LITTLE ROCK — On a Halloween appearance before the Little Rock Touchdown Club, University of Central Arkansas coach Clint Conque mixed metaphors about the dangers of opening Pandora’s Box in college athletics.
The NCAA is proposing allowing Division I conferences, on a conference-by-conference basis, to increase the amount of scholarships and grants to athletes by $2,000 per year — in effect providing a stipend for participation in athletics.
"I hope we think this through; I hope we don’t shoot first and ask questions later," Conque said.
The potential problem, as Conque sees it, is that paying players creates tension in the present and as slippery slope for the future, even though there is big money available at many BCS schools and the major colleges.
"I’m telling you, this can be a slippery slope," Conque said. "Once you open Pandora’s Box, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Two-thousand dollars goes to $5,000 and $5,000 to $10,000. Where does it end?"
He cited a statement made by Mike Martin, the chancellor of LSU.
"He’s had to lay off 500 faculty and staff the last few years," Conque said. "His staff hasn’t gotten a raise in four years ... the faculty, the custodians, the professors and chairs. Then, we’re gonna commit another million dollars (considering all athletes and taking to account gender equity) to pay the players?"
He also talked about the dangers it could create to campus cultures.
"It could create a situation in which the faculty doesn’t want to work with athletics because there is some jealousy there," Conque said.
Although he generally supports providing two-year scholarships to athletes instead of one, he also talked about the red flags concering multi-year scholarship commitments.
"On the surface that appears good," he said. "But there are different dynamics in this. You have to look at this closely. You have to be careful about academic performance and APR (the measuring grading stick for academic progress among athletes that carries sanctions). There can be off-the-field issues.
"Coaches get four-year contracts. But after two years, coaches get fired, are paid off and sent down the road. When you start talking about firing players, you are getting onto a slippery slope."
Conque, in his 12th season at UCA, said his Pell Grant was taken away while he played at Nicholls State.
"I had a car with like three hubcaps," he quipped. "The vinyl roof was rolling up like a sardine can. I needed that Pell Grant. We’ve got to be careful. The conferences will have to decide, but the thing that concerns me is that it will create more separation (between the haves and the have-nots) and that will create more selfishness."
He noted that another part of the legislation is to raise initial eligibility standards for athletes and also tightened restrictions on core curriculum and continued eligibility. He the BCS should spend some of its revenue to help coaches and counselors in high school educate their athletes, particularly at high schools in disadvantaged communities, about what it will take to be eligible for a Division I scholarship.
"And that should go back to the freshman year in high school," Conque said. "They (the NCAA) are gonna make it tougher to be eligible.
"But if you are going to raise the bar, keep the bar high. If you are gonna pay players, let’s don’t get on a downslide on a slippery slope in which you can’t put the brakes on. I’m concerned about the separation it will create among teams in major conferences and other conferences that can’t afford adding money to the scholarship. The MAC (Middle America Conference), for example, puts out some pretty good pro football players but can schools in that league afford to pay players the extra money? I’m concerned about a player at one university who doesn’t not make as much as another player at a major college and they might have been high school teammates and both good players. One player looks at the situation and asks ‘Does this mean I’m an inferior guy?’"
Also in his presentation, Conque talked about his team’s five-game winning streak. "Our players didn’t quit believing (after a 1-3 start) and our assistant coaches didn’t quit believing," he said.
He also highlighted some of his players with Arkansas ties, the upcoming improvements in facilities and, naturally, talked about UCA’s purple-and-gray striped artificial turf at First Security Field at Estes Stadium.
"It gives us a great physical identity," Conque said. "During the summer, we had people from out of town stopping in Conway just to take pictures of the turf. I gave a couple who stopped by from Dallas while I happened to be walking across the parking lot a tour. They were from Georgia and had driven by just to see the turf. And FYI, we’re undefeated on that turf.
"By our record and our facilities, we can show potential recruits we are progressing, that we are enhancing the experience here," Conque added. "The culture has changed. When I played, I woke up in the morning and asked, ‘What can I do to help my university, my team and my coaches?’ Nowadays, kids wake up and ask, ‘What can you do for me?’ That’s the landscape we’re dealing with."