Two weeks ago, Glen Tuckett was in Omaha, Nebraska, attending the College World Series as a member of the board of directors of the Baseball Coaches Association. This comes some 21 years after he retired as BYU’s athletic director.
I visited with Tuckett this past week for a question-and-answer session centering around his view of college athletics today.
In 2007, Tuckett was the sixth recipient of the Homer Rice Award given to the athletics director who had made a significant impact on the profession. Since serving as BYU athletics director from 1976 to 1993, most of the landscape of college sports has changed, some of it unrecognizable with skyrocketing salaries, conference realignments, a college football playoff, cost of attendance reforms and deflation of a once-proud WAC football regime that saw its heyday during his tenure at BYU.
Tuckett, 87, has served on numerous committees, including the NCAA Television Committee, College Football Association Executive Committee and the College Football Association Television Committee, and was a founder of the Holiday Bowl. He was president of the Association of Baseball Coaches and inducted into the Collegiate Baseball Hall of Fame.
In 1995, two years after leaving BYU, the University of Alabama hired Tuckett as interim athletic director in the wake of a major NCAA investigation into violations. Two decades out of retirement, he remains connected with many key collegiate administrators from coast to coast.
Here is a condensed account of the visit with Tuckett:
Deseret News: In the past 20 years we’ve seen major changes in college athletics. What is good and what is bad?
Tuckett: Let me preface my remarks with an anecdote. In one of my last meetings with the College Football Association (the year before I retired), I made the following statement: I am glad that I was in the twilight of my career rather than in the dawning of my career; that we should figuratively take a panoramic picture of inter-collegiate athletics because in 15 years we wouldn’t recognize it. That turned out to be prophetic. The landscape has changed dramatically. We have seen many changes here in Utah. The positive changes have involved an increased APR, which is an indicator of an improved graduation rate for athletes. There has been and continues to be improved facilities at every school. Women's athletics continue to grow and thrive. Athletes are given every opportunity to succeed in their sport and classroom.
The most glaring problem has to do with the tremendous financial burden that comes with trying to "keep up with the Joneses." We have a $19 trillion national debt, and it appears some of the more affluent universities are doing all they can to achieve that lofty figure with college athletics and by so doing create a more visible monetary discrepancy between the haves and have nots.
DN: What do you think of the College Football Playoff?
Tuckett: I like the four-team playoff because it provided a true champion. The best team won.
DN: Many college rivalries (Pitt-West Virginia, Oklahoma-Nebraska, BYU-Utah, Kansas-Missouri, Texas-Texas A&M) have been disrupted in the wake of realignment. What do you think?
Tuckett: I think it’s a shame. In our situation with the University of Utah, both directors of athletics should make the traditional rivalry game a top priority. I feel the same way about Nebraska/Oklahoma and Texas/Texas A&M.
DN: When you were the athletic director at Alabama, what did you learn compared to what you did at BYU?
Tuckett: I learned that what we were doing at BYU wasn’t too bad. Alabama, like BYU, enjoyed success of all the sports programs. In my 18 months at Alabama the football team went to a bowl game, men's basketball made it to the Final Four of the NIT, the women's gymnastics team won the NCAA championship, the baseball team played in the College World Series for the first time in more than 20 years. At Alabama, I had vice president status. I reported directly to President Roger Sayers. My job was so much easier because of the reporting structure. Although I worked with tremendous vice presidents at BYU (Ben Lewis, Rolfe Kerr and R.J. Snow), the process was at times time-consuming and non-productive.
DN: While the SEC, Pac-12 and other conferences consider BYU a Power 5 program for scheduling purposes, the Cougars remain an outsider, uninvited and independent. Is independence working?
Tuckett: For BYU athletics to achieve optimum success, a conference affiliation is mandatory. We are doing the best we can do with a difficult situation. The ESPN partnership has been our salvation because of helping to facilitate scheduling of attractive opponents. By the way, it is interesting to recall that the first nationally televised ESPN game was BYU at Pittsburgh in 1984. It set the stage for BYU's national championship. For us to continue to grow and regain national notoriety we must find a way to schedule home games that create more local interest.
DN: The Big 12 seems to be the most likely place for BYU to land if conference expansion talk begins again. You know Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby personally, so if you had a magic wand to position BYU as an expansion candidate, what would you do?
Tuckett: Well, first off, the Big 12 hasn’t said it would expand anytime soon but things could change over criticism of not having a conference playoff last year.
Let me first state I am sure Tom Holmoe and President Kevin Worthen are doing a herculean job trying to secure a conference affiliation. If it were me, I would concentrate on the Big 12. The Pac-12 has reached a saturation point and the Big 10, the ACC and SEC create a serious geographic problem. The first thing I would do is contact my good friend Mike Slive, the recently retired commissioner of the SEC and have him rehearse for me the positive presentations made by Texas A&M and Missouri as they applied for membership. I would use those presentations as a model, because they worked. Mike could also make other suggestions that would be helpful and to which I would listen intently. And the SEC did it to make it work to each party’s satisfaction. Second, I’d identify the powerful decision-makers, the heavy hitters in the Big 12 — of course this would include Bob Bowlsby, the commissioner. I would then find effective ways to get to know the power brokers. This group should include a representative from the following groups: the President's Council, a faculty representative, two directors of athletics, a nationally respected football coach and a representative of women's sports.
