Michael Crow needs to stay out of college athletics. It’s that simple.
The Arizona State University president is back in the news again, apparently spearheading a movement among the Pac-12 schools that may prove to be yet another public relations nightmare for the Tempe school. He doesn’t want any of the Sun Devil teams scheduling contests with Grand Canyon University teams, something the two programs have been doing for years.
Crow wants to keep Grand Canyon, a private, Christian-based college in west Phoenix, from transitioning its sports programs from Division II to D-I this fall when they will be one of the newest members of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). A CBSSports.com posting identifies him as the catalyst for a letter sent from all of the Pac-12 presidents and chancellors to the NCAA Executive Committee protesting the admission of GCU because it is a for-profit institution.
Pac-12 officials say they aren’t targeting GCU, but the issue is about those for-profit institutions in general whose primary responsibility is to financial partners and shareholders, rather than faculty and students. Grand Canyon just happens to be the first school to test the waters.
But, understandably, it’s easy to see it as being more about stifling competition, since GCU is located in ASU’s back yard. Or, more accurately, in ASU’s market for new students. It always seems to come down to the money.
Grand Canyon, which has an on-campus enrollment of around 8.500 students but a large online enrollment, was forced to make the move away from a not-for-profit organization as it faced potential bankruptcy more than a decade ago. It has been participating in the NCAA as a Division II school since 1990.
Now the school is faced with another potential challenge as it squares off against Crow and the other Pac-12 presidents.
Crow is paid three-quarters of a million dollars each year to direct the university toward becoming what he terms the “New American University.” That involves expanding research initiatives and work in the humanities and social sciences, extending the school’s reach into global engagement, and perhaps most important of all – revenue generation.
His contract pays a base salary plus additional compensation for things like pension, housing and car allowance, and retirement funding for a total package of $736,000. Included in that is a compensation of $100,000 from the ASU Foundation.
But nowhere does it compensate him for his expertise in sports administration. That’s because he doesn’t have any. He has a vice president for university athletics (known at most schools as the athletic director) for that.
Crow was a professor of science and technology policy at Columbia before taking the ASU job in 2002. He has written articles, and even books, on subjects dealing with the design and analysis of knowledge enterprises, technology transfer, sustainable development, and science and technology policy.
None of that has anything to do with the complicated business of college athletics.
Arizona State, which has grown to become the largest public university in the country under Crow’s watch, appears to be turning into the bully on the block.
This isn’t the first time he has jumped into the middle of a sports-related situation, only to end up making matters worse.
The most recent was his premature announcement that the ASU football team was planning to use Chase Field, the home of the Arizona Diamondbacks, while the school’s football stadium undergoes extensive renovation work. Just days later, the Diamondbacks’ CEO Derrick Hall had to issue his own statement, explaining that there had been no talks between the organizations and, frankly, it wouldn’t be a good idea anyhow.
That was in April. The red glow of embarrassment hasn’t quite faded from that one.
But there were other missteps, with more serious repercussions.
Two years ago, after the school fired its head football coach, Dennis Erickson, a public relations nightmare ensued as the hiring process was reduced to ridicule. Deals with two separate high-profile coaches – Kevin Sumlin and June Jones – fell apart at the last minute. From the outside, it looked like chaos was the order of the day in the athletic department.
Crow was reportedly deeply involved with each negotiation and appeared to be largely responsible for the deals falling apart. In the case of June Jones, his renowned agent, Leigh Steinberg, called the abrupt cancellation with his client “bizarre” and laid the blame at Crow’s feet, saying “the principal decision-maker yanks the deal with no real explanation.”
More recently, the ASU prez stepped into fragile negotiations between ASU and the Chicago Cubs as the two organizations tried to reach an agreement to let the school share the new world-class facility the Cubbies are building in Mesa, just a few minutes from campus. The arrangement would have enabled the team to move out of Packard Stadium, which had been built on campus back in 1974 and in dire need of major renovation work.
In this case, Crow reportedly wasn’t much involved in the arrangements until things got down to the wire. That was when he dropped the bomb on the delicate negotiations last summer that were very near to being completed. Crow was quoted in an Arizona Republic newspaper article as saying that “The Cubs are not people of their word.” That was the beginning of hard feelings.
Everything seemed to be going pretty smoothly until just a month before the groundbreaking when Crow sent an email to Mesa Mayor Scott Smith questioning the Cubs’ commitment to the terms of the agreement. Smooth move.
The deal ultimately fell apart and ASU was forced to look elsewhere for a place to park its baseball team. Their new home will be at Phoenix Municipal Stadium – a step up from Packard, but not the prize that was the Cubs’ stadium.
Now comes the Grand Canyon controversy, and Crow is smack-dab right in the middle again.
GCU President and CEO Brian Mueller pins the blame directly on his counterpart in Tempe. In an Arizona Republic article Friday he expressed his respect for ASU and the job the university does, but went right to his point when he said that “The person who is causing the problem is Dr. Crow. I don’t know why.”
Mueller also said that Crow asked his coaches to cancel games that had already been scheduled with GCU, and then tried to get the other Pac-12 schools to do the same.
A report by CBSSports.com claimed that several sources had confirmed that the impetus for drafting the letter by the Pac-12 representatives had originated with ASU.
Mueller says he has tried to connect with Crow to set up a meeting to discuss the matter, but hasn’t been given that opportunity. He doesn’t understand why the issue is coming up now when the NCAA has already approved the school’s move to Division I play and the Antelopes have been officially admitted.
However, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott has sounded like there might still be some wiggle room for a possible change in policy. The NCAA is expected to take up the matter at its meeting next month, but for discussion purposes only; Mueller says he’s been assured no action will be taken at that meeting.
In the meantime, Grand Canyon is moving forward with plans to play with the big boys (and girls) this year. The school does not field a football team, but the men’s basketball schedule is almost complete.
There’s another reason this is an unwise move on Crow’s part. It puts him up against Jerry Colangelo.
Colangelo, the former owner of the Phoenix Suns and an extremely popular sports icon in the state of Arizona, was hired as an assistant to the president at GCU, specifically to help the school make the transition from D-II to D-I. Colangelo, who is currently serving as the chairman of USA Basketball, is one of the most respected names on the sports landscape and has an incredible network of contacts within the industry – including a personal relationship with NCAA President Mark Emmert.
This wouldn’t be the first bully Colangelo has had to deal with in his time.
Despite the fact that Crow’s contract was extended two years ago, he has met with a fair share of criticism over his attempt to install more of a corporate style of management at ASU, radically re-structuring departments in the process and re-allocating revenue resources.
Colangelo, on the other hand, is one of the most popular figures ever to influence the business of sports in the Valley. He is a hugely successful businessman who has fueled many of the most prominent and worthwhile projects on this side of the state. His integrity and community commitment is never in question.
And his business and personal contacts run deep.
Crow would be wise to keep that in mind. Even a bully needs to be careful to size up the competition.
(Photo: ASU Athletics)