Originally posted on Fox Sports Tennessee  |  Last updated 4/11/13
NASHVILLE, Tenn. During the introductory greeting to the inaugural Integrity in Sports luncheon held at Belmont University, a quote from legendary UCLA coach John Wooden was invoked. It went, "The softest pillow is a clear conscience." Thus started the discussion of the current state of college basketball and where it is headed by the quartet of panelists, including a trio of coaches in Butler's Brad Stevens, Vanderbilts Kevin Stallings and Belmont's Rick Byrd, along with college basketball analyst Jimmy Dykes. The wide array of topics discussed by the panelists along with the gathering at Belmont's Curb Events Center centered mostly on a win-at-all-cost mentality, the journey of the student-athlete during their college experience, and accountability starting on campus through strong administrative leadership. But, as Stevens warned, it was not time to throw the baby out with bath water just yet. "As long as there is more good than bad in the world, bad will be on the front page," said Stevens, who guided Butler to national championship runner-up finishes in 2009-10 and '10-11. "Thats the case in any walk of life. People want to talk about the stuff that goes wrong. And certainly, there are issues within our game that need to be addressed." So while there are far-ranging issues that need to be rectified within college athletics in general and college basketball in particular, Stevens wanted to make sure this confab wasn't about focusing totally on the negative, but also about accentuating the positive when it comes to college basketball. "Of the people that I have had a chance to spend time with that I really look up to, they think there is a lot more good than bad, he said. Still, there was a general consensus that college athletics have been heading down a spiraling path for quite some time, as the riches grow and universities position themselves to reap the financial windfall. That is mostly evidenced by the flurry of conference realignment the past few years that is totally driven by money. "We have a culture problem in college basketball, said Stallings, who just completed his 14th season at Vanderbilt. "Unfortunately, it is not a healthy culture. It is a healthy game. It is a very popular game. "Hopefully, it will get pulled back to where being a student-athlete means something." But Stallings knows, as does Stevens and Byrd, that winning is the ultimate marker these days when it comes to support, both internally and externally, regardless of the level of competition. "You know when you get into our league, you better win," Stallings said of competing in the SEC. "And at most places, it's just about winning. I am fortunate that it's not just about winning at our institution. It's about more than that. It's about the quality of the experience of the student-athlete. It's about their graduation." These days, the expectation for winning has trickled down to all levels of college basketball. For example, Byrd became head coach at Belmont 27 years ago and grew the Bruins into a NAIA national power. These days, the Bruins just completed sweeping the Ohio Valley Conference regular season and tournament titles in their first year in the league, earning a third-straight NCAA tournament berth and sixth in eight years. There are those who think Belmont is on the verge of becoming the next Butler or Virginia Commonwealth, a mid-major player that carries the expectations of national prominence. But Byrd said he doesn't feel that kind of pressure from Belmont's administration, as long as the team remains competitive and graduates quality student-athletes. Thus, strong leadership on campus coming from administrators was the overriding theme of today's lessons. "I think presidents and athletic directors have to hire people they have no doubt about what kind of people they are," said Byrd, whose 663 victories make him one of 11 active coaches with at least 600 career wins. "I know thats easy for me to say because I am not the AD at Ohio State trying to fill up a football stadium and a big arena and bring the money in that they are charged with bringing in. "But until they really, really vette and look and decide they are going to do nothing but recruit decent people as the best they can, and not be motivated by the money, that is the only way it will be different." Indeed, schools can't rely on the NCAA to govern all that occurs within all the athletic programs of its membership. But when severe indiscretions are found, then the hammer needs to come down, according to Stallings. "The NCAA is not staffed in a way to where they can monitor 350 something or so schools," he said. "It would take an investigator on almost every campus to come up with everything. Obviously, thats impossible. The only chance the NCAA has is to levy stronger penalties. "If someone is caught with their hand in the cookie jar, then it should be slammed on the hand. The only way the NCAA is going to limit and reduce the amount of wrongdoings that goes on in intercollegiate athletics is to have extraordinary stiff penalties with the people involved." Thats how it goes for Stallings at Vanderbilt. "If I get caught cheating, I will be fired tomorrow," he said. "I know that. That's the way it is on my campus. If we're breaking the rules, I am going to get fired." Adding to the pressure to win despite what it takes to get there is the explosion of social media, where anybody and everybody who has a phone andor computer immediately can become a self-ordained expert and offer opinions that usually dwell on the negative. "Media and journalism (today) is not just your traditional print media, not just your television stations," Stevens said. "It is bloggers. People have started their own (websites) that maybe don't have the training that other people in the media have. "There is a lot that goes on that allows for over-the-top positive reaction to when you win and negative, just off-the-chart reaction to when you lose." Because of his success at Butler and being viewed as one of those up-and-coming coaches, Stevens is mentioned with just about every prominent job that comes open. He recalled the time he was fishing in his backyard with his two sons, but had to return to the house to lay rest to a report that he had flown to another city at the same time to interview for a job. Byrd concurs on how the explosion of social media has impacted his job. "We have to be real with all the ways that fans can vent now," he said. "It just explodes and multiplies. It is more important to fans if whether a coach is going to get fired and who we are going to hire next rather than whether the games are won or lost." Like college football, college basketball has grown exponentially to where the expectations of winning are not good enough, but style points must be taken into account. Stallings recalls a meeting he had with then-Vanderbilt chancellor Gordon Gee, now the president at Ohio State, concerning a particular season that wasnt going all that well. "When the team isn't good, you get mad at the team, Stallings said of what Gee told him. "And when you get mad at the team, the fans get mad at you. And when the fans get mad at you, they also get mad at me. And when they're mad at you, Im mad at you." Ultimately, all three coaches reiterated how fortunate they were to be at schools where winning wasn't everything. Oh, sure, they understand that if they don't win, they'll be out of a job. But they have accepted their mission as college basketball coaches within the framework of their universities. "We need to make sure that everything we do is for the journey and making sure we maximize that journey of that student-athlete experience," Stevens said.
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