NCAA Soccer

Oliver Luck Champions Big Changes to College Soccer

The former NFL player and Houston Dynamo president is now athletic director at West Virginia University and is part of a movement to extend the college soccer season to 10 months.
BY Robert Kehoe III Posted
September 24, 2014
10:00 AM
WHEN OLIVER LUCK stepped down as president of the Houston Dynamo in 2008 and returned to his alma mater, West Virginia University, to become athletic director, soccer’s growth in the United States was no longer his main objective.

But college soccer is at a crossroads these days, with prominent figures within American soccer like Jurgen Klinsmann and Tab Ramos consistently advocating that, because of its short season and NCAA-mandated practice limits, it’s not the best place for young American players to develop.

The college soccer community has heard these criticisms and responded with a plan to push the NCAA for a rule change that would adjust the game and practice structure, stretching the season from just the fall to the entire academic year in hopes of keeping more of the best players in school and, ideally, improving the college game’s marketability.

It would be a major shift in the college soccer landscape and getting it approved by the NCAA will require political mobility and strong advocacy. Which brings us back to Luck, a former Houston Oilers quarterback (and father of current Indianapolis QB Andrew Luck) who has the influence of being an athletic director of a program in one of the biggest conferences in college sports, and has the gravitas that comes from playing in, and working for, the NFL.

While Luck never played soccer, his time with the Dynamo, which won a pair of MLS Cups while he was president, makes him among the highest-profile and most prominent individuals within college athletics who has ties to the sport. It also makes him a natural choice to lobby the NCAA on behalf of college soccer coaches to expand the season.

American Soccer Now’s Robert L. Kehoe III recently spoke with Luck about his involvement with college soccer and navigating the NCAA’s turbulent political waters. The following interview has been lightly edited.

ROBERT KEHOE: How did a former NFL quarterback and executive develop an appreciation and affection for the game of soccer?

OLIVER LUCK: Well, I grew up playing the traditional American sports—basketball, baseball, and football, in addition to running track. I had some exposure to soccer as a kid because my mother was from Germany, so I kicked a ball around with my cousins when we’d go visit them in the summers. But I didn’t really come to appreciate it until I was in my thirties when I was working for the NFL in Europe, and a significant part of my job became understanding soccer. Not the game itself, but the legal and economic structure, along with the history and culture that was so important to the European consciousness. Understanding those components was essential for my work with the NFL. It was through that experience I became a fan.

RK: What did you learn about the game?

OL: I’m a lawyer by training, so the legal structure was fascinating, and gaining an understanding of the difference between the club and franchise model was very important professionally and interesting personally. I also found the structure of competition, with leagues, league cups, and European tournaments very appealing. Obviously that structure functions very differently from our models in the states, which I enjoyed. Beyond that, I’m a passionate student of history and I really absorbed the way the past had such a profound influence on Europe’s leagues and clubs.

RK: Considering your education in the game was through your exposure to those clubs, how do you perceive the relationship between college soccer, MLS, and the U.S. national team?

OL: Because a college education is such a priority in American society, and college athletics is a big part of our system, our culture is very distinct from Europe where they don’t have the infrastructure to support college athletics. One of the challenges for MLS is understanding the advantages of college soccer—for example, getting more mature and educated players at 21 or 22, instead of taking a risk on a 16 or 17-year-old who might not have the maturity to be a pro.

For me it’s a positive aspect of our culture, where we’re able to influence the development of young people both academically and athletically. There’s nothing wrong with honing your craft in an academy system, but that’s not for everyone, and getting a degree while improving as an athlete is a great thing we’re still able to offer. That’s not to say we shouldn’t work to make college soccer better, but the system we have is very positive.

RK: With all the scandals and recruiting violations we see in big-time college football and men’s basketball, can soccer help improve the perception of college sports, and can the NCAA help enhance soccer’s place in our culture?

OL: There are a number of ways that soccer helps college athletics. First, it attracts a different population of athlete, including a lot of Latin American immigrants who may be the first generation in their families to attend college. If soccer can be a part of bringing different ethnic groups into higher education that’s a very positive thing for our country as a whole.

I’m also a believer that our business model for college athletics is very precarious because we’re too reliant on football to generate revenue. Of course, athletics are costly so we need to generate some revenue to support the athletes who compete on our campuses. But it’s never good business to rely on one product or one customer. Soccer is a sport that is clearly building a larger customer base, so we should explore how to capitalize on that growth.

