Chuck Neinas probably doesn't think of himself as a temp. In his first week as interim Big 12 commissioner, all the 79-year-old Neinas is being asked to do is begin saving the embattled conference. He doesn't need the money or the gig, but for this administrative lion in winter it is what he does best. If there is an ultimate fixer in college athletics -- a go-to cleaner of unsightly messes -- Neinas is it.
|Neinas, the former Big 8 commissioner, says he has a 'strong affection' for the conference that became the Big 12. (Getty Images)|
The street term is headhunter. Oklahoma went through its worst losing stretch in history before Neinas helped hire a former Iowa defensive back named Bob Stoops. Utah might not be in the Pac-12 today had not Neinas helped identify Urban Meyer to replace Ron McBride. Neinas was involved in hooking up Mack Brown with Texas and Mark Richt with Georgia.
It was the former NCAA executive and Big Eight commissioner who helped Oklahoma State identify a Dallas Cowboys assistant who has a quirky appetite for grass. Hello, Les Miles.
They were all home-run hires -- yes Bulldogs, even Richt at the time.
This latest fix might be the biggest of his career. Before he was that powerful headhunter, Neinas was the most powerful person in college athletics. It's been a while since he earned that label, but that's why the Big 12 reached out to him. Even in his eighth decade, Neinas is still capable of delivering, big time.
The job is more than saving the Big 12, which looks like it will survive in some form. It is reflecting on a full circle of life. This conference hop-scotching, this backstabbing, this blind land rush to acquire territory, schools, ratings and dollars? It's all on him. Neinas admits it.
Just don't blame him for it.
"We gave them freedom," Neinas said of his role in conference realignment, "not greed."
The rapacious desire for profit has been one of the unintended consequences of the 1984 landmark Supreme Court decision that gave schools the right to negotiate their own television deals. The Court ruled that the NCAA had been a "classic cartel" in controlling TV exposures for the previous three decades.
Neinas led that free-market charge as executive director of the College Football Association. The CFA existed for 20 years, disbanding in 1997. It is most famous for being the negotiating arm of 63 core football schools that helped overthrow the NCAA's TV monopoly. That Supreme Court decision was called "the most important event in the history of college athletics" by author Keith Dunnavant in his definitive book "The Fifty-Year Seduction."
The CFA was formed to reform the NCAA beginning in the 1970s. It became famous for the charge that created modern college football, for better or worse. It gave us wall-to-wall games, empowered networks, coaches and schools. It also affected friendships.
Long before he was in charge of the CFA, Neinas had decided to change sides. Neinas and Wayne Duke used to get together every Friday for lunch to solve the problems of the world. Both were in Kansas City. It was the 1960s. Neinas was a trusted lieutenant of NCAA head Walter Byers. Duke, who had worked at the NCAA himself, was Big Eight commissioner. The two friends both went after the vacated Big Ten commissioner's job in 1971. Duke got it. Neinas, having lost out on the Big Ten, took the Big Eight job.
That eventually dovetailed into the CFA job. Essentially, Neinas took the knowledge and contacts he had developed with the NCAA and turned it against the association. He viewed the cause as noble. Others disagreed.
The fractured Neinas-Duke relationship was summed up this way: " ... their public civility and barroom kidding merely camouflaged a growing hostility and private resentment." Byers wrote that in his book, "Unsportsmanlike Conduct".
"We were very good friends," Duke said of Neinas, "Our kids played basketball in my driveway."
They spoke for the first time recently in five years. Duke reached out. The conversation was civil, muted by the years. The rift had been a philosophical one. Duke believed that the NCAA should have remained in control of football TV to save the sport from itself. Duke's conservative Big Ten never joined the CFA.
In those wild, wild West days Neinas actually ran the CFA out of the Big Eight office. Think of the SEC today running the BCS out of Birmingham. People would freak.
"All Chuck did was provide the freedom to do the TV," Duke said. "He didn't provide the greed that went along with it. A lot of people felt that was going to happen from the outset. I predicted the realignment and jumping from conference to conference."
Among those who agreed with Duke was Supreme Court Justice Byron "Whizzer" White. The former Colorado star wrote a dissenting opinion in the 1984 decision that predicted college football "could not trust its competitors."
That sounds more than relevant today. The seemingly unabated race for money has pointed up college football's lack of leadership. There are conference commissioners but there is no overall leader of the sport to oversee them. Left to their own desires, those commissioners, presidents and boards of regents have stumbled all over themselves "to do what's best for (insert school looking at another conference)."
