popular practice of elite prospects’ taking an extra year of high school at a prep school to gain college eligibility.

In addition, the NCAA is raising the standards for transfers from two-year colleges, which troubles Johnson, the TCU coach: “By going from a 2.3 to a 2.5 [GPA], are we eliminating the junior-college athlete?” he asked.

Johnson pointed out that, under the new NCAA regulations, more than 40 percent of current big-time football and basketball players would have been ineligible in their first season.

As a member of the NCAA’s Academic Cabinet, John Bruno, the faculty athletics representative at Ohio State University, believes in the need for tougher academic standards for incoming athletes. But during Sunday’s meeting, he questioned whether the NCAA would face a barrage of waivers to prevent that from happening. Others questioned if ESPN and the other television networks are ready for a potentially watered-down spectacle. “There are forces at work that would like for these rules to not be as strict,” Bruno said.

Near the end of their session, Jo Potuto, the faculty representative at the University of Nebraska, asked the two coaches what they would change about the system if they could do one thing different.

“To me, it’s access to the players, I want unlimited access,” said Coach Johnson. “A science professor can work with a student any time of day, but we have rules and restrictions around how many hours a week we can talk to our players.

“Usually that kid looks up to the coach more than anyone,” he added. “If you take away that time with the kid, you give him up to negative forces.”

Coach Thorne also wants more interaction with players. “When they’re in here in the summer, we can’t be there to mentor them,” she said. “I always tell my players, ‘I’m going to coach you as a woman first, then an athlete.’ But I need the time to do that.”

She also proposed that coaches be required to gain certification so they stay up on standards and promote ethics in the profession. For this crowd, it seemed like the perfect suggestion.

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