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Vanderbilt eliminates athletic department

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt will eliminate its athletic department in a major shakeup designed to curb the ills of big-time college athletics.

Vanderbilt will continue playing intercollegiate sports, but the reorganization merges the departments that control varsity and intramural athletics, putting sports under the central university administration, the school said Tuesday.

"There is a wrong culture in athletics, and I'm declaring war on it," Vanderbilt Chancellor Gordon Gee said at a news conference.

No NCAA sports programs or jobs will be eliminated, but just about everything else will change at a school that has run one of the country's cleanest programs in the last half-century. That includes the elimination of the athletic director position, which Todd Turner has held for seven years.

Turner has been offered a job as special assistant to the chancellor for athletic and academic reform, a position in which he would advance "a national agenda for the reform of intercollegiate athletics."

"Let there be no misunderstanding of our intention: Vanderbilt is committed to competing at the highest levels in the Southeastern Conference and the NCAA, but we intend on competing consistent with the values of a world-class university," Gee said.

Vanderbilt's sports programs have had mixed success in recent years.

The football program has lost 18 straight Southeastern Conference games and 27 of its last 28 SEC games. The women's basketball team went to the NCAA regional tournament last year and lost in the second round while the men's basketball team finished 11-18. The men's tennis team was second in the nation.

Vanderbilt's move comes at a time of much debate in college sports about how schools run their programs, and follows numerous scandals across the country.

Gee said the traditional structure for collegiate athletics was "broken."

"At least (Vanderbilt) has a chance for success because it has athletes and academics in the same enterprise," he said.

Last season, Georgia and Fresno State withdrew their men's basketball teams from postseason play because of academic fraud, while St. Bonaventure forfeited two games when players boycotted after a player was declared ineligible.

At Missouri, school officials have appointed an engineering professor to oversee a probe into allegations a basketball player received improper academic and financial help. At Baylor, former coach Dave Bliss is accused of attempting to cover up the finances of a slain basketball player, Patrick Dennehy, by portraying him as a drug dealer.

Another high-profile basketball coach, Larry Eustachy, resigned from Iowa State earlier this year after the Des Moines Register published photos of him drinking and partying with students from another school.

At Ohio State, star running back Maurice Clarett was suspended indefinitely and charged with lying to police about items stolen from his car.

The National Association of Basketball Coaches has told all Division I basketball coaches to attend a summit next month in Chicago to discuss all the problems and ways to avoid them.

Vanderbilt's sports programs have been cited for just one major NCAA violation since 1953, an unethical conduct charge involving the women's basketball coach in 1991, and the school self-imposed penalties of fewer recruiting visits and the loss of one grant.

This month's NCAA report on graduation rates had the university leading the Southeastern Conference with 84 percent of all 1996 freshmen graduating, 75 percent for athletes and 91 percent for football.

Gee, who has been crusading for higher academic standards since he came to Vanderbilt in 2000, said college athletics "is in a defining moment in its life. Either we get control of it through university presidents, or it becomes simply a segregational, embarrassing part of institutions, and we'll just have to close it down."

He said leaders from other SEC schools have told him, "'Gordon, you go ahead and do it, and if you succeed we'll follow.' There's not a great deal of courage out there."

But Gee, a former university president at football powerhouse Ohio State, acknowledges that he faces far less pressure than his peers at schools with big-time football and basketball programs.

"If I did this at Ohio State I'd be pumping gas," he said.

Charles Bloom, spokesman for the Southeastern Conference, based in Birmingham, Ala., said it's too early to tell whether the changes at Vanderbilt are a trend or an anomaly.

"There's been discussion on the national level about bringing athletics into the academic world, and the question is, is this a sign of things to come?" he said.