How clumsy has the free market become? The same Oklahoma board of regents that sued the NCAA saw its victory thrown back in its face almost 30 years later. Last month the current OU board gave president David Boren the power to move the school to the Pac-12. The Pac-12 ultimately declined to accept Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech because of those free-market forces.
Texas' stand-alone Longhorn Network proved to be too much of a hindrance. The LHN projects to earn a bundle for Texas but it couldn't fit in the Pac-12 after the launch of that league's own network. Like that old NCAA TV plan, the Pac-12 shares revenue equally.
Nationally, there is nothing equal about today's cash grab. The ACC invited Syracuse and Pittsburgh basically doing nothing more than shoring up its conference against future raids. Never mind that its raid imperiled the Big East.
In essence, the free market created long ago by Board of Regents vs. NCAA has collapsed onto itself. Neinas is trying to save the Big 12, a league that can't figure out how to divide revenue, a right granted to it three decades ago in a court battle over ... how to divide revenue.
"It's so ironic when you stop and think about it," Duke said, "that he's [Neinas] asked to solve some problems that were created by the de-regulation of college football."
"Who could have imagined what has transpired over the past 10 years?" Neinas said. "It's beyond comprehension, when you go back where we've been in the past."
Thirty years ago, no one seemed to have a handle on the future. During the legal wrangling, the NCAA argued that putting that much football on TV would impact attendance. The opposite has occurred. The game has never been more popular.
First, Notre Dame, then the SEC bolted the CFA signing their own network deals in the early 1990s. In 1996, the Big 12 kicked off, as the Big Eight took in the remnants of the old Southwest Conference. By 1997, there was no need for the CFA.
"We achieved our objectives and fought for institutional rights, all the way to the Supreme Court," Neinas said. "How can you criticize someone when they take advantage of that right? ... I felt very proud, to be candid with you."
No one could have foreseen what evolved. College football became must-see TV, second only to the NFL among American sports fans. In our instant communication society, fans desperately needed their scores. Desperate Housewives they could DVR. Not Ohio State-Michigan. Advertisers loved that.
College football became a hit show that never got old. As right fees came up for bid in the latest round, the sport became gold. The Pac-12's record deal with Fox and ESPN in May wasn't so much about adding Utah and Colorado, it was supply and demand. The conference was the latest property up for bid.
That's a small reason why it's worth it to Neinas to save the Big 12. The conference's primary rights expire after the 2015 season. The temp will be gone from the job long before that.
It's his heartstrings that are leading him now. In the next six months to a year, he hopes to help hire the permanent commissioner. It would be a good start if everyone just got along. His old Big Eight hasn't been the same since it took in those fractured Southwest Conference schools 16 years ago.
"It's going to sound corny but I can't help it," Neinas said. "I have a strong affection for that conference. The Big Eight was very good to me.
"I'm old-fashioned. If you take a look at how conferences were originally formed, they were not only formed in geographic areas [but] commerce flowed in those areas. The Big Eight, for example ... you have natural resources and agriculture. In the Big Ten you had the industrial Midwest. That's what drives commerce."
But even Neinas admits conferences these days are more about "scheduling opportunities." The Pac-12 almost reached into the Central Time Zone to take Texas and Oklahoma. The Big East went halfway across the country to get TCU.
"The conferences used to have a culture of their own," Neinas said. "Now it's become amalgamated."
Neinas doesn't need the aggravation. In his usual job, he sits at home and waits for the phone to ring with schools offering five-figure checks. But in a world full of bottom-line corporate raiders, Neinas figures he owes it to his old league -- even if only six of the original Big Eight members remain.
By his count, he has assisted seven of the current nine Big 12 schools to make coaching hires. If you count the departed -- Texas A&M, Nebraska and Colorado -- the ratio soars to 10 of 12.
Neinas has to figure out how to get all the schools to agree to give up their primary media rights to the conference, Texas included. That would keep the league together for at least six years, which would translate to an eternity in the current climate.
Before any of that happens, he has to figure out what Missouri is going to do. Neinas has stated publicly that he believes the Tigers are going to stay in the Big 12. But this issue is way more complicated than hiring a coach. Missouri is in the process of making a seminal decision -- taking the security of the SEC or tolerating the occasional family feuds in the Big 12.
"It comes down to one word, trust. You've got to make sure there is a trust that exists among the members," Neinas said. "If you look at my record, I'm not afraid to make decisions. They can always fire me."
Such is the life of a temp.