Ryan Squire hears what some might consider mundane questions. On a daily basis. But they’re important in his job. Vital, in fact. The compliance director for the Illinois athletic department keeps coaches afloat of recruiting rules, athletes’ eligibility and the ever-evolving transfers that seem to dominate college athletics now. Squire sat down with staff writer Matt Daniels to talk about the NCAA convention held recently in San Diego, what went on there and the possibility of college athletes getting paid sooner rather than later.
What were the main topics broached at the NCAA convention?
The NCAA really made an emphasis on trying to get as many athletic directors and other administrators from around the country together to talk about this idea of a new governance structure in Division I. The biggest issue that they talked about there, amongst trying to restructure the way rules are passed and things, is the idea of giving more autonomy to the big five conferences — the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 — and for those conferences to be able to drive their agenda more. Under the current structure, we have over 300 Division I schools. Sixty-six of those schools are in those major conferences, and there have been a lot of times where the higher-revenue schools have wanted to pass certain rules or be able to do certain things, but since they’re outnumbered in Division I, it’s been hard to pass our agenda. The idea is to try to gauge the comfort level for those conferences having more autonomy to do certain things.
The big things have to deal with things like giving the student-athletes more in their scholarships and other things that higher-revenue institutions can do where lower-resource institutions can’t do the same. Those were some of the biggest issues that drew the biggest attention out there as far as the national media and trying to figure out what that would look like. To be clear, there was no formal vote or formal model, but they did do some straw-polling. Everybody had a clicker in hand, and they would throw out concepts, so people could vote informally.
How did that go?
There were some questions that people raised. About 60 percent of the Division I people in the room voted that they would be in favor of granting a little more autonomy to the larger conferences to advance our legislative agenda. What that means is the devil is in the details they say.
How would the breakdown of giving student-athletes additional money work?
That’s the million dollar question. It’s not so much can we do it or will we do it, but how will we do it and how will it look when we do? It was either three or four years back that Division I did pass a $2,000 stipend that could go to any full scholarship student-athlete in any sport for men’s or women’s, non-revenue or revenue. That was over-ridden, but that’s an example of what we’re talking about where in Division I we haven’t always been able to do what we want to do with the larger-resource institutions. We don’t know. What I’ve heard, and sort of what they floated at the convention, is that it would be up to the cost of attendance.
Can you clarify what that means?
At Illinois, that would be about an extra $3,500 in the student-athlete’s scholarship check for any student-athlete who is on a full scholarship. Football, basketball, volleyball, women’s tennis and women’s gymnastics, those are our full scholarship sports. With baseball, for instance, since they have to divide up scholarships, they would have some student-athletes that are on full scholarships, but most are on partial scholarships. So some student-athletes in those sports might get the benefit of that extra cost of attendance. Others may not. We’re still a long way off from a true model, but I think that’s the idea. If you’re thinking about $3,500, in some of our studies, that would probably cost the department somewhere in the ballpark of an extra $1 million a year in scholarships.
When do you realistically think this plan might go into effect?
I think the NCAA would like to have the finalized governance structure, essentially the method for passing the rules, in effect in 2014. That would then pave the way in 2015 to maybe advance some of these legislative ideas, which would include increased scholarships. It would also maybe take a look at the rules we have about agents and advisers for student-athletes, the way student-athletes use their pictures, likenesses and autographs. There are some things that we deal with in the big five conferences that maybe some of the other conferences don’t deal with when you’ve got high-profile student-athletes.
What do you think the public’s reaction will be to all this if it happens?
That’s a good question. I do think a lot of this is in reaction to the public opinion because I feel like the public opinion is starting to shift in a way against the amateur collegiate athletic model when they see coaches making millions, departments signing multi-milion dollar TV contracts, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament generating billions, literally, and student-athletes still getting paid tuition, fees, room, board and books. So, I think that we realize is that we need to be able to give the student-athletes a little bit larger slice of the pie while still maintaining that amateur model, but maybe give them some different opportunities than what they have right now to make the system a little more fair.
Any discussion about the NCAA transfer rules?
There was. That’s been a hot topic, especially in men’s basketball. Right now what we have is the general rule that student-athletes sit out when they transfer from competing for a year, but we saw a lot of these transfer waivers over the summer where we didn’t see a lot of consistency. Some student-athletes were getting them; some were not. They were weighing the concept of trying to find some more consistency there of either making it consistent that student-athletes sit out or making it consistent that student-athletes can transfer freely. I think we all agree that the system is a little broken.
What about the fifth-year transfers?
