College is supposed to be a place that builds dreams, not a place that crushes them. You wouldn’t know it by Joe Roberson. The lanky, bespectacled athletic director is leaving his job in a month or two. Retiring. Going to Florida. This is not some 30-years-and-out guy, heading off with a gold watch and a party cake. This is a man who came to the University of Michigan with a noble yet naive idea.
His idea was that college sports could be as much about academics as they were about athletics.
Which explains why he’s leaving.
“People have written that it’s stress, but it’s not,” Roberson says with a sigh. “It’s disillusionment. I’ve become disillusioned with the direction college sports is going. It’s this constant push for more games, more championships, more playoffs. Are we in the education business or the entertainment business? The answer seems to be entertainment.
“I watched Ohio State play football on a Thursday night this week. A Thursday? They’re only doing that for television. We send our kids to play basketball in Iowa in the middle of the week. Why? We only do that for television.
“When I first took over this job, we started football season on Labor Day weekend. The freshmen on that team hadn’t been to a single class yet, but they’d been practicing for three weeks. Then they go running out into our stadium with 100,000 people screaming for them. The next week, we were playing Notre Dame, everyone in the country was talking about the game . . .
“And in between, on Wednesday, we started classes. Now, let me ask you this. When that freshman calls home, do you think he’s talking to his parents about his English Lit lecture?”
There, in a nutshell, is college sports.
Can you blame the guy for leaving?
A difficult tenure
I first met Roberson when we sat on a committee to select a U-M scholarship winner. I expected the athletic director to be more gruff, have a whistle around his neck, say things like “Yeah, sure, but what about the sports?”
Instead, I was struck by Roberson’s eloquence, candor and interest in education. Although he and I disagreed on many things, I left feeling that Michigan athletics were at least in the hands of someone who cared.
Time passed. Roberson, 61, presided over the most tumultuous four years in U-M sports, including lawsuits, dismissals, the ousting of Gary Moeller, the football coach, after a drunken incident at a restaurant, and the current investigation of Steve Fisher’s basketball program for possible NCAA violations.
It’d be one thing if Roberson encouraged these incidents. It’s another when they’re everything he is against.
“This basketball situation — what’s frustrating is not being able to get to the whole truth of it. We’re in the position of having to disprove allegations. And I believe when the final report comes out, there won’t be anything proven.”
Still, when I ask Roberson whether he believes players never took money from outsiders, he cannot say yes. There may be no smoking gun, no solid connection to the university. But Roberson is too smart about today’s society. He sees how athletes are coddled from the eighth grade. How they are befriended, adored, ducked under standards — all because they can run fast and jump high.
By the time they get to college, many are cynical, dollar-hungry entertainers.
Which means they fit right in.
A wise ol’ guy
I ask Roberson if he had a day to be king of college sports, what he would do. He jumps into two suggestions:
“First, I would make freshmen ineligible. Give them a chance to adapt, to realize the primary purpose of college is education.
“Secondly, I would take away all this TV influence. Because that’s what’s driving everything. TV wants its product, and we do what it tells us.”
Great ideas. And he has a better chance of seeing God than seeing them enacted.
Now, as I say, I haven’t always agreed with Roberson. But there is something seriously wrong when a guy who believes that college athletes should be educated is viewed at as some amusing rustic. For much of his tenure, that’s how other coaches and Big Ten officials saw Roberson. He was an academic Don Quixote, tilting at windmills, destined to fall on his sword.
“When I would suggest we cut back on TV, give back money to get more control of our programs, others would say, ‘Oh there goes Joe again.’ “
So now, there goes Joe for good.
Our loss, not his.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of “Tuesdays With Morrie” Friday, 7-8 p.m, Little Professor, Ann Arbor, and Saturday, noon-1 p.m., Borders, Birmingham, and 2-3 p.m., Barnes & Noble, Rochester Hills.