Talking conference realignment, the NCAA's future and the 'Alliance' with longtime administrator Kevin McNamee
'They need to look in the mirror and realize that their government structure and the bureaucracy attached to the NCAA is just too huge. It’s outgrown itself.'
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One of the biggest storylines in college athletics right now is just how many major storylines there are, particularly those that take place in boardrooms or courtrooms, ranging from conference realignment, to the outcome and potential ramifications of NCAA v. Alston, to the start of the name, image and likeness era, to first-time transfers being eligible to play immediately in all sports, to the NCAA’s upcoming constitutional convention.
I recently had an extended conversation with longtime George Mason University administrator Kevin McNamee, who served as the university’s deputy athletic director and who recently retired after 27 years at the school. McNamee served on multiple NCAA committees, he previously worked at St. Bonaventure as the university’s head swimming coach and he worked at George Mason during the Patriots’ men’s basketball program’s Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2006, which helped pave the way for the university to change its conference affiliation during the next decade.
McNamee has lots of personal experience and insight that’s related to many of the current issues in college athletics, and we discussed them in detail in the interview below.
The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Out of Bounds: Anecdotally, it seems like there's been a lot of turnover at the commissioner level and with school presidents and ADs. Do you think there's a correlation between all the changes right now, from Alston, to NIL, to one-time transfers, and then this apparent exodus of major powerbrokers who are leaving the industry?
Kevin McNamee: “I do and you know, truth to power, as I always speak, is it's a situation that even affected me. Where it is all headed and the cumulative effect of everything that is happening right now, I do think wears on people. I don't think – I know, for fact, it wears on people. I'm not saying everybody is in that boat and I never would say everybody’s in that boat. But it has been such a dramatic change and it has all been at warp speed. And I think the speed with which a lot of this is happening, I think the economics of college athletics, the business model, I think elements like that have really, really affected a lot of people.”
Out of Bounds: Do you think the race for more revenue and better facilities and more fundraising has changed the path to becoming an administrator today?
KM: “I do. I really do and I think that's a good observation. I think it's spot on. One of the issues that I talk to friends of mine about – because again, in a position like mine, I'm reverse engineering issues, and I'm reverse engineering issues that come from the outside in. So I'm trying to get it from the inside out, and I think a lot of what is really happening right now is driven by that change and that administrative status and stature. I don't want anybody to be offended by this and it's a bit of candor, but it's sometimes referred to as the NACDA [National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics] model, you know, the director of athletics association and it's a great organization. Don't get me wrong. But right now with business, with all the legal issues, with higher education where it is right now and the complexity to that, it obviously has gravitated in that direction. But revenue is the driver to everything.
“I can't do my job unless there's revenue coming in and it makes my job possible to do, so I'm happy that those people are there to do that, but my whole view of that is that it’s unfortunate if more coaches aren’t involved in the future because I just think many athletic directors, they have a tendency maybe not to see things down on ground level quite the way they should.”
Out of Bounds: With conference realignment back in the news, given Oklahoma and Texas' future moves to the SEC, it wasn't that long ago that George Mason moved from the CAA to the A-10. I'm curious from your perspective, what were some of those considerations and the behind-the-scenes conversations for GMU when you guys switched conferences back in 2013?
KM: “It was basketball. It was all basketball. It was all men's basketball. It was an opportunity for us to take what we had done in 2006 and then we advanced again in the NCAA tournament [in 2011] and it was all driven by basketball.
“This is one of those soft spots I have in my heart and it's interesting because nowadays everybody's talking about conferences and like institutions. The Colonial Athletic Association was a tremendous group of schools. It’s always been a tremendous group of schools, but [it was made up of] like – genuinely like – institutions when it was Old Dominion, when it was VCU, when it was ourselves. So as conferences started to then evolve in a different direction, based on the attempt to get one more at-large [NCAA tournament bid] out of a conference, that changed the whole direction.
“So for us it was a big, big difference and a big change because we were very comfortable – maybe some would argue too comfortable – with the group that we were with in the Colonial and we needed to step it up. [Former George Mason AD] Tom O'Connor, at that time, had a lot of influence because my boss was, as AD, chair of the [NCAA Division I men’s] basketball committee. He was front and center on all the issues nationally, so it was a very easy and a very natural type of thing for him to want to pursue.”
Out of Bounds: What do you think is the future for a basketball-first athletic department that doesn't sponsor FBS football?
