Polk Stirs Up Coaches With Letter About New NCAA Rules
Say this for Ron Polk: he sure knows how to create a stir.
Polk has been a college baseball coach for 40 years—29 of them with his current school, Mississippi State—and it seems like he's been railing against NCAA injustices for even longer than that. But Polk has saved his most passionate crusading for 2007, when academic reform legislation threatens to transform college baseball's landscape forever.
The NCAA Board of Directors approved legislation in April that would require players to sit out a year when transferring from one Division I school to another; earn fall certification to be eligible to participate in spring competition; cap rosters at 35 players and cap scholarship players at 27; and require all players on athletic scholarship to receive a minimum aid package of 33 percent.
The roster cap and minimum scholarship requirements created an uproar amongst college coaches, who mobilized presidents of 72 Division I schools to request a vote to override the legislation at the Board of Directors' August meeting. In response to the override requests, the Academic Enhancement Working Group that had been originally charged with drafting the changes recommended the Board shelve the legislation for a year for further study; the Board ignored the recommendation, choosing instead to uphold the legislation with one modification: the minimum aid threshold was reduced to 25 percent.Last-Ditch Effort
Polk has been a vocal critic of this process from the onset, but he ratcheted up his efforts in September, sending an 18-page letter to the presidents, athletic directors and coaches of every school that plays Division I baseball, the Board of Directors, the members of the working group, and others.
Polk probably could have streamlined his message—the first four pages are largely spent pleading with readers not to put down the letter—but he did help mobilize 52 presidents to request override votes again, the first time since the NCAA adopted its current governance structure in 1997 that a piece of legislation has been overridden twice. The Board will review the package again at its November meeting, but American Baseball Coaches Association executive director Dave Keilitz—a member of the working group--said he expects the legislation to be upheld.
"We knew from day one, hey, this is not going to be an easy process, and it's going to involve a lot of changes by a lot of schools, just because of the diversity of the many programs we have and the many facets involved in it," Keilitz said. "I'm not really surprised there is an override. I would be surprised if it got enough votes to throw this part of it out."
Polk's letter harshly criticizes the working group, which has 27 members but just three current college coaches. Not surprisingly, the letter annoyed and insulted some members of the working group, and caused others to wonder about the wisdom of such a brash approach.
"I think he made a lot of very valid points," said Louisiana State coach Paul Mainieri, a member of the working group. "But the thing is there's a system that's in place to effect change, and in order to effect change you have to follow the system.
"I had differences of opinion with a lot of people in those meetings, and I voiced them. But in the end that group tried to do what was best. Nobody in that group expected everybody to be happy with every aspect of that plan. It's one thing to be opinionated and it's another thing to personally attack people. I'm sure some people didn't take what Ron said very fondly."United In Concern
Mainieri agreed with Polk's point that the minimum scholarship threshold and roster caps were unnecessary. Many coaches are very supportive of Polk's letter—particularly its assertion that college coaches would have cleaned up their own mess once penalties were put into place for low Academic Progress Rate scores. Indeed, baseball's average APR climbed from 922 in 2005 to 931 in 2006 to 934 in 2007, as scholarship reduction penalties have taken hold and the specter of future ineligibility for the NCAA tournament has loomed for schools with lagging scores.
"The only thing that ever needed to change was the penalty," said Baylor coach Steve Smith, the ABCA's first vice president and a former Polk assistant. "If the penalty was, in order to be eligible for the NCAA tournament, you have to have a 925 APR, I guarantee it would be fixed. You wouldn't have to worry about the transfer rule or the roster size or the minimum scholarship amount. If you want to modify the behavior, change the punishment. It's as old as mom and dad."
Smith and Tulane coach Rick Jones have said they fear the new rules will place a significant burden on private schools, but public schools like Mississippi State and LSU share their concerns about the minimum scholarship amount and roster caps. So do coaches at small, cold-weather schools, many of which are not fully funded and will be hamstrung by the inability to spread their limited funds out among many players.
"This has created quite a stir, and it doesn't matter if you're up here in the Northeast or down in the South," Albany coach Jon Mueller said. "The issue is we're a partial-scholarship sport, and the NCAA is really telling us how to spend our money."What About Student-Athletes?
Most of all, though, coaches all around the country expressed concerns that student-athletes will be hurt by the changes much more than they're helped. Coaches everywhere are struggling to pare down their rosters while also trying to prepare for future losses to the draft and graduation, creating a situation where many players are going to find themselves without a scholarship or without an opportunity.
"I just don't think it's good business," Auburn recruiting coordinator Butch Thompson said. "I don't think it's fair, and I don't think it's right by people. A player like me, that was very marginal, just a solid contributor-type college player, I might not have the same opportunities anymore."
California recruiting coordinator Dan Hubbs said he agreed that the solid players who are not stars will now be left out in the cold. In the past, those players would often get a chance to play at the schools they wanted on a book scholarship, but now schools will be hesitant to offer them a 25 percent scholarship until very late in the recruiting process. Oregon State recruiting coordinator Marty Lees added that the roster cap will also take away opportunities for walk-ons.
"It will force some teams to make some decisions," Lees said. "Guys like Chris Kunda, Brian Barden—those guys were walk-ons here. The state of Oregon doesn't have 20 D-I baseball players every year, so the money it takes for in-state tuition versus out-of-state, you've got to be right, because kids can't transfer. People will be doing their homework now a little better."
That might be a positive impact of the legislation—as Florida coach Kevin O'Sullivan said, teams will no longer be able to recruit everybody they want and instead will have to focus on their needs. That, in turn, will assure players a better shot at playing time, which is one of the primary goals of the roster cap.
But forcing coaches to wriggle when building their rosters has plenty of negative ramifications, paricularly for underprivileged players.
"I coach a sport where a young man doesn't always go where he wants to go, he goes where he can afford to go. We don't offer scholarships, we negotiate them," Jones said. "That's not a healthy position to be in, but that will be amplified now. You're going to be negotiating scholarships even more now, and that's not healthy.
"Why would I have to give 25 percent to a kid who doesn't need it and not be able to give more to a kid who does? That's not fair. I think it's one-sided against the student-athlete."
Whether or not Polk and his 18-page letter was the right conduit through which to convey that message is not as important as the message itself. Now, coaches can only hope against the odds that their fervent opposition hits home with the Board of Directors.
"I hope they will choose to table (the changes)," Smith said. "I hope they'll say, 'You know what? This is a very controversial piece of legislation, with a wide-ranging impact. We've already changed the transfer rule, that's a major change by itself. We've already changed fall certification, that's major too. Let's hold off on this, this is going to hurt a lot of kids.'
"There are a lot of kids who are going to be cut that don't need to be cut. I remain optimistic that (the changes will be tabled), and if it doesn't happen, it'll go to the convention floor (in January), and it'll be very difficult to win a vote on the convention floor."