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Senior College Football Columnist

Emmert aims to settle unsettling NCAA perception in address


The scandal involving Jerry Sandusky and Penn State has been a major burden on the NCAA. (Getty Images)  
The scandal involving Jerry Sandusky and Penn State has been a major burden on the NCAA. (Getty Images)  

INDIANAPOLIS -- Mark Emmert still stands behind "The Letter." All you have to do is mention it here at the NCAA Convention. Most folks get the reference.

It was the moment when a lot of people believe the NCAA president may have jumped the shark. When Emmert notified Penn State -- with a terse, three-page letter -- that an NCAA investigation may emerge from the Jerry Sandusky scandal, even veteran observers of the sometimes monolithic organization couldn't figure it out.

It would seem that Big Brother had no business poking around a sordid legal matter for some violation. Cracking down on a parent selling his son to the highest bidder is one thing. Determining whether Penn State was at fault for allowing an alleged child molester to wander free on campus is a whole different issue.

But when asked here about Emmert's stance, a member of Barack Obama's cabinet did not hesitate.

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"I think it is [just]," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Wednesday.

Duncan was here at the NCAA Convention, admonishing the association for portions of his keynote speech at a luncheon. He said presidents need to get tough. He also trashed the BCS. He agrees with pending NCAA legislation that would hold teams out of bowls and the NCAA tournament if they don't graduate players at a higher rate.

He speculated that in a few years a full one-third of football players and half of basketball players won't be able to play as freshmen. A proposed "academic redshirt" will keep them off the floor/field and into the books.

But on the subject of Sandusky/Penn State, Duncan agreed that it is NCAA territory.

"It is an extraordinarily tough issue but we have to deal with it openly and honestly," Duncan said. "The end results obviously won't be pretty but they will be the truth."

Things are moving fast, real fast at the NCAA. There was a time when the Sandusky scandal would have been mentioned in hushed tones, if at all. Now it could be a bold, new sign of the NCAA's power and reach. That doesn't necessarily make the association right. But if perception is reality, then Emmert is out to change the reality.

Significant legislation coming out of an August presidential retreat already has been overridden by the membership. That beat the heck out of legislation that used to take years to take effect. Besides, Emmert still thinks the $2,000 stipend and full four-year scholarships will be adopted.

"I think historically the NCAA has moved more at a glacial pace. Relatively speaking this was faster," Duncan said. "Change is hard."

That might be the topic of Emmert's state of the association address on Thursday. It follows perhaps the most turbulent year in NCAA history. The scandals seemed to come in waves.

"It was constant," said enforcement vice president Julie Roe Lach.

"We have been able to embrace change," Emmert said, "at a [speed] that's been unheard of."

You want action? You got it. In November, he hired Bill Benjamin, a former Marine and homicide cop, to head up the working group concentrating on football investigations. Think that might scare the next parent who wants to become Cecil Newton?

Under Emmert, the NCAA has named names, calling out Newton for his role in trying to sell his son Cam to Mississippi State. NCAA P.R. folks have been known to engage critics on Twitter. Emmert has talked openly about how Miami has been "extraordinarily cooperative" in the Nevin Shapiro investigation. That was him on the floor of Madison Square Garden congratulating Mike Krzyzewski on winning his record-breaking 903rd game in November.

The veil, in effect, has been lifted.

"I don't think the default is any longer, 'We can't say anything.' "Roe Lach said." "It's more of, 'What can we say? How much can we say that will really tell the story here?' "

Under Emmert, now in office for a year and half, the NCAA is touchable, though maybe not huggable. Is it all a bit self-serving? Perhaps. Is the NCAA less of a target? It's getting there.

"College athletics has to regain the faith of the general public," Emmert said again on Wednesday. "We've lost the benefit of the doubt among much of the public."

He has said it before. Don't be surprised if Emmert brings it up again in Thursday's address.

"I don't have a defining moment in my mind right now where he banged the table," Roe Lach said. "That's not his style anyway. Certainly, it's part of his approach ... 'How can we be more open?' "

There is a move to make enforcement cases accessible to the point that the NCAA may publish a list of every school being investigated. Emmert was a fly on the wall in May when media members were invited to participate in a mock enforcement case.

He can take credit for being the most influential president of the BCS era. While at LSU, Emmert hired Nick Saban, who just won his third BCS title.

Emmert organized that now-famous August presidential reform retreat. A lot got done but with a price. Among the presidents invited were soon-to-be disgraced Donna Shalala of Miami, the already disgraced Gordon Gee of Ohio State and Graham Spanier. The Penn State president lost his job less than three months later amid the Sandusky ordeal.

These were the best and brightest, the movers and shakers. Significant scandals also broke on their watch. The benefit of the doubt hangs in the balance.

It's still a preliminary inquiry at Penn State. Emmert said in his letter that the NCAA is looking into whether the school lacked institutional control, one of the association's core principles. It still remains strange how Ohio State could avoid lack of institutional control for breaking the rules while Penn State could get slapped with the designation for breaking the law.

Those core principles have to do with schools' responsibility in watching over their coaches and athletes, not the alleged crimes of their retired defensive coordinators.

There is a Pandora's Box effect to be considered. Where does the NCAA stop? Is Syracuse/Bernie Fine next? Emmert was asked if the NCAA couldn't wait for the courts before moving in. Let public testimony make its case.

"The question the courts ask are very different than the questions we ask," he said.

For now, Big Brother has spoken.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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