Through the Trifocals: Illinois & the NCAA

The University of Illinois has had a frustrating long-term relationship with the NCAA that may be continuing unabated. Illinisports discusses this relationship, especially how it has affected the Deon Thomas case and the Chief Illiniwek controversy, in this article. This is part IV of XIV parts.

Truly, Walter Byers was a master at obtaining power. As the NCAA engulfed other organizations and added schools of varying size, wealth and interest, the diversity of needs created subdivisions. This played into Byers' hand because no group of schools could generate enough support to get their agendas passed by the total membership. And Byers stacked all committees with his own loyal friends, guaranteeing no surprises. Thus, the NCAA staff could direct any legislation to serve its personal needs.

He knew the membership was not highly involved in the early years, so he had free reign to create the organization in his own image. He compartmentalized to the point only he knew everything. By manipulating and limiting the flow of information, he made the membership completely dependent upon him. When you add in the number of years he was in power, consolidating and controlling everything along the way, it is easy to understand that, by the time he finally retired, the NCAA was like a giant octopus with tentacles latching onto everything relating to college sports and beyond.

Walter Byers had his finger in every NCAA pie and controlled the outcome of events, despite his constant protestations to the contrary. Every piece of potential legislation brought before the NCAA membership was carefully sculpted to his personal liking. He then wrote scripts for the presenters at NCAA conventions, guaranteeing they would say only what he wanted them to say.

In his 1986 Sports Illustrated article, Jack McCallum provides much detail about Walter Byers' use of power within the NCAA:

"Byers takes disingenuousness to dizzying heights when he claims, as he frequently does, that he is a man with little power. 'It doesn't matter what I think,' Byers once said. 'We're here to try and facilitate what the members want to get done in intercollegiate athletics.' On other occasions he has advanced the idea that he is somewhat of a marionette, moving only when the member institutions pull his strings. Hogwash. Simply the duration of his reign--4 years longer than Clarence Campbell ran the NHL, 11 years longer than Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis ran major league baseball, 15 years longer than Avery Brundage ran the IOC, 18 years longer than Maurice Podoloff ran the NBA--has given Byers great power. And if he doesn't want to call it power, if he wants to hide his whip behind the bylaws of the NCAA, then call it influence. It comes down to the same thing...

"Certainly, it's safe to say that Byers has been able to control the important NCAA Council for most, if not all, of the time. And the Council is the major decision-making body within the NCAA. Half of its 44 members are appointed by the various conferences and half are elected from an NCAA-backed slate of delegates. Not too much room for error there. 'The NCAA in Mission (Kansas) is a strong central organization that has control over its members,' says Illinois athletic director Neale Stoner. 'If you think the members put together the legislation, you're crazy.' It would be going too far to say that Byers has a wire into every council member. But by and large they are 'his people.' And they are everywhere, not just in Mission. For example, the presence of (Wayne) Duke in the Big Ten and Tom Hansen, his counterpart in the Pac-10, who worked under Byers for 15 years, cannot be overlooked. They head the two major conferences that did not break off from the NCAA to join the rival College Football Association. Their allegiance to Byers may be entirely proper and understandable. But Byers cannot pretend that a useful old-boy network does not exist."

This network is even more vast today. Numerous former staff members have been hired as athletic directors and conference commissioners around the country. Presumably, they are hired because their knowledge of the NCAA helps their schools and conferences achieve maximum potential. But it is also likely that at least some were hired to give themselves credibility with the NCAA, to protect themselves in case of investigations of rules violations.

In some cases, the "old-boy" network becomes too contrived for comfort. For instance, Lonny Rose was hired while a law professor at the University of Kansas to become the assistant athletic director for compliance at that school. This involved working closely with the NCAA. Eventually Rose founded Sports Masters, a Kansas City company that represents schools under investigation by the NCAA. This company gave some people the impression it was like "the fox guarding the henhouse" since its first loyalty might have been to the NCAA rather than the schools it represented. Other former NCAA staff have also worked as legal council for schools under investigation, especially in those cases where the schools decided to forego any fight for their innocence.

Parts V through XIV will appear on in the upcoming days.

Part I of this series is available here.
Part II of this series is available here.
Part III of this series is available here.

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