KM: “One of the biggest problems that we have today, in my opinion after 40-some years in this business, is basically the word ‘commitment.’ And that word is used all the time. It's used from basketball coaches to student-athletes. It's used all the way up – presidents. ‘We're committed, we're committed.’ I learned this back in Indiana when I was an assistant out there. If you have 40 people in the room and you ask them to define commitment – commitment to something, you know, something that is singular to the group – you could absolutely get 40 different definitions.
“It's so important and I never realized back then how important that was going forward and even more so, it's one thing to be talking to your athletes about commitment and understanding, but boy, right now it is critically important. So for conferences to say they’re committed to doing something, committed to competing at a national level, well, there's all sorts of issues that fall into that.
“Is the membership strong enough within to give you enough NET and enough strength in scheduling to be able to get you where you want to go? If not, then how does this work to get that outside of conference play? It makes non-conference play exponentially more important. And the complexity that's coming now, quite honestly, when I sat here and I listened to the ‘Alliance’ [press conference], I watched it on TV, and [they’re] talking about basketball games. More non-conference across those three conferences, that's going to take dates. That's gonna take strength to schedule. That's gonna take NET away from a lot of people.
“And so then it falls back to, if you want to be something more than a one-bid league, then you've got to define ‘commitment,’ and then you have to follow up on the definition of commitment, not just say it. But you got to do it.”
Out of Bounds: What exactly did your role include as the sport administrator for that ‘06 team?
KM: “I had the wonderful pleasure of being assigned and intimately involved from the first round in Dayton all the way through to the Final Four because my boss Tom O'Connor was very, very gracious in handing that over to me, with his oversight coming from where he was located with regards to the basketball committee.
“He was at work that year in his first year on the NCAA tournament committee, so I really, with several other people in the department, got to walk that whole process through. Then, obviously, the Final Four, which was like a tsunami coming at me with a straw in my mouth. It was just huge but it was a wonderful opportunity. We knew that [former George Mason coach] Jim Larrañaga – and Jim knew – that we were very capable of doing what we did in the early rounds. We knew we had that good a team. That did not necessarily surprise us, within those who know Jim and knew what the program was like that year, so it wasn't a huge surprise when we advanced.
“We then caught a big break coming back to Washington, D.C., because we ended up playing here in front of all of northern Virginia, so that was a tremendous break for us and it was really happenstance.
“We had already beaten Wichita State in what used to be, you’ll remember this – ESPN BracketBusters. We had beaten Wichita State and that was gonna be a key piece of us getting into the tournament, is how we did in that game, and we beat them out there in Wichita and then we were facing them literally weeks later here in Washington, D.C.
“So we knew what we were capable of doing if we could get it going. The other interesting thing is – and there's not a lot of this that happens anymore, or happens quite as much anymore – arguably our most critical player, Tony Skinn, we suspended him. Tom O'Connor suspended him from the first NCAA game because of on-court misconduct that he had in the [conference] tournament. So we sat out arguably the guy that drove our program and knocked off Michigan State and then came back and got North Carolina with him in the lineup. There aren’t a lot of programs that would’ve sat a kid like that out and I give Tom O’Connor total credit for having done that. It was an educational moment and it took guts to do and he didn't even waver on it.”
Out of Bounds: You've served on several NCAA committees and we know that the NCAA is going to hold this constitutional convention in November to reimagine its future. I'm curious what, specifically, do you think needs to be restructured within the NCAA or how it operates?
KM: “I think the first thing is they need to look in the mirror and realize that their government structure and the bureaucracy attached to the NCAA is just too huge. It’s outgrown itself. I think, quite honestly, it's a time for a complete change and I hope the right people are on that committee to make the right changes because it's outgrown itself.
“And a factor that's come into it is, I believe, digital media and there's more accountability now. The NCAA is held to, I believe, a lot more accountability, with people like yourself and others who are out there reporting on what's going on, how things are being done. That pressure, that focus, I think has mattered. They need to realize that. I think they do now. The problem is – and I hate to see this, we're in such a chaotic situation with everything – but my hope is, I hope the Autonomy Five, I hope they take their football and do their thing. I hope that either under a rebranded NCAA or something along those lines, we can find the way to put everything else into into that rebranded organization for championships and things along those lines.
“I don't mean to be politically insensitive, but Eddie Donovan – my former boss, was general manager of the New York Knicks – used to tell me it's impossible to be half-pregnant, and right now in many ways the NCAA is, because football has taken themselves, they've taken their revenue, and they have just moved it out of the structure. We need to just acknowledge that and we need to find a way to make this thing work with them basically going totally autonomous.”
