Vandy's Sports Experiment: No Athletic Director

For two years, Vanderbilt University has tried an experiment: athletic programs operating without an athletic department. A vice chancellor oversees the teams, saving the school some money.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

It's almost business as usual in college football's Southeastern Conference. Perennial powers Alabama, Florida and Georgia are jockeying for position at the top. But right there with them is a perennial football afterthought. Vanderbilt University, a small private school in Nashville, is suddenly flexing its football muscles. A victory tonight over winless Middle Tennessee State would mean Vandy remains undefeated and in first place in the SEC. Not bad, considering just two years ago, some were predicting doom for Vanderbilt's athletic program. NPR's Tom Goldman prepared this report.

(Soundbite of football game)

Unidentified Announcer: This game is over. Vanderbilt, for the first time in 21 years, is 4-and-0 to open a season.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

After last weekend's 37-to-13 victory over Richmond there was happiness in Nashville, a bit of shock and a special sense of pride among Vanderbilt officials. Two years ago, the university abolished its athletic department as a way to integrate sports into the general university. The move to reform athletics, critics said, would cause Vanderbilt coaches to flee, would hurt athletic recruiting and significantly downgrade the university's Division 1A sports program.

Mr. DAVID WILLIAMS (Vice Chancellor, Vanderbilt University): If that's downgrading, then everybody better get after it, because we're doing good.

GOLDMAN: With the job of athletic director eliminated, Vice Chancellor David Williams now oversees sports as part of his job managing the university's division of student life. The move to fold sports into student life was driven by Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee. He has long railed against the existence of separate and omnipotent athletic departments. Gee says these departments make their own financial decisions and often waste money by duplicating what's being done elsewhere in the university.

Mr. GORDON GEE (Chancellor, Vanderbilt University): A whole bunch of people doing the same thing that is taking place throughout the rest of the institution. Our fund-raising, our marketing, our financial activities are all fully integrated into the office of student life, so we do not have this separation. And that has saved us money, which we in turn have then reinvested in our programs.

GOLDMAN: It's estimated Vanderbilt has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by streamlining athletic finances and, as Gee says, the school has reinvested the money by upgrading the baseball stadium and renovating basketball locker rooms. According to Vanderbilt officials, the other main aspect of restructuring has been successful as well: integrating athletes into the regular flow of campus life.

Mr. ANDREW PACE (Cornerback, Vanderbilt University): My name is Andrew Pace and I play cornerback for the Vanderbilt Commodore football team.

GOLDMAN: Senior Andrew Pace says his freshman year the football team was considered a separate group, as is the case at universities throughout the country. Since the athletic restructuring, Pace says he and other players have been encouraged to get more involved in non-sports activities.

Mr. PACE: I'm a part of various organizations on campus, Bible studies on campus, stuff like that, you know, in which I've gotten to know a lot of other students that don't play sports.

GOLDMAN: Certain realities however, have intruded on Vanderbilt's utopian vision. Shortly after the changes in athletics, star quarterback Jay Cutler was asked in an interview if he'd consider acting in a school play. He laughed and said, `No way. That's not why I'm here.' Indeed, the time commitment for Division 1 sports, along with Vanderbilt's tough academic standards, make it tough for most athletes to have time for band or debate or student government. Still, there's a sense in many quarters on campus that Gordon Gee's restructuring remains a noble effort, one that perhaps can inspire other bigger schools to try to break down the barriers of athletic separation and entitlement. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

ELLIOTT: Tom joins us now to talk a bit more about Vanderbilt's experiment. Hi, Tom.

GOLDMAN: Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Tom, do you think other campuses will end up following Vandy's lead here? You know, quite frankly, in my mind I'm thinking about the University of Alabama, where I went to school, and I just can't see ever the University of Alabama not having an athletic department or an athletic director. It is just such a huge part of the school's identity.

GOLDMAN: I think you're absolutely right. Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee calls what he has done over the last two years `Jumping off the cliff.' And I think some schools are edging closer to the edge of the cliff. As you say, it's impossible to think at a major university, like Alabama or some of the universities that the Vanderbilt people talked about--Ohio State, Colorado...

ELLIOTT: Notre Dame.

GOLDMAN: ...Notre Dame, doing away with their athletic directors. However, as I said, they're edging closer in that they're trying to integrate things traditionally, under the auspices of the athletic department, into the general university. At Ohio State, academic support for athletes usually went through the athletic department. That's counseling and tutoring. A lot of those functions are now being moved into the academic department under the umbrella of the general university. And it's their way to have academics overseeing this, bringing the athletic department back into or under the umbrella of the university, so it's not this whole kind of fiefdom off the to side.

ELLIOTT: Alumni are always very vocal and opinionated when it comes to sports on campus and can be rather demanding as well. Have Vanderbilt's alums responded to the elimination of the athletic department?

GOLDMAN: They have responded and they haven't. And in that, I mean when this first happened two years ago, a lot of alum who are steeped in tradition were worried, they were angry, they were confused: `Why are you tampering with what I know best--you know, the athletic department, the athletic director?' But interestingly, with all of that concern and some anger, contributions have not dropped off, and I think partly because throughout this process the last two years Vanderbilt sports teams have continued to do well. The men's and women's basketball teams have done well in the NCAA tournaments. The baseball team has done well. Minor sports have done well. And then, most recently, the football team has done well, and that ultimately is what boosters like to see. And now most of the people see that the sports haven't dropped off, that the facilities are being upgraded, and most really are comfortable. Although, in private, some will kind of tell you that this still is all a little weird.

ELLIOTT: NPR's Tom Goldman. Hope to hear from you again in a few weeks. Thanks.

GOLDMAN: My pleasure, Debbie.

Copyright © 2005 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.