Full transcript: Q&A with UGA president Jere Morehead

semerson@macon.comAugust 29, 2013 

I sat down with new UGA president Jere Morehead on Wednesday to discuss a number of issues related to athletics, both at Georgia and the national level. Below is the transcript of our interview.

Q: Have you traveled to a lot of away games over the years?

I have. When I was faculty athletics representative for seven years I traveled with the team a lot during that period of time. But that’s harder to do now, because there’s just always something going on here every night of the week. But I definitely want to be there for Clemson.”

Q:Your predecessor was always known for going through the locker room after games and shaking hands. Where are you going to be after games?

I think that’ll just depend on the game and will depend on my schedule. But I’m a big supporter of athletics. I obviously have been a member of the athletic board for 15 years. I think it plays an important role at the University of Georgia. But I haven’t decided on my pregame or postgame plans at this point.

Q:Greg McGarity was telling me you’re a pretty passionate sports fan. You grew up in Florida then moved here as a teenager. Was there a favorite team growing up, anybody you were particularly passionate about?

My Dad was always a big baseball fan. So I grew up, candidly, even in the dark days of the Atlanta Braves before they became a good baseball team, always watching the Braves. Growing up under Dale Murphy and that whole era. So it was probably baseball more than anything else that I remember growing up.

Q:What about college football, when did you get involved and interested?

I became really passionate about it when I went to law school here at the University of Georgia. And of course my first year following graduation, when I became an assistant U.S. attorney with the Department of Justice, was Herschel Walker’s freshman year. So I managed to travel back to Athens constantly during that first year, which probably got me in a little bit of trouble from time to time, with my other responsibilities. And I became a really avid fan of the football team. Certainly from law school forward.

Q:Are there any other teams here – the so-called non-revenues – that you show up a lot to support?

I try to get to as many as possible. I certainly am a big fan of the swimming program. Jack Bauerle has always been a coach that I’ve had great admiration for. Many of his swimmers were honors students when I directed the university honors program. So I got to know a lot of the swimmers through their association with the honors program. Both men’s and women’s basketball teams, the gymnastics program, now that I’m going down the list, whether it’s soccer, all of them I’ve been at at one time or another. I think all of those programs play an important part in what it means to be at the flagship institution in the state of Georgia. And we’ve got a lot of passionate fans who care very much about their teams, and we’ve got some great student-athletes across all of our sports.

Q:What do you think your role is in athletics? How involved should a president be?

Well under NCAA rules the president has ultimate responsibility for intercollegiate athletics. So I want to know what’s going on. I want to make sure the athletic director and his team is complying with NCAA and SEC rules, that they’re running a good and sound operation. Ands o for me personally that means that I talk to Greg on a regular basis. He keeps me updated on issues. He is great about keeping me informed, soliciting my opinion when it might be useful to a subject. But I think you only have one athletic director at a time. It’s Greg McGarity’s responsibility to direct the program. I see my responsibility in the line of what the rules and vision (are), which is making sure the institution has control and responsibility over athletics. But I’m very happy with the job Greg’s doing and his senior leadership team.

Q:You mentioned being within the rules. I know there are fans who want you to push the way towards the line if it means victories. I understand it’s important to you to not just have it be public but stay within the rules.

Absolutely. I think the university’s reputation and stature is hurt much more by an athletic scandal than it is helped by winning one or two more games by bending the rules. So I think our responsibility is to do it the right way. And you know, we have been doing it the right way and we’ve been very successful. There aren’t many programs in the country that wouldn’t trade places with the University of Georgia with being in the top 10 of all athletic programs. Being in the championship game for the Southeastern Conference football for the past two years. So I think we’re in a pretty good place, we have good coaches, great student-athletes. I’m not too worried about where we are with athletics. I think we’re on the right pathway.

Q:How strong do you think you find athletics in your tenure as president, versus where it was 10-15 years ago?

You know, I think we’ve been strong consistently. Every athletic program will have its better years from time to time, may win a few more championships in one year than they won in a previous year. But I think from a consistency standpoint Georgia compares favorably with any program you could name in the United States. We’re always going to have competitive athletic teams on the field. We’re always going to have teams that graduate their student-athletes. And to me those are the two things that are important. … I don’t know that we are doing anything substantially different than we were, say, a decade ago, except that this past year we certainly had a lot of success in many programs, and that led to us being in that top 10 ranking of athletic programs for the first time in a few years.

Q:Something I hear a lot from fans is concern that the athletic department isn’t spending enough. I know the reserve fund is at about $69 million right now and it’s largely being saved for a rainy day rather than being used on the planned baseball stadium renovations or an indoor football facility or a bunch of football support staff. Do you feel like the athletic department is spending enough money at this point?

Well, I think that first that’s the purview of the athletic director, to make recommendations to the president and the athletic board on how we ought to spend and what we should spend it for. He has been supported on those recommendations, and I think from the conversations he and I have had, he doesn’t believe in spending money for no purpose. In other words, if there’s a good reason to do it, if it’s gonna make us more competitive, if it’s gonna make us more successful, then he’ll propose it, and he’ll be supported by my office and by the athletic board. But I just think he’s being prudent and thoughtful in an era when some programs have been wasteful and have put themselves in serious financial jeopardy by their decisions. I think the results speak for themselves. We are a top 10 athletic program, so we’re obviously doing a lot of things correctly.

Q:Let me also ask another hot-button issue. Obviously Georgia has one of the most stringent drug testing and discipline policies in the SEC, and it does create a competitive disadvantage sometimes. There’s a key player on defense who’s not gonna play Saturday. Do you support the program as it is?

