October 11, 2006: An
interview with Gary Walters '67
Princeton's director of athletics on NCAA basketball, the Ivy League
at 50, and Princeton's sports culture.
To read his interview published in the Oct. 11 2006
issue of PAW, click
Director of Athletics Gary Walters ’67
recently became chairman of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball
committee, taking a key role in one of the most popular events in
college athletics. The men’s basketball tournament is the
crown jewel of the NCAA’s 11-year, $6-billion television contract
with CBS, which helps fund a range of NCAA initiatives. Walters
shared his thoughts on the committee’s work and other hot
topics in college sports with PAW’s Brett Tomlinson.
More than 12 million households watched the NCAA tournament
final on television last year. Why do you think it appeals to so
It captures American culture. In some ways, what we’ve done
in the college basketball tournament is a great compromise. ...
What you have, through the 31 automatic qualifiers for conference
champions, is a mechanism for broad-based access that gives every
university an equal opportunity to compete. We balance that with
the 34 at-large teams — the teams that we think are the 34
best at-large teams in the country. That’s the pure meritocracy
part. I think what the committee has been able to achieve is the
sweet spot between meritocracy and opportunity.
One of the most important, and most critiqued, jobs in all
of sports is the work done by your committee in selecting teams
for the tournament. What goes into that process?
A lot of people have a sketchy impression of what we do, and there
are many who believe that we rely only upon quantitative methods.
The quantitative method that we use within the NCAA is this model
called the RPI, the Ratings Percentage Index. It’s simply
a winning percentage index — a mathematical model that enables
us to get a general indication of relative team strength. The RPI
basically creates the skeleton. It’s the job of the committee
to create the corpus, to fill out the figure. And we do that in
a very subjective way by trying to analyze and compare the strengths
and weaknesses of the best teams in the “major” and
so-called mid-major conferences.
Much has been made of the rise of “mid-major”
programs, such as George Mason, which reached the Final Four last
year. Have you noticed a change in your four years on the committee?
I think what you’ve really seen is an increase in parity
throughout the country. Some of that more recently has been driven
by players who have gone from high school right into the pros or
who have left their college teams after playing only one
or two years. Conversely, some of the “mid-majors”
have been able to keep and develop their players for
four years, enabling them to compete more successfully against some
more talented, but in many cases less experienced, “major”
Each year, when the committee’s work is done, the chairman
appears on CBS to talk with Jim Nantz and Billy Packer about the
tournament selections. Last year, then-chairman Craig Littlepage
was less than thrilled with the grilling he got on that program.
You tend to keep a relatively low profile. Do you have any reservations
about continuing the tradition and appearing on the show?
One has to understand that we’ve literally just completed
our selections, as narrowly as a half hour or 45 minutes before
the show. So there are any number of dynamics at work. The committee
chair and all the members of the committee are exhausted. It’s
very, very difficult to get a broader perspective of what you just
did, because you’re operating under such time pressures. …
In addition to that, Billy and Jim themselves are coming right from
their own TV assignment, and they’re basically evaluating
the field with only about 15 minutes or a half an hour themselves.
So I personally think that we can probably do a better job of producing
that show in a way that reduces the apparent contentiousness that
took place last year.
This year, the Ivy League is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
Based on your experience as a student-athlete, coach, and athletic
director, how do you think college athletics and the Ivy League
have changed in the last 50 years?
The most obvious change that has taken place in the last 50 years
is the fact that Princeton, as well as other schools, is co-ed.
But more importantly, Title IX [passed in 1972] obviously has had
a dramatic and positive impact on the role of athletics in all of
our institutions. ... The second major change, however, is that
in order to accommodate Title IX and coeducation, universities had
to eliminate freshman teams, which had an enormous impact on the
freshman student-athlete experience. The period of adjustment for
freshmen has been reduced and both the academic and athletic pressure
has intensified. And in that way, I think athletics today, generally
speaking, are more difficult than they were when I played.
Third, despite public perceptions that have been erroneously influenced
by recent books that have focused on the role of athletics at selective
universities, we have 20 percent fewer recruited athletes on our
Ivy League campuses [including Princeton] today than we had just
20 years ago. ... And fourth, again notwithstanding some of the
perceptions that are out there, never in the history of the University
has the athletic cohort itself been more representative of the overall
student body because of the Ivy League’s decision to implement
the academic index [AI] back in the early 1980s. There has been
a compression of the standard deviation of the AI of athletes versus
the mean of the overall class, every year.
The league has maintained that the focus should be on winning
the league, not looking beyond to postseason play. Do you think
coaches and student-athletes agree?
I think if you go to the Big Ten or the ACC or the Ivy League,
any of the athletes in those respective leagues is going to tell
you that the focus is on winning that league championship. But I
would go a step beyond that … Our job is to try to create
an environment that is competitive, where our students can fulfill
their academic and athletic potential, and to be the very best that
they can be. There’s no way that we should apologize for our
performance in the NCAA [Championships]. … Sure enough, our
academicians want to test themselves against the best nationally,
just as our student-athletes want to test themselves nationally.
That’s why they decide to come to a Division I institution
Looking at college athletics nationally, last year there were
a handful of incidents that cast teams in a negative light, including
an off-campus men’s lacrosse party at Duke that led to criminal
charges of rape and sexual assault. What can Princeton do to prevent
My job is to create an athletic culture that is consistent with
the educational mission of the University. Toward that end we hire
educator-coaches who can serve as good role models for our student-athletes.
By definition, however, college students sometimes go too far in
exerting their independence. We have to use those occasions constructively
as teachable moments, understanding that discipline may be required
to appropriately address a situation. One of the things that we
became engaged with about eight or nine years ago, through the University’s
alcohol initiative, is [that] every year, our teams submit plans
of action as to the use of alcohol. Every year, we also talk with
our athletes about our zero-tolerance policy on hazing. I don’t
think we could be any more transparent or straightforward as it
relates to what our expectations are.