Oliver Luck hobnobbed with celebrities, athletes and politicians at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday night. The West Virginia University athletic director listened to one-liners from comedian Joel McHale and President Barack Obama at the annual event known as “nerd prom” inside the D.C. Beltway.
Luck attended the black-tie dinner with his son, Andrew, who is the quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. Andrew is one of the primary reasons the WVU AD has been so willing to acquiesce to the wants and needs of today’s student-athlete.
Oliver Luck, who turned 54 a month ago and is in his fourth season in charge of WVU athletics, benefits in his position because he sees the student-athlete experience through the eyes of his own children. Long before Luck ascended to the role of athletic director, he was a father of four. Andrew was a Stanford quarterback and two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up. Andrew’s sister, Mary Ellen, also attended Stanford and played volleyball, a non-revenue sport.
So when the NCAA Division I Board of Directors met April 24 and endorsed restructured governance to assist student-athletes with their plight, Luck didn’t hesitate to jump on board. He’s always had the means to overcome hardships, but he’s heard too many stories to forget that most student-athletes — and their families — endure struggle.
“Behind the issues that we’re looking at, there are lots of stories behind that issue,” Luck said last week.
Luck knows the perks and the pitfalls. He believes the NCAA’s movement to bring autonomy to the five power conferences — and its 65-member schools — will help him enhance the student-athlete experience at WVU.
It isn’t just about a few thousand extra dollars as a stipend or unlimited snacks after practice. Luck wants to plug every hole in the dam.
Consider this scenario: In this year’s NCAA tournament, a team could win two games in San Antonio and then head to the Sweet 16 in New York City. That’s an 1,800-mile, 27-hour journey by car. What if the family members of a Cyclones player couldn’t afford airfare to get from Point A (home) to Point B (San Antonio) to Point C (New York City) and back to Point A in a week’s time? They could drive, of course, but there’s going to be a significant cost factor involved. They’ll need food and lodging and transportion.
The mother and father of a player might be pinching pennies to experience the journey with their child, so they consider ways to cut costs so they’re inside Madison Square Garden when the game begins.
To do this, the mother and father sleep in their car overnight.
That compromise irks Luck.
“That’s tough,” he said. “Here we are with healthy salaries and we’re investing $100 million in infrastructure and here we have a mother and father who want to watch their child play, but they don’t have $150 to stay in the Marriott Courtyard. These are real stories and we need to listen.”
The restructuring will allow the NCAA to give greater autonomy to the 65-power conference schools. Basically, schools in that group, which includes WVU, won’t need the permission of the schools in Division I’s other 27 conferences, like Marshall, to provide student-athletes with a stipend that includes the full cost of attendance, enhanced health care and insurance coverage, and other support such as tickets, parking and travel for families.
There are endless examples how the NCAA — and schools like WVU — can extend a hand to the student-athlete. Like WVU freshman men’s basketball player Devin Williams, who rode a Greyhound bus from Cincinnati to Morgantown after visiting family for Christmas break. Williams struggled with back pain as a result of the lengthy trip.
“Why make a kid who is 6-foot-8 sit in a tiny bus seat for 10 hours?” Luck asked.
It’s a good question. Luck remembers those bus rides during his playing days at WVU, when he’d ride from his Ohio hometown to Uniontown, Pa., and then wait hours for another bus to pick him up and haul him to Morgantown. Things have improved in the years since, but not enough.
Reform could make the necessary changes and stiff-arm the threats of unionization for the time being.
The proposal is in an open comment period as all schools provide feedback. The proposed changes could be implemented in August and in place for the 2014-15 academic year.
“I think it was a very important decision by the D-I Board of Directors,” Luck said. “There’s still a lot of work to do. I think, conceptually, having these highly visible conferences, having the five power conference receive a pretty significant level of autonomy in football and in issues related to the health and welfare of the student-athlete is the way to go.
“I really believe that is the appropriate step for the NCAA to take,” he added. “That’s going to allow us to do what most of our student-athletes want us to do, which is to provide a better athletic and academic environment for them. That includes a stipend, that includes the unlimited food that heretofore we weren’t allowed to do.
“It just makes sense. We have the funds, so let’s do it.”