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John Blanchette: Gonzaga’s situation allows NCAA president Mark Emmert to play up his notions of college athletics

Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh, left, chats with NCAA president Mark Emmert. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh, left, chats with NCAA president Mark Emmert. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

When the boss makes a surprise visit from the home office, you want to be doing your best work.

Wait, that’s an employee/job analogy. Better scrap that.

But Mark Emmert is indeed the boss – president of the NCAA, overlord of student sweat at schools from Alabama to Young Harris College and everywhere in between, including Gonzaga University.

Where he stopped Thursday night to take in the Rocky Hoopster Picture Show atmosphere that is the Kennel.

Not that he’s a virgin in such matters.

“I’ve been in this arena before,” said Emmert, who graduated from president of the University of Washington to his current position. “I used to bring my Huskies in here and never came out very well.”

Relax, he wasn’t the one who pulled the plug on the series way back when.

And his mission Thursday?

“I’m here to see the No. 1 team in the country,” he said, “like everyone else.”

Ah, the eye test. The Bulldogs blew out San Francisco 96-61 for their 27th victory – against no losses, if you haven’t heard. It was not always an aesthetic delight, the Zags being somewhat clunky and funky early. At one point, they even grade-schooled a simple inbounds pass after a USF basket for a turnover. But soon enough the Zags Express was back on track.

Three to go for 30-0. Remarkable.

Emmert and his wife DeLaine watched from a couple of rows behind the bench with Gonzaga president Thayne McCulloh, and from there he could witness a virtual advertisement for all he extolls about college athletics. A sold-out McCarthey Athletic Center – 186 in a row now, though you can hardly hear the ding of the cash register over the din from the animated, rocking student section. Athletic excellence. And actual students – even grad students, three of them in Gonzaga’s starting lineup alone.

All of it leading up to the NCAA’s house special, March Madness. Even college educrats can’t screw up the best spectacle in sports. Better yet, they don’t even want to try.

“We re-signed our deal with Turner and CBS to go out to 2032 – and that’s to leave the tournament format exactly the way it is,” Emmert said. “It works magnificently and we’re not going to do anything disruptive.”

So no expansion to – ugh – 96 teams?

“No discussions of expansion at all,” he insisted.

And yet with all this general giddiness, Emmert remains neck-and-neck with Roger Goodell as sport’s most disparaged CEO. And his organization scores little better, what with more time being spent in the courts haggling over what college athletes are due.

In just the last week or so, the NCAA decided to take a knee in one fight. Along with 11 conferences, the NCAA reached a $208.7 million agreement to end the Alston anti-trust suit over the value of an athletic scholarship. Thousands of athletes, current and former, could bank $5,000 or more if a judge approves the settlement. At Gonzaga, that could cover men’s and women’s scholarship basketball players going back to 2009.

“Nobody’s enthusiastic about sending a lot of money to lawyers,” Emmert said. “But it will send a lot of money to former student-athletes, and it will preserve the basic scholarship model so it doesn’t violate any of those core values.”

Not every student-athlete is giving it a standing O.

“I saw it, but the NCAA will find a way to make it so that we don’t get anything,” said Jordan Mathews, the Zags’ graduate transfer from Cal.

Athlete cynicism is rooted in experience. The accoutrements of college athletics get better, yes, but the NCAA and its members had to be dragged kicking and screaming, or into court, before even hearing arguments about cost of attendance, athlete welfare and time demands. They also see an organization that reaps $1 billion a year in revenue and a culture that pays coaches kingly sums, and know that while a college scholarship is no small thing, their sweat is making others rich and paying the bills.

And then they hear Emmert say something like this:

“It works so well for everybody involved,” he said. “This mythology that you can somehow have professional employees play college games and nothing will change is ridiculous.

“If you were going to have Gonzaga hire a basketball team, I don’t know why you’d hire a 17-year-old. You’d hire somebody just cut from the NBA. Why would you make them go to school if they were an employee?”

But Mathews remembers not being able to take a number of classes at Cal because of team conflicts. That sounds like a worker’s grievance.

He also remembers at Cal being told “that we’ll get like $10 a day to eat in Berkeley. Ten dollars can’t buy you a Snickers – on sale – in Berkeley.”

Cautioned Emmert, “If you want professional basketball, you can have it. But if you want college basketball, it’s going to have to be college basketball.”

Sounds like a decree from a boss.

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