RK: Given your history with MLS, how do you think the season expansion would improve the relationship between college soccer and Major League Soccer?

OL: MLS has voiced full support for this development. The only issue they might have is the draft and the combine, but that can get figured out. Ultimately it’s good for the game and the growth of college players, who will get more quality training sessions, more time on the ball, better recovery time, and less disruption to their academic schedules. Personally, I think it will help athletic administrators like myself promote the game as well.

Again, part of our challenge is to cover costs of operations, so give me a Saturday game in April and I’ll sell six or seven thousand tickets. A midweek game in November isn’t nearly as appealing to students and fans who have other commitments. But back to your question, MLS is very supportive of changing our calendar. Still, it’s important to remember as leaders in higher education our first priority is helping student-athletes improve their lives and opportunities, not make money.

RK: But with money as a necessary component, do you think moving to a 10-month season would put college soccer in position to be a revenue-generating sport?

OL: That’s hard to say, but again, the NCAA has been far too reliant on money that comes from football, which I recently shared with the Knight Commission in Washington D.C. To a lesser extent men’s basketball is in the same position, but if you just look at football it has real and unpredictable challenges in the near future. Whatever those challenges may be, we need to reconfigure our approach to college athletics because we can’t continue to rely on football.

At a minimum we want to provide athletes with a place to play, and soccer’s popularity leads me to believe that it could be financially sustaining on college campuses. Repositioning the College Cup in the spring helps too, and may put us in position to build a championship season that generates more interest from fans who will go to live games and watch on TV. But again, the goal is to cover costs, which is a realistic possibility for men’s and women’s soccer.

RK: How do you do that on college campuses?

OL: If we do it intelligently I think it can work. One way we can test that out is by expanding the season to support the academic and athletic development of soccer players, which could also improve our ability to promote the game and support its growth financially. Instead of accepting the status quo, which simply says soccer is a fall sport in college, why not have a soccer game on a beautiful April afternoon, and hold the College Cup in good weather instead of in December?

RK: Where do you see resistance coming from?

OL: Partly from the perception that athletics are a distraction to academic development, some of which is justified when you see what some athletes get away with—not taking a demanding course load or not prioritizing their studies. But that’s the exception to the rule. The large majority of college athletes take a full course load, perform well academically, and statistically they do better in season than out of season.

Besides that, athletes like to play sports. What do baseball players do in their free time when they aren’t going to school or working? They play baseball. What do soccer players do when they don’t have class or other responsibilities? They play soccer. That doesn’t make them less smart, it just means they like to play sports. Telling athletes and coaches they can only play or coach for four months out of the year is like telling a chemistry professor that they can only hold labs for the same amount of time. The key is to put a structure in place that’s in the best interests of the students who play sports. If we do it right, it should actually improve their academic work and the perception of college athletes.

RK: So it’s about balance.

OL: Yes, and accepting the status quo won’t ensure balance. Just because soccer has been a fall sport doesn’t mean it always should be, and keeping it as a fall sport won’t guarantee the well-being of our student athletes.

RK: What’s the legislative timeframe for the 10-month season to be voted on, and the likelihood of its success?

OL: After the moratorium is lifted this fall, new legislation can be filed and this piece of legislation will encompass all Division 1 programs. Odds of it passing are difficult to handicap, because schools that don’t sponsor soccer have a vote. Most of the D1 men’s and many of the women’s coaches are on board but there may be resistance from some athletic directors.

RK: Who needs to be persuaded?

OL: Some ADs have voiced objections, many of which are related to budgetary restrictions or facility limitations. Those are legitimate issues so we have to be sensitive and mindful of them. But again, there’s strong support among the coaches, and because a 10-month season significantly reduces the need to schedule midweek games, which keeps students in the classroom, especially when you factor travel into the equation, feedback from faculty and academic advisors has been almost 100 percent positive.

RK: Do you have college athletic director allies in this movement?

OL: Oh yeah, there are a handful of ADs, at big and small schools, who have announced their support, and see this as an opportunity to reconsider how athletics can function on campuses and improve the experience of our students.

RK: So the 10-month season is not a lock but it has strong support?

OL: Yes, but it’s very difficult to read at this point. There are so many changes taking place, and both the NCAA and institutions of higher learning are traditionally slow to respond to new ideas, so we probably won’t really know how close this is to passing until the legislation is on the docket.

Robert L Kehoe III (@robertkehoe3) played soccer and studied politics at Wheaton College (IL), and philosophy at Boston College.

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