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Vanderbilt model seen as answer

NCAA's Brand endorses shift in sports culture

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt's coaches were stunned. NCAA president Myles Brand was pleased.

Chancellor Gordon Gee caught everyone by surprise with his plan to eliminate the school's athletic department and merge Division I sports with intramural programs — and he landed an endorsement Wednesday from Brand.

Vanderbilt football coach Bobby Johnson also came out in favor of the bold move, and Mississippi State's Jackie Sherrill predicted other colleges will follow to save money.

"It is a major shift in the collegiate sports culture. It will be a model for how to embed the operations that have been isolated from the university with similar functions throughout the campus," Brand said.

"Their model may not be right for everyone right now, but it is sure to be a topic of discussion as universities manage their athletics programs in the future."

Gee's announcement prompted questions about Vanderbilt's commitment to the Southeastern Conference. It was a main topic of conversation for Johnson during a conference call for SEC coaches Wednesday.

Johnson said the announcement surprised him but added he considers Gee a "very forward-thinking man."

Gee has been crusading for higher academic standards since taking over Vanderbilt in 2000, and he hopes the reorganization announced Tuesday will help curb the ills of big-time college sports. Gee said Wednesday that he had received plenty of e-mails and messages backing his move, which he estimated will take six months to complete.

"Someone somewhere had to break the logjam and say there is another way," Gee said.

The football team has lost 27 of its last 28 SEC games and has 20 consecutive losing seasons. The women's basketball team annually goes to the NCAA tournament but never won an SEC regular-season title. The men's basketball team has been to the NCAA tournament only once since 1994.

Money played a big role in Gee's decision.

Vanderbilt trimmed its athletic department budget $1.5 million this year because fund-raising is down, as are ticket sales in football and men's basketball.

A recent study found almost every NCAA school regularly loses money on sports. Sherrill said merging the athletic department with the rest of the school will eliminate duplicated services.

"Vanderbilt did something that an awful lot of the universities around the country will start doing," Sherrill said.

Todd Turner, ousted as athletic director, had been Gee's point man in academic reform as chairman of an NCAA committee designing a new way to measure how well colleges help their athletes progress and graduate.

Gee offered Turner a job as his special assistant for academic and athletic reform.

Alphonso Harvey, a Vanderbilt defensive lineman in 1995-98 and now an engineer at UPS in Nashville, thinks Gee's restructuring will be good for a school where athletes often feel like outsiders.

"If it works here — and I think it will because I think Gee is the type of guy that gets things done — I think people will feel some pressure to make changes in their own program," Harvey said.