The crazy season nears, or as most college basketball junkies call it, "March Madness."
It is fun really, especially as the past chancellor of Kansas University and the former president of West Virginia University. Zealots, and they are everywhere, seem to naively believe I might have a secret formula for winning basketball games.
The KU men's program entered the 2006-07 season with 1,873 wins, the third most among all Division I teams, while WVU had been victorious on 1,493 occasions to be 24th in the national standings.
Both the Jayhawks and the Mountaineers are having outstanding seasons in 2007.
My initial advice, with tongue in cheek, is to recruit replicas of the late Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West, two of the greatest college basketball All Americans of all time and storied members of the college and professional halls of fame. Wilt and Jerry played for KU and WVU, respectively.
In truth, there are certain paths to follow in 2007.
Without question, most college and university CEOs lie awake at night worrying about athletic programs, stressed by the fiscal challenges of paying competitive salaries to directors of athletics and head football and men's basketball coaches, meeting the insatiable demands for new and improved facilities, and satisfying certain alumni.
And nothing is more important to today's president/chancellor and to an athletic program than hiring the right athletic director and head coaches, people of proven and unquestioned integrity and people who know and respect the rules as set forth by the NCAA. They must be involved, as never before, and be attentive to the bottom line.
CEOs are demanding that more and more athletes, and especially minority ones, leave college with a degree, with something that will lead to lifetime opportunity. They keep a sharp eye on graduate rates.
Rule infractions can be career-wreckers for CEOs and coaches, and university support from alumni and the public can be put in serious jeopardy. Trustees can be unforgiving if their institutions are subjected to widespread and embarrassing media criticism as cheaters. This has never been truer with virtually all major colleges and universities depending on large sums of private support.
Contributors want to be associated with winners on the court and in the classroom and they resent those who ignore or bend established rules.
Reformer Myles Brand, president of the NCAA and a respected friend, agrees and sees reason to be optimistic on the graduation front. He told me:
"There is a perception that basketball student-athletes in Division I aren't graduating. It is broadly held, but it is wrong. Although much progress remains to be made, the graduate rate of college basketball athletes is nearly 60 percent when you consider transfer students in the calculation.
"But the real success story is among Division I African-American basketball athletes. Black basketball college athletes graduate at a rate of 42 percent, five points better than black males in the general student population. Over the last 15 years, the graduation rate of male African-American basketball student-athletes has increased 13 percentage points, while their counterpart in the student body has gone up only eight points." And more reforms are in the works.
College basketball programs can build enormous loyalty among alumni and fans at-large.
Wilt Chamberlain once told me of his love for KU with these words: "It made me a better person for life" and "KU was filled with caring people." His only regret from his playing days at Lawrence was that the Jayhawks lost to North Carolina for the national championship in 1957. "I always felt a little guilty about that," he said.
Jerry West, who has a son on the current Mountaineer basketball roster, remembers Morgantown as "a place where people loved sports, and especially basketball." He said most everyone in West Virginia knew his name "and went out of their way to be supportive."
What basketball needs are more people like Roy Williams, my old coach at KU who now coaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and John Beilein, the current coach at WVU. Their initial recruiting message deals with academic life, not sports. Both are insistent on the importance of a college graduation, and clearly that unassailable theme has worked for them and their universities.
- Gene A. Budig, past president of Major League Baseball's American League, is the former president/chancellor of Illinois State University, West Virginia University, and Kansas University.