I'll give you the same answer coach Richt gave a few weeks ago. I was with him in Gwinnett County when he gave that answer. I think it's better for us to hold to our stringent policies on this subject, and ask the Southeastern Conference to raise their standards to where we are, rather than us consider lowering our standards. So I think it's right to expect our student-athletes to conduct themselves in a certain way and for there to be consequences when they fail to do so.
And if that means we have a player missing a game every so often, to hold those high standards, I'm fine with that kind of policy. Although I will tell you that I plan to advocate very strenuously for uniform Southeastern Conference policies in this regard. It hink every president and every chancellor in the Southeastern Conference should have the same sort of standards that we have. But I would not be in favor of the university lowering our standards. As coach Richt put it, I would be in favor of other schools coming up to where our standards are on this subject.

Q:Is it realistic to expect something to change at the SEC level?

"Well I don’t know. I will be going to my first meeting as a president or a chancellor this fall, and will get a good sense on where others stand on that partciular subject. You know it sometimes takes the conference a period of time to work through an issue. When I was faculty athletics representative (from UGA to the SEC in the mid-2000s) I know sometimes an issue would percolate for a few years before a consensus would develop around how to resolve the issue. But I've gotta believe that other presidents and chancellors are as concerned about the issue of drug or alcohol misuse by their student-athletes as we are. And I'll be interested to see what sorts of ideas they have on this subject. But I think the University of Georgia’s policy is a good one, and it’s served us well. You know, the alternative of not having such policies, while they might lead to having one or two more players available for a particular game, they could lead to a number of other adverse consequences that would not be good for the teams or the universities. So I think we’ve got it right on that subject.

Q:On the SEC and NCAA level, obviously Michael Adams was so involved and engaged on a national level. Obviously you can’t start off that involved and engaged, but do you plan on that eventually or would you rather be a back-bencher for your tenure?

Well I’m not a back-bencher kind of personality. But you don’t seek out leadership roles. The leadership roles are brought upon you based upon the record that you’ve established. We’ll see over time what opportunities arise in that regard. I’ve already agreed to take on a leadership role in another organization that’s more related to the academic enterprise of the institution, which is APLO, our public land grand university associate, and will be working with a committee of research presidents in that regard. But I’m certainly open to those opportunities down the road. But I think in the first year or two, in a role like this one, you have some time to sit back and learn and listen. There are a lot of great presidents and chancellors in the SEC that I’m looking forward to getting to know better, to learn from them, and I’m hoping I’ll be able to contribute something to those conversations as well.

Q:The NCAA obviously it seems right now is going through some soul-searching. Do you have any strong opinions on what needs to be changed, if anything?

Well I’m a big fan of the executive vice president of the NCAA because he’s a former student of mine, Mark Lewis. Mark was on my national championship moot court team when he was a law student here at the University of Georgia. I probably have his picture somewhere in this office. But Mark is in that No. 2 leadership role at the NCAA. He played football for the University of Georgia, and I think is a very smart and capable individual, and certainly as president of the University of Georgia, I’m very proud of the leadership role he has at the NCAA. Looking to the NCAA specifically, there clearly are some tough issues that they’ve got to work through between the haves and the have-nots, between the big schools and the smaller schools. And it’s one reason I’m planning to go to the NCAA convention in January. I want to hear more about that issue, learn more about that subject. But I’m not at a point to tell you I have a magic bullet answer on how to solve all of those questions. They’re pretty complex, and one solution can lead to a new problem. So I think whatever you do in making any changes, they have to be done very carefully and very thoughtfully, because you can have a lot of unintended consequences that nobody considered when they made that change. The lawyer in me would just say we should execute great caution in everything that we do and think it through very carefully.

Q:Does the lawyer in you see any way around the current enforcement policies that to a lot of people seem (arbitrary): Something happens here, but something doesn’t happen here, and there’s an inconsistency and leads to a lot of controversy?

Well certainly you want consistency in the application of all rules and regulations. But I’m not involved in the specific case to know enough about it to make the determination to know the outcome was inconsistent. It could be that different facts lead to different outcomes. And so I haven’t studied each case closely enough to say that each case is like the other case, it’s hard for me to tell you that the outcomes have been inconsistent.

Q:Everyone seems to want to know where all this is going to go.

I think time will work out these issues. I’m not as, I guess, alarmed or worried about as I guess other people are. Folks have been criticizing rules and regulations in intercollegiate athletics I guess since they were first created, but most of the rules have a reason for their creation. And so as you start eliminating the rules you do have to think about how is that particular change going to impact the way everyone conducts themselves. It’s probably why change is slow in this area, because there was likely to have been a good reason a rule was created.

Q:Is the concept of amateurism something that needs to be held on to?

Absolutely. I believe it’s important to have college athletes that are college students. And as we get ready to play Clemson University you can think of no better example of that than Aaron Murray, our starting quarterback who earned his degree in three years, went into graduate school, has been a great spokesperson in the University, has done well in his academic pursuits, and likely has a professional career ahead of him. But I think he’s done a good job of balancing being a college athlete with being a college student. And that’s a world I favor and I hope we can retain it.

Q:The Ed O’Bannon case looms. Where do you think that’s going?

Hard for me to say. I’m not a lawyer on that case. I’m not about to predict the outcome at this point.

Q:Do you strongly favor the NCAA’s side on that?

Again, that’s not a case I’ve studied the details about. So it’s hard for me to give you any informed legal opinion on the merits of the case, or understand what factors might impact the outcome of the case. I just don’t.

Q:One more: Are you on Twitter?

I am not. (Smiling)

Q:Where do you get your news then?

Well I actually do it the old-fashioned way. I read a lot of newspapers either online or in print. I’ve just never gone down that path. Everybody tells me I’m gonna have to. But I’ve resisted it so far. I will tell you that the young people that I talk to, it’s clear that most of them follow news in a very different way than I do.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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