NCAA Athletic Compliance Meeting for Coaches and Staff

August 18, 2010
C. L. Max Nikias

I’d like to begin by thanking Pat Haden. Pat and I worked closely together as a trustee and a provost, and I’m delighted that Pat accepted my challenge to come back to Heritage Hall—with a little encouragement from his wife, Cindy.

When I was considering new leadership for Heritage Hall, it was important to me to find someone who had been a leader at every level—in the locker room, in the classroom, and in the business boardroom. Even more important than Pat’s academic, athletic, and professional success was his personal integrity. I look forward to standing by him and supporting him while he serves the Trojan Family in this critical new role.

I am glad that all of you will have a chance to meet our new athletic compliance team. I’m grateful for David Roberts and Ellen Ferris for their leadership in the USC Office of Athletic Compliance. And I’m also grateful to Professor Clare Pastore for coming on board as our new Faculty Athletic Representative.

In the context of this NCAA compliance meeting, I am excited to have this first opportunity to discuss with you a larger issue, which is the role that athletics plays at an elite university.

You and I are both aware that USC athletics serves as the glue that binds our Trojan Family together. Yet there is an increasing belief in our society today that the life of the mind and the life of the body are two separate realities. There is the suspicion that athletic excellence and academic excellence cannot truly co-exist, and that one must be compromised to achieve the other. There is the implication that a young person should decide if her gifts lie in the mind or in the body, and that she should then focus exclusively on that one area.

It is a small wonder, then, that collegiate athletics has been an arena for so much controversy and so much tension. If you look at the ranks of America’s undisputed elite American universities, you notice that most of them have deemphasized athletics, because they believe this makes them look more academic. They have chosen to eliminate athletic scholarships, or they have been content to have lower expectations in the athletic arena.

I believe all this represents a false choice. I am proud to be a part of the Trojan Family, where we view our opportunities and our goals differently. Athletic excellence and academic excellence together represent one great heritage of USC. We do not compromise one for the other. And I expect us to achieve new heights in both areas.

This begins with you. You are not simply “coaches” and “managers” of sports teams, living in a world apart from USC’s academic enterprise. You are teachers of young women and men. You serve the same role as do our professors.

The faculty represent the foundation of excellence at USC. You are a crucial part of that faculty.

You know that many of our most distinguished professors carry an endowed faculty title, through the generosity of donors who seek to support such excellence for the long term. In the coming years, Pat Haden and I will work together to raise funds to endow some of your own positions in the same way. It is the proper way to acknowledge the role that the best coaches play in teaching both character and skill.

The great Heraclitus observed, about 2,600 years ago, that “character is destiny”: A man or woman’s character is what inevitably shapes the course of her life. Through the centuries, this timeless truth been reaffirmed by figures from Pericles to George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Albert Einstein to Vince Lombardi.

My expectation of all our teachers—whether they teach in Olin Hall or Taper Hall or Heritage Hall—is that you not only teach your craft, but that you also build character in the young women and men entrusted to you.

Yes, we speak of NCAA “compliance” today, but let us continue speaking of character, which understands compliance, but which rises above compliance. Compliance is a stumbling block for most people, but it is a stepping stone for those with high character.

I personally believe the rules and regulations serve together as our friend, our ally. They represent the foundation of sportsmanship and the foundation of our own efforts to reach greatness. When we embrace not just the letter of the rules but the spirit of the rules, we are liberated to build a kind of student-athlete experience here that builds up great human beings who honor the best values of our Trojan Family.

To win without integrity is to leave footprints in the sand that can be washed away with the next wave. To win with integrity is to build in concrete and stone. What we achieve through character can never be stripped away from us.

Of course, when you are a builder of character, it helps to have the best raw material. We need to recruit young people with physical and intellectual and social talent. It is easier to recruit just people with just one of these talents and live with the consequences. But we should aim for all of these qualities.