That was part of the conversation as well. You get the free agent at the end of his career for that fifth year when they graduate, and that’d be another thing they’d be looking at whether that’s a good idea to continue that practice or not. At the end of the day, they decided to kick the issue down the road for more discussion with hopes that in 2014 we can come to a better solution as far as the transfers to help appease the coaches and find some consistency that’s fair to the student-athletes.
Do you think it’s good that the NCAA is realizing some of its issues are a bit outdated?
Yes, very much so. That’s been a trademark of the last handful of years in the Mark Emmert era of the NCAA. We’ve realized some of the concepts and some of the rules that we have are trivial and unforceable rules, or are not always applied. We’re trying to take those on and be a little more efficient, a little more streamlined. It hasn’t worked very well to this point, but I do think that acknowledging the changing issues with the amount of revenue that we see in college sports and the profiles of some student-athletes are so great, it’s good to be examining them and trying to find solutions, even if it takes longer than we would like it to.
What’s the biggest issue you deal with on a daily basis?
Oh boy. Recruiting questions. Eligibility. Certification of eligibility. This time of year we’re spending a lot of time on our mid-year transfer students coming in at the start of the year. It’s just a lot of problem-solving and answering questions and making sure the things that need to be done, in respect to NCAA rules, are done in a timely manner.
What’s the biggest recruiting question you deal with?
Usually it’s “Can I send this?” when it pertains to certain documents. A lot of them have to deal with recruiting visits and what you can do there. A lot of time there will be a coach who’s out on the road and is trying to make contact with the recruit and needs to know what he or she can or can’t do. There’s always a lot of good questions. We do several hundred question and answers each year, so it’s always interesting.
Do the recruiting rules and regulations the NCAA has need to be tweaked at all?
They are to a certain extent. What we’re seeing in today’s environment is early recruiting. The process just starts earlier. Technology and communications have changed. There was a rule passed in San Diego that allows most of our sports, other than football, to text message prospects at the start of their junior year. Coaches aren’t necessarily in favor of that, but it’s a tremendous monitoring burden to watch out for. To be real, that’s how recruits communicate these days. We’ll open that up starting next academic year. Football is still holding out from that. They don’t want to text. That’s a brave new world for a lot of our coaches now. For them, they think that’s a lot of extra work, but hopefully, in the end, it will be a positive. They’ll also have unlimited phone calls starting with a recruit’s junior year. Right now they have to wait until their senior year, and they can’t text at all, so that will all open up. Football is trying to figure out what they want to do recruiting-wise. They don’t necessarily want to recruit earlier and they don’t want to text and don’t want unlimited calls. A lot of times it’s the high school coaches and kids that are wanting to be recruited, but right now, you’re recruiting 100 seniors trying to get through February and starting work on the 2015 class. The volume of kids you’re dealing with makes it pretty hard to be dealing with kids who are going to be graduating in 2017, but it’s reality now.
What’s it been like having more football mid-year enrollees at Illinois recently?
The football mid-year transfers are a certain kind of challenge just because of the timing issue. When you’re trying to get either a high school kid or a junior college kid graduated in December and get everything that needs to be done to certify their eligibility by the time they start school in January, that can be a real challenge. It’s not something we’ve done a lot of over the years. The last couple years it’s really picked up, so it’s been quite a challenge to get that worked out.
How challenging is it with the junior college players?
With the high school student that comes in at mid-year, the NCAA is going to certify the eligibility. For the junior college student, we have to certify their eligibility. Trying to get the proper records and even have a good idea of when the transcript is going to arrive from a junior college is a challenge. There’s a lot of pieces that need to be done.
What’s it like dealing with all the basketball transfers that have taken place the last few years?
That’s become part of the culture. Because of the timing, those are much easier to deal with as far as making sure that everything is in order for their eligibility. It’s just a little different once they’re here and they can’t travel or compete. That’s not as much of a challenge.
What was the process like concerning Ahmad Starks’ transfer situation?
I don’t want to say too much just out of respect to the Starks family. I don’t remember how much they talked about it publicly. With the NCAA transfers, there are guidelines that are published in advance, and the NCAA’s position is that to grant the waiver, the institution has to demonstrate that the student meets all of the guidelines, or most of them anyway. We spent most of our time trying to come up with documentation that would help us meet the guideline. Even in the areas where we didn’t quite meet the guideline, trying to justify why a waiver was still appropriate. In the NCAA’s eyes, we just didn’t quite get there. It’s just hard to sometimes look at the other cases that seem similar that are granted, but we don’t have the facts of every case, so it’s hard to compare.