I would find an effective method to invite a few of the above people to visit Provo and spend some time on campus. If the person were a skier, I would have him or her spend a day at Deer Valley and perhaps spend the evening at Sy Kimball's penthouse condominium. If he/she were a fisherman, they should spend some time fly fishing on the Provo, or a morning at Strawberry. If he/she were a fine arts person, I would spend the morning at the Harris Fine Arts Building and the TV/Broadcast facility and be sure that person came early in December and be an honored guest at the LDS Conference Center. My point — decisions are made, coalitions are formed, and partnerships become a reality mainly because of sincere friendships and a cooperative effort. Practically every football and basketball game I scheduled during my 17 years as AD was the result of longtime, sincere friendship with other ADs.
I would make sure the Big 12 commissioner and a few other conference representatives would be our guests at an afternoon football game and view one of the most beautiful panoramas in all of college football. After a beautiful fall afternoon at the stadium, and a BYU victory, there is no way they could not invite us to join their conference. If they were dumb enough to not invite us, I would have to question their sanity.
I would emphasize that an airport for their charter flights is only 15 minutes from campus, that we have an internationally recognized university, the largest church sponsored university in the country with a world-famous faculty. Remind them of our national championships in a variety of sports, our famous athletic alumni, our national player of the year awards in golf and basketball, our Heisman and Davey O'Brien award winners, which would be impressive in the Big 12, and the list goes on.
In short, we have to "toot our own horn without blowing it." I would also mention that our mission statement is all inclusive and we abide by it, and our national reputation is impeccable. Our athletic heritage is rich and relevant and we deserve to be seriously considered. I would be ready to compromise in areas that are negotiable.
We have a great product. Our formal presentation to the selection committee must be flawless. It must be done professionally, and heaven forbid not appear to be condescending. It should be "humbly confident" and we should remember that we are applying for membership and put our best foot forward, and above all, document every statement and not make one statement or present one fact that is not 100 percent accurate. We should be cooperative and not too demanding. I would keep in mind that we only get one chance to impress the committee — there are not mulligans in the power conference selection process.
DN: Can you single out your fondest memories as a coach and athletic director at BYU?
Tuckett: My fondest memories have to do with the athletes, the coaches and the department personnel. They were my world — they were my team — they were my closest friends. I always thought we had the best coaching staff in the country. Our administrators (though few in number) were cream of the crop. I used to tell the coaches and players (a Tuckettism) "that nothing dies such a tragic death as does success unattended." I also borrowed a phrase from former vice president Robert Thomas, "We are doing so well that we just have to do better." Our support people were unbelievably proficient and loyal. We always had an "open door" policy, my door was always open; a person didn't have to push five numbers on the panel to get in. In fact, when I retired they asked me to turn in my keys. I asked, "what keys?" I had a 34-year love affair with BYU, it was my Camelot. I was fortunate to get on the BYU athletics elevator when it was on its way up.
DN: What advice would you give university presidents who govern the NCAA?
Tuckett: Too many presidents are empowered but not informed. I always had great presidents to work with, and I think Kevin Worthen at BYU, Stan Albrecht at Utah State and Matt Holland at UVU are tremendous. I don’t know the president at Utah and Weber State, but I imagine they are the same.
I think they need to insert some sanity back into college athletics. I had the privilege of working for four truly outstanding presidents in Ernest Wilkinson, Dallin Oaks, Jeffrey Holland and Rex Lee. I am very impressed with Kevin Worthen. He is the right man in the right spot and he has my 100 percent support. I would advise presidents to take back the authority and power bestowed upon college presidents. Take charge. Make tough decisions. Don't get blindsided by the "runaway freight train" we now call college sports. They need to insert some sanity back into the college sports world. We do not need a heart transplant, we just need some selective cosmetic surgery. We can't rewind the tape but we can make sure that former bad decisions are not repeated. Presidents have never faced as many crises as they do today. Academia is the prime purpose for a university of higher learning. Presidents have to keep multiple balls in the air, and athletics is only one of them. Presidents and ADs are the maestros, the puppeteers, the pied pipers, the leaders. They call the cadence and make sure that everyone is marching in step. I really envy them because the future of college sports as we know it is teetering, but by their good judgment it will get stronger and more solidified.
DN: Is it reality to be in an arms race with buildings and coaching salaries of $5 to $7 million a year?
Tuckett: I am not one who begrudges present-day administrators and coaches their attractive salaries. I am however concerned about how out of control college athletics has become fiscally. So few universities are operating in the black it is scary. With the rapid escalation of salaries in the athletics departments, college presidents are experiencing difficult relationships with their faculties. Many faculty members in their realm are equally as famous, talented, successful and competent as are the coaches, but much of the time their remuneration does not reflect that fact.
DN: Ticket prices have soared for college events. Is this too big a burden for fans?
Tuckett: We must be careful to retain longtime positive relationships with fans, donors and the community. I know cost of equipment and associated activities are expensive, but there are two ways to balance a budget — make more or spend less. I am not sure we need a different uniform for every game and yes, I am aware of our contract with Nike. We should mix in frugality and temperance. We must be cognizant of our unique clientele and not price ourselves right out of the ballgame. I have heard a dozen times the last two weeks, "Well, they have finally priced me out of my tickets." We should take that statement seriously, and do all we can to retain the fan base that is one of the most loyal and generous in all college sports. We shouldn't spend a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror — but sometimes it's a lot of fun.