The Compliance Conundrum

I love your email tips. Every day I get double-digit links from readers about relevant stories. Quite a few of them actually inspire posts, like today’s link sent from Chris M. I missed the Wall Street Journal feature sports piece on college athletic programs entitled “The NCAA’s Last Innocents” which is a must read HERE.  As we get deluged with Ohio State fallout, news of Oregon and UNC problems and Terrelle Pryor’s mea culpa PR circuit, WSJ’s Darren Everson and Hannah Karp asked the following questions: “Are there any big-time sports schools that have never been slapped with a major NCAA rules violation? And if so, what’s their secret?”.

According to the report, since 1953 when tracking of NCAA major violations began there have been only 17 schools who have managed to stay clean.  Of the 17 only four are BCS conference teams. Northwestern, Penn State, Stanford and Boston College.  I was thrilled to see Jim Phillips take on this report as it is a slippery slope and he nailed a perfect “10” on his response when he told the WSJ:

“I don’t want to come across as holier than thou. We’re proud of what we’ve been able to do, but with 500 18- to 22-year-olds, anything could happen at any time.” – NU AD Jim Phillips to WSJ

This tone is perfect. Northwestern (and Stanford) must always be cognizant of the private school factor and its built-in air of arrogance to Joe Q. Public.  The fact Jim made it seem like we’re just trying our best but we’re not bullet-proof to potential scandal is exactly what I was hoping  for as I read through the article.  Keep in mind, RB Dennis Lundy was entangled in a messy connection with several NU basketball players in the early 1990s in what amounted to a reverse basketball point shaving scandal.  Boston College similarly had a gambling scandal in the early 1990s as well however the issue with NU football was one player and not a systemic issue. That, and the fact NU jumped all over the issue as soon as it was made aware of the issues helped to keep the “innocent” label intact.

The point I’ve pondered is how to turn this excellence in compliance in to an advantage.  I’ve been pounding the pavement for stricter compliance in general as I believe the more even the playing field, the more Northwestern will benefit because that’s where we live.  News broke yesterday that two star Ohio State commits have decommitted with one going to Pitt and the other reopening up his recruiting.  The immediate impact of Ohio State’s lack of forthright compliance is already being felt.  There is a big difference in advocating for compliance and marketing Northwestern as squeaky clean.  One helps defray the arrogance image one ignites it. 

You can read a lot of positives in the article including how obsessive Northwestern is about its compliant including administering hypothetical tests to athletes on compliance and the internal regular meetings among administrators that are ongoing attempts to stay on top of everything.  There was only one negative that caught my eye and that was Phillips recounting of the priorities of NU when he was called about taking the job. Yes, academics and compliance are top priority, but the fact he was told this wasn’t about winning championships made me wince. As Northwestern fans, this is the holy grail we seek – doing it the right way in the classroom, with the NCAA and winning championships.  I know Jim believes that winning titles IS an expectation and that is why he’s so important to keep at Northwestern.  It isn’t about using the academics and compliance as an excuse or a crutch, but rather using it as an advantage to win championships. 

Marketing Madness

I’m loving’s Ivan Maisel’s feature on Northwestern-like college programs in major markets. Today’s feature on TCU was fascinating to me as the strategic decision to embrace Fort Worth and intentionally differentiate and even shun the Dallas factor was one of those regional things that make sports marketing so interesting.  Check it out here.

Recruiting Madness

NU is circling in on several recruits who continue to narrow their respective lists. Four-star recruit Ryan Ward (younger brother of NU’s Patrick Ward) has NU in his final four with Iowa, Michigan State and BC.  Pat Elflein, an OL from Pickerington, OH has NU in his final three along with Purdue and Cincinnati.  There are several others that have NU in their narrowed down list and I hope its a matter of days before some more dominoes start falling. 


  • Wildcat86

    Couple points that came out of the Coaches Caravan last night at Ditka’s:

    – Phillips wouldn’t reveal what would happen first with regards to the facilities plan, but did say that football is the engine that drives us and that NU will invest money where the return can be felt by all sports. I took that to mean Ryan Field will be the first to go (or heavily remodeled); not that surprising.

    – Fitz said Persa is doing great. He is on a “pitch count” and throws 75 balls a day, while doing full work outs.

    – Carmody said when Shurna went to the NBA camps he was being told he would be a mid-second round pick. He was told to get bigger and play better D. No surprises there, either.

    – Phillips said any chance we get to move off of 11am kick-offs we will. Great news in my opinion, even if it means less (or no) games on ABC or ESPN.

  • Chadnudj

    Actually, Phillips seemed to indicate that football would be a top priority, but it wasn’t clear whether it would be the Sunday-Friday part of football (training/practice facilities) or the Saturday part (Ryan Field) that got first priority/attention.

  • Wildcat86

    @ Chadnudj–not sure how you would get an immediate return on an investment to the practice facilities that could benefit all sports (as Phillips indicated was important). Sure, over the medium-to-long term it helps recruiting, which helps the on the field product, etc, but Phillips made it pretty clear the first stage of the facilities plan will be one in which the investment will be able to produce a return in the near-term. Definitely agree the practice facilities will get an upgrade, but I believe it will be in conjunction with Ryan Field, or possibly shortly thereafter.