Yes, that can make our job harder, as we look for excellent athletes who prize the opportunity to come to what is fast becoming one of the most influential and distinguished universities on the planet; and as we look for top athletes who will make sacrifices for the opportunity to be at this unique university. But we should never compromise our values.

And here, perhaps, is a recruiting pitch.

Ask them:

• Do you want a degree from an ordinary college, or do you aspire to have the life-changing experience of an extraordinary university with excellent academic programs?

• Do you want to live in an average city, or do you want to spend your college years in one of the most exciting cities in the world?

Being here, under the spotlight in this global hub, represents challenges for USC, as we’ve seen. But it also offers incredible opportunities to recruit unique student-athletes to a unique academic institution.

Ask them, do you want to be in Florida? Alabama? Nebraska? Or do you want to be here, in the heart of Los Angeles, where everything is happening?

Remind them that there is no university in America that combines USC’s undisputed commitment to championship athletics with excellent academics. No one else offers USC’s combination of quality and location, and worldwide alumni network and alumni life, and intellectual and social and cultural variety. Forget whoever claims to be the gold standard for academics and athletics combined: USC will be the platinum standard.

Just as we will not compromise our standards, we want those with good taste and judgment. Only that person is meant to be a Trojan. And that person will represent us well every day, and on every play, and after his or her sporting career has ended.

If this seems intimidating, or too idealistic, please bear this in mind: We are much closer to this ideal than the general public believes, thanks to your own efforts.

And I want you to know we will support you in these efforts. I’ve already helped a few coaches with their recruiting of stars athletes who are also passionate about the academic and social options they can find here. Through Pat Haden’s office, never hesitate to ask me to meet and talk with parents and their sons or daughters who are considering USC.

Think about the nearly two dozen national championships we won during Mike Garrett’s time as athletic director. Our student-athletes won those at a time when USC’s academic standards skyrocketed, a time when their competition in the classroom grew immeasurably. We found more academically gifted students than most of our competitors, and we won with them. And we have graduated more of them than most of our competitors.

That should be no surprise. A team of quality athletes who have high character and high intelligence and great teamwork will always achieve more than a team of quality athletes who lack those traits.

Our job, then, is simple but very, very challenging: to continue to make USC the single greatest destination for those who aspire to make their mark athletically and academically and in life.

Allow me to offer a closing thought: Picture that magnificent torch atop the peristyle end of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. We think of it as the Olympic torch, going back to the 1932 Olympics held here. It is that, but it is much more than that.

The Olympic flame signifies the flame of Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was bold enough to steal fire from the gods and bring it down from Mt. Olympus as a gift to humanity. With this gift of fire, stolen from heaven itself, Prometheus brings light to humanity. He brings the blessings of civilization.

That is what the ancient people celebrated in the Olympic flame, and that is what is implied each time the Coliseum torch is lit at the beginning of the fourth quarter. The athletic quest was not divorced from the intellectual quest in that great ancient society, which gave birth to so much of modern civilization. They believed that, for a human being to reach his or her potential, the mind and the body and the spirit had to work in a powerful harmony.

Like no other university community in America, the USC Trojans have sought to bring that classical, timeless ideal to new life here in our day.

So is it any surprise that USC has produced more Olympians than any other school?

Athletics has represented the gateway to opportunity for so many young Americans, from our own neighborhoods and from communities across the country. The athletic experience symbolizes the power of possibility, the ability to triumph over adversity.

That is why it has never been divorced from college spirit. No other nation in the world has the collegiate athletic spirit we do here in America. As Americans we love our sporting life. And we also love our colleges. We call them, alma mater. Do you know what alma mater means? It is a Latin expression that literally means “mother who feeds us all.”

So, while others have been divorcing athletics from academics, we see the union as essential for our society and for our times—and for USC. And we will set the greatest example of it here, in this building and on this campus.

And we will not compromise in our goal.

This sort of Promethean revolution of athletics and academics, in the enduring spirit of the Olympic flame, can be remembered for generations. I pledge to work with you, and for you, to achieve this ideal.

Thank you, and Fight On, always.