Notre Dame President John Jenkins: College basketball is worth saving

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – College basketball is broken.

The Rev. John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, believes it can be fixed. He’s worked to do that.

Jenkins spent the last seven months as a member of a 12-person task force, chaired by former Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice (who earned a Masters at Notre Dame), designed to offer solutions to heal what currently ails the men’s game.

Like many around college athletics, Jenkins has long heard whispers of wrong doing in men’s basketball. Behind the scenes. Under the tables. By head coaches. By assistants. To get players. Kids. To win. And keep winning. At any and all cost.

Maybe there was cheating, maybe there wasn’t. There really was no way to know. Until last fall. That’s when Jenkins realized the sport’s problems ran deeper. That’s when the Federal Bureau of Investigation got involved.

The beginning of the end, many feared. Something, Jenkins thought then, had to be done.

“This brought it to the light of day,” Jenkins said Wednesday afternoon during a press conference called for the school president to talk college basketball, something that has rarely occurred. “It’s a real crisis.”

Jenkins figured the current college basketball climate was bad. He’s since learned that it’s even worse.

“It’s a pretty wild-west environment,” he said. “It’s ungoverned territory and whenever you have ungoverned territory, you have bad actors coming in trying to capitalize on it.

“It’s a different world.”

Jenkins was one of two current college presidents to serve on the Rice Commission. Since fall, he has worked alongside Hall of Fame players (Grant Hill, David Robinson), current athletic directors (Hofstra’s Jeff Hathaway, Ohio State’s Gene Smith) and former coaches (Mike Montgomery, John Thompson III) to figure out how to fix the game. And fix it sooner than later.

On Wednesday, the Rice Commission offered its suggestions to the NCAA – which likely will go to vote in August – to get the good back in the game. The 60-page report addresses the one-and-done rule (do away with it), agents (allow players more contact without jeopardizing their eligibility), shoe companies (severely limit their influence on summer AAU events, which eventually should go away) and players who declare early for the NBA but don’t get drafted (allow them to return to school).

What it doesn’t do in any way – not today, tomorrow, next week or next month – is suggest a solution that includes a system that pays college basketball players. Cries grew louder after the FBI sting stories hit last fall that none of this – OK, some of it - wouldn’t happen if the players were paid.

That’s plain wrong, Jenkins said. And likely forever will be.

“Once we go down that road, we become a second- or third-tier professional league,” said Jenkins, whose scholarship athletes basically receive a free, four-year education that runs roughly $280,000. “That just changes the whole dynamic of where we’re going.”

Paying players is too easy a way out. And in so many ways, in the eyes of coaches and administrators and presidents, the wrong way.

“It’s against everything that we’re about,” said Irish men’s basketball coach Mike Brey, who joined Jenkins for the 24-minute press conference at McKenna Hall. “That’s an easy crutch for everyone. You think trying to get ahold of college basketball is hard now, we throw that one out there, it’s going to be out of control.”

Out of control like the current one-and-done situation. The NBA stipulates that pro prospects must attend college for at least one year. Many who believe they’re NBA-ready do. But really, they’re college students for only one semester – in the fall. By the first of the New Year, they’re already locked in on getting to the league. Why should they attend class? By the time they’re ruled academically ineligible, their basketball season is over and they’ve declared for the draft.

Jenkins doubled down on one-and-dones earlier Wednesday in a press release following Rice’s 20-minute presentation in Indianapolis.

“With its recommendations today, the commission seeks to sound the death knell of the educational sham that is ‘one and done,’ restore integrity to the game and otherwise remind us that a college’s first obligation to its athletes is a good education.”

Later in the day, he reinforced the commissions’ belief that one-and-dones should be none-and-dones.

“Look, it gives mockery to the very idea that these kids are coming here to get a degree,” Jenkins said. “The players, the families, their coaches, the universities all know they’re not.”

Notre Dame has never had a one-and-done player. Only two – Demetrius Jackson and Troy Murphy – have left for the NBA prior to their senior seasons during Brey’s 18 seasons.

Jenkins said Wednesday that his main role during the commission meetings – they also met at the Final Four last month in San Antonio - was to listen. When Brey talked with people he’s close to in the business, like committee members Hathaway and Thompson, he learned that Jenkins did more than just sit and watch.

The Notre Dame president rolled up his sleeves and went to work.

“(They) said, you’re guy (Jenkins) is good in those meetings,” Brey said. “I know he really pounded the table on enforcement.”

As does Brey. The commission offered possible punishment bans of at least five years, or even life, for coaches and teams that refuse to play the rules. Brey’s all for it.

“Bring it,” he said. “If we’re going to have to put some teeth into this thing, we have to be really, really powerful.”

Are the commission’s answers the right ones to move this forward? Will it fix the system? Who knows, but as Brey said multiple times Wednesday, they’ve got to start somewhere.

“It’s a steep hill to climb,” Jenkins said. “I wouldn’t place odds on it, but as someone once said, never waste a good crisis. I think this is a crisis and we can use it to make college basketball better.

“It’s worth saving, but it will depend on all of us. I’m optimistic. We’ve got a long way to go.”

With at least a few more routes of how to get there.

Notre Dame President Rev. John I. Jenkins speaks along side men's basketball coach Mike Brey on recommendations given by the Commission on College Basketball during a press conference Wednesday, April 25, 2018 at McKenna Hall in South Bend.