Wed, Jul 02, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Universities in US said to be involved in a big conspiracy


Universities sometimes switch conferences, but there has never been a battle quite like this: former conference allies suing a member institution for simply thinking of leaving. Miami and Shalala were accused of conspiracy and lack of integrity.

At one level this break exposed the raw emotion of one of our nation's most unique institutions: intercollegiate athletics. This is where academics, sports and fierce school loyalty converge to form a powerful emotional tempest.

In an interview Monday morning, Shalala described the last two months as "wild, goofy, bizarre." She quoted her mentor, Wallace Sayre, who taught political science at Columbia: "The meanest, dirtiest form of politics is the politics of higher education, because the stakes are so low."

Miami's exodus from the Big East was the most significant facelift in intercollegiate athletics since Penn State joined the Big Ten in 1993, and Arkansas left the Southwest Conference for the Southeastern Conference. The SWC subsequently folded in 1994.

Football interest was the driving force in each move, but in Miami's case Shalala used a successful program to move her university into a prestigious conference that will provide long-term security for the athletic department and academic prestige the university desperately sought.

Like any longstanding relationship with deep emotions, there was no way this could have had a happy ending. Eighteen months ago Shalala made a verbal commitment to stay in the Big East. "They were accurate at the time," she said. "I obviously didn't say forever. Things change. That's our point. Things do change and opportunities come forward."

A lawsuit filed by a group of Big East schools claimed, among other things, that at least one university committed itself to building a new stadium, anticipating that Miami would be around to help fill the seats.

I agree with Miami's position: It was tired of being the economic engine that pulled Big East football.

Shalala's strategy is to make Miami one of the nation's prestigious academic institutions. There will come a day when the football team may not be the engine it is now. When that day comes, Shalala wants Miami to have a safety net. That net is the ACC.

"In the Big East, you get rewarded by your success," Shalala said. "In the ACC, everybody gets the same amount of money. For a school like Miami, if we had a few rebuilding years, the ACC is a better place for us. It takes some of the pressure off of you having to win to balance the budget."

The Big East's counterproposal was heavy on money and success.

"Everything everybody's written about what's wrong with college athletics was right there in front of our eyes," she said referring to the Big East proposal. "The ACC offered something different, and as messy as the process, as bizarre or goofy as it was, at the end of the day, what the crazy process allowed us to do is actually be more thoughtful.

"If you could insulate yourself from the kind of bullying that was taking place, then you actually can make a thoughtful decision that was good for your institution."

The Miami football and basketball coaches were consulted by Shalala. In another time and place, football coaches could have roared their disapproval of switching conferences. More likely the university would have stayed. Shalala is symbolic of a time when presidents are doing the roaring.

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