La Tourette keeps a watchful eye over NIU athletics

By Joe Bush

“It must be controlled from the top. I’m merciless on this: if it’s not working, it’s the president’s fault.”—Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, former president of Notre Dame and co-chairman of a $2 million intercollegiate athletics trouble-shooting commission.

The extreme example of screwy priorities? Some would say Southern Methodist University athletics’ “death penalty,”—no football for a year—imposed for repeated NCAA violations. Foremost among the violations was approval, by SMU’s board of governor’s chief, of payments to Mustang athletes. That man is now governor of Texas.

That’s an extreme example of punishment though, not violations. Screwy priorities are when former Clemson (former, because of NCAA allegations) football coach Danny Ford told the Tigers’ booster club it is they who run the school and when the University of Kentucky’s president resigned due to pressure from people who said he helped an NCAA investigation too much.

In the wake of college presidential muscle-flexing at the 84th annual NCAA convention, NIU President John La Tourette talked about his role in athletics at NIU.

Who would go if academic push came to athletic shove at NIU?

“I would not want to give my authority away in terms of firing a coach on the spot if I discovered a coach…had encouraged and/or actually committed an infraction,” La Tourette said.

“I think the president has to have that authority. That’s what the presidents are saying in the NCAA. They bear the responsibility. They have to have the authority. Who gets the call from the legislature, the governor, or the public if you have infractions and it becomes a public issue? The president gets it, the president’s on the hot seat.”

“One of the concerns that has been expressed is that the programs at some institutions have gotten out of hand…they’re so independent from the university and the control of the president that many presidents feel it’s the alumni or the supporters that run the program,” La Tourette said.

“Not only has this not occurred at Northern, but it is not likely to occur at Northern,” La Tourette said.

The border between corruption and honesty is drawn in green, as ever-increasing dollars in the form of television contracts, sponsorships, and endorsments as well as alumni and booster support await successful programs. La Tourette said overly independent athletic departments are the main source of financial shadiness.

La Tourette said at NIU, the athletic department’s budget is watched by NIU’s Office of Budget and Planning “on a continuous basis.” Though all money earned by athletics stays in that department, “any expenditure that is of any significance must be reviewed and approved by Dr. (Eddie) Williams (director of Budget and Planning) after being reviewed and approved by myself.”

La Tourette said prior to coaching Huskie football, Bill Mallory left a Big Eight conference school because athletic donors who happened to be on the school’s administrative board tried to draw his X’s and O’s.

“That’s where I think the presidents have to be on guard, especially when you have a program that generates a lot of external support,” La Tourette said. “I think it has to be indicated clearly to donors that being a donor…does not allow them to make a decision about hiring or firing the coach, or who gets played or whether you play someone even if they are not eligible.”

Because the Huskie athletic budget is “at $5 million or less,” La Tourette said it is less dependent on external support that decreases unauthorized meddling.

“I think we’ve made it very clear to everyone in the athletic department, and that means right down to the assistant coaches, that we want to run a program with a high degree of integrity.”