  • Chadnudj

    @Wildcat86 — presumably, the improved practice/training facilities would bring in better talent to the football team (if not also be available to other sports teams), which would then inprove the product on the field, attendance, and the rest of the sports teams….

    At least, that’s the theory. Not sure how I feel about it, honestly.

  • Wildcat86

    @Chadnudj–completely agree that’s the strategy, I just view that as a longer term strategy than a renovation of Ryan Field (i.e. the renovation could have an impact much sooner).

    I guess only time will tell–hopefully it is both!

  • PurpleColbert

    I have made a case to a number of people over the years that the system in place in the NCAA is only designed to punish programs. That means the only reason to do things right is for the avoidance of pain. The problem I see with that, as with many things in society, is that there is no up-side for for doing things right and doing them consistently. Why would anyone try to compete with an NU or BC to have an impeccable reputation, our outstanding graduation rates? There is no institutional reward when it comes to the sports programs. In fact, as you so frequently point out, there is actually a disadvantage – the elitist and arrogant factor that we get labeled with.

    Were I King for a day (I would do a lot more than fix the NCAA), I would propose a system with 3 tiers that provide incentive for success, and punishment for failure. The determining factor for each program would be a compiled score that rates graduation rates, academic performance, program compliance (lack of even minor violations) etc. I would even include, athletics performance as it relates to those other factors. Total it up, and you get a scorecard for your school. Then (and these numbers are arbitrary for the purposes of my argument) –

    The top 10% in the NCAA are given their choice of some distinct and sanctioned advantages, like additional scholarships, an extra home game, a greater percentage of conference proceeds, or some combination of these. I am sure you could give them a choice of different options…. I am also sure there are some really smart people who could come up with some fantastic incentives that drive home the point. Success (on and off the field) breeds success.

    Conversely, the bottom 10% in the NCAA would be penalized with the loss of certain rights, presumably the relative opposite of the top 10%.

    The other 80% are left alone.

    Bottom line is, under this system the NCAA would be using the stick AND the carrot. There would then be a race to the top, rather than just trying not to get caught with your hand in the cookie jar. Can you imagine if NU was allowed to start recruiting earlier, take on more scholarships, or got to pick an extra home game? We might never play in the Horseshoe again…., but every time we played OSU, it would be a sellout crowd and we would get to keep the lions share of the proceeds. How’s that for rewarding a program.

    Wouldn’t this, or some version of it even the playing field? Instead of a slow decline into what we have now “who hasn’t been in trouble?”, you would have every school vying for the top SCHOLAR athletes and trying to be in that top 10%. Wouldn’t this rightfully promote consistent programs and incentivize schools to prevent abuses?

    I am just one Purple fan, but I have made a similar proposal to our friends at ESPN and the WSJ. I think the timing is right for a change. Is it something like this???? I am not so arrogant as to believe I have the right solution. I do believe that the concept is on target. If only someone with a megaphone to the masses were to take up the cause….

  • VAWildcat

    An interesting proposal, but since when in our society do we get rewarded for obeying the law? That should be the norm. It seems to me that consistent and meaningful enforcement of the rules is the answer.

  • Wildcat86
  • birdofpreydavide

    I don’t like the Phillips quote: “It’s not about winning championships.” There are ways to say that you’re serious about compliance without sacrificing quality. I don’t want that quote on the kitchen tables of recruits.

  • wildcat6


    Phillips didn’t say that. He was told by administrators upon taking the job that the most important things at NU were “academics and NCAA compliance” Also, he was told “it’s not about winning championships.” Agreed, the way Adam Rittenberg framed it in his blog post makes it sound like a Phillips quote, but I don’t believe it is. If that was true, there would be no way Fitz would agree to a 10-year deal, because he’s all about playing by the rules AND winning championships.

  • ravenswood cat

    Read in the context of Administrative statements on athletics, I think the quote is reasonably accurate. Taking into account the mission of the institution, absolutely “it’s not about winning championships.” It’s about pursuing the highest order of excellence, and winning championships is only valuable to the extent that it advances the academic purposes of the university. See

    “The mission of Northwestern University is to pursue the highest order of excellence in its
    academic and professional programs. Special emphasis is given to quality undergraduate
    education, research committed to institutional leadership in scientific discovery,
    intellectual inquiry, and creative performance, as well as a commitment to serve society
    through teaching and research.”

    “Intercollegiate athletics has long been an integral part of Northwestern University life.
    The success of the athletic program is inextricably linked to the educational mission of
    the University, especially with regard to the academic and personal development of
    student-athletes and the institution’s commitment to honoring the highest standards of
    amateur competition. It is not measured solely by wins and losses.”

  • Lake The Posts

    @all – piling on here – yes, read the post again. Phillips is ALL about winning championships, those that hired him were the ones claiming it isn’t. Phillips wants it all – academics, compliance AND championships.

  • cece

    football may be the engine, lacrosse wins championships. i’m just sayin.

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