Out of Bounds: Speaking of conferences, you mentioned you watched the ‘Alliance’ press conference. What did you make of that announcement, especially as someone that worked at a basketball institution and in a basketball conference?
KM: “It's interesting because the first thing I thought about is when [former Big Ten Commissioner] Jim Delany, you know maybe a decade ago, opened up a relationship and basically the same type of concept, an alliance with the Pac-12. They wanted to schedule more together. That was one way Jim Delany was talking about growing programming without having to expand conferences. I got the distinct feeling, knowing that the ACC's commissioner [Jim Phillips] was a Big Ten guy, I just felt there was an awful lot of what had been proposed by Delany, except it was twisted. Remember, 10 years ago there was huge expansion going on and there was a lot of chaos.
“Whether people realize it or not, me having been in this business and [I] know people in the Big Ten and know people who have been very high up in the Big Ten, is that their consortium, their alliance with regards to, like, cancer research, that matters to them. It matters deeply to them and it's nice that it does.
“So I do think that's part of their DNA and I do think that DNA, probably 10 years ago, was attractive to the Pac-12 in terms of ‘Where are we going? How can we work together to maybe expand our brands?’ and whatnot. So I looked at what was going on as almost being, they took something off the shelf, dusted it off and tweaked it a bit.”
Out of Bounds: You are close to swimming world, so I'm curious, do you have any concerns at all about the Olympic pipeline?
KM: “I was on the board of directors for USA Swimming, back when Chuck Wielgus was CEO and I have long ties to the sport. I'm gonna be working with them on the top 100 swimmers and the top 100 coaches program that they're putting together. What the United States has – and it's recognized throughout the rest of the world – is a very unique support system to it, that we are supplying [Olympians], obviously, and have been. This isn't anything new. [We] have been supplying a tremendous number of athletes, not only to the United States team, but to the world. A lot of those people are coming here now to be educated, which is great, and to train here.
“I'm not worried as much about, say, a Big Ten and I think they were speaking to that a little bit, about broad-based programming and trying to remain broad-based. I don't think they want to go through that. They feel as though they've got the resources. The ones that [I’m] concerned about are all the other conferences, because what's happening, whether people want to admit it or not – and there are economists that say this is ridiculous, and I understand – but there are a lot of athletic directors that with all the change and the pressure coming at the autonomy, Power Five level, they've got to find that money someplace, and for the programs and institutions that are highly subsidized, that’s a critical concern.
“I do get nervous about programs with large institutional subsidies being able to carry the number of sports they’re carrying, unless you have a very, very aggressive fundraising team, very connected in philanthropy, things along those lines. Because at our level, there's no significant TV media rights deals. So I worry about what's going on in these other sports in general because I think the experiential lab that they are is tremendous.
“I've heard some of the pundits say, ‘Just go club,’ and ‘Let them go.’ That'll end it. That’ll kill it all. I mean, the people who are saying that just obviously aren't living on many college campuses. So, am I concerned? I am concerned. But I have more concern right now for everybody outside of the Power Five.”
Out of Bounds: As someone who spent your whole career on a college campus, within an athletic department, coaching, teaching athletes, being around them, what is something that fans or writers or pundits maybe think they know, but they just either don't understand or don’t appreciate?
KM: “The real thing to me, as I said, is the fact that I'm not sure – especially in today's world – that there's a better experiential laboratory for young people. It gets them away from their iPhones and technology and puts them into [a situation where] they got to communicate. They've got to work together. I can tell you this, and again [I worked in this industry for] 45 years and I come from an academic-background family, I am of the belief that I wouldn’t blame any universities for starting a major in athletics, because the science and human performance, because the science and nutrition, because of the need to work with these young people regarding NIL. So there's management in that, there's marketing, there's some finance. I just think that it is an education that many times is unto itself and I liken it, quite honestly, to the fine arts.
“If you're a cellist, if you're a violinist, you know here at George Mason, our School of Music is tremendous. They’ve got to get the best and they come in and they work and they train to perform and play and get to the next level. I just think it's an educational experiential lab and athletics is second to none. And if you have the right people in the leadership positions, it is so rewarding to see where they are.
“I mean, my wife and I were talking today, my swimmers were in Nashville from one of my later teams. These guys all now have kids going off the college, but they're vice presidents. NBC. You know, they're doing wonderful things. Tremendous things. Secret service. Tremendous things in the world and they all talk about [how] they relate back to that time and all that they learned from it.”
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