At the University of Kentucky, Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart reports directly to President Lee T. Todd Jr. and an athletics board.
Athletics is the only department at the university whose head doesn't report to the full UK board of trustees.
But the status quo at UK might be about to change. Britt Brockman, chairman of the UK board of trustees, is appointing a committee to look at how UK governs its vast and immensely profitable athletics department, and how that's different from the oversight of departments at other Southeastern Conference and at Atlantic Coast Conference schools.
Athletics governance structures are "kind of a hodgepodge," Brockman said. "I don't have a predetermined idea of who's doing it right or wrong. I don't know, and that's exactly why I feel it's important to put this committee together."
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In fact, none of the half a dozen schools willing to talk to the Herald-Leader had exactly the same reporting structure for athletics.
Murray Sperber, who wrote the seminal text on college athletics, Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education, said he's not surprised there's no single template for oversight of college sports.
"They don't have really clear lines of governance, and they don't want the outside world to know that," said Sperber, a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Unless something unusual comes up, the UK athletic association board's 17 members meet twice a year, usually for less than an hour, according to their minutes, to approve Barnhart's agenda.
"The board never really did much," said Carol Martin "Bill" Gatton, a former member of the athletic association board and a current member of the university's board of trustees. "It wasn't that Dr. Todd and the athletic director weren't on the same page; it was that the board never had much to say."
Gatton said the athletic association board should have "some say on policies and procedures" instead of being a "rubber stamp."
But Dermontti Dawson, a former football player for UK and the Pittsburgh Steelers and a member of the athletic association board, said he sees the role of that board as advisory. Setting policy should be the role of the university athletics director and president, he said.
"I would say they do a pretty good job of transparency," he said of the athletics department.
'Veil of secrecy'
Even the National Collegiate Athletics Association doesn't keep track of how athletics departments are governed.
Allen Sack is a professor at the University of New Haven and a longtime member of the Drake Group, a national faculty group that studies issues related to college athletics.
There is "a veil of secrecy regarding what's going on in college athletics," Sack said, adding that the system thrives on "obfuscation and confusion."
At some schools contacted by the Herald-Leader, the athletics department is overseen by the university's full board. At Louisiana State University, for example, the board of supervisors, which is like UK's board of trustees, oversees decisions made by the athletics department and its director.
The athletics director is a vice chancellor who reports to the chancellor, who is like UK's president.
Even though UK athletics doesn't report directly to the full board of trustees, Jay Blanton, the university's spokesman, said athletics has strong ties with the trustees.
"I would submit that it does report to the board through the president," he said.
And there are trustees on the athletics board as well as faculty members, the president and other top administrators, Blanton said. The athletics budget is approved by the trustees as part of the operating budget of the university each year.
At the University of Michigan, Dave Brandon, the former Domino's CEO who is now athletics director, said athletics directors should be in constant contact with their ultimate overseer — the university president.
"Presidents should own it," he said. "I don't think that governing bodies are going to be in the best position to provide the oversight and ownership" that daily contact with a president does.
Mary Sue Coleman, Michigan's president, was not available to comment.
Michigan also has an Advisory Board for Intercollegiate Athletics, which is dominated by faculty members and focuses on eligibility issues.
Donna Lopiano, a consultant with Sports Management Associates, said the key to any athletics oversight reform is more fully involving the faculty. The majority of the voting members of an athletics oversight board should be faculty members, and the board should report directly to the president, she said.
Lopiano's firm is hired by organizations seeking to implement "best practices" in their athletics governance.
Five of the UK athletics board's 17 members are faculty members.
"The theory behind any oversight board ... is that the board be unbiased and not be directly affected by what it is overseeing," she said, such as athletics employees overseeing athletics.
A fresh look
Barnhart has eight more years under a contract extension recently granted by Todd. That extension and a $125,000 raise to his annual base salary, bringing it to $600,000, was one of the reasons Brockman called for a committee to look at athletics oversight.
Neither UK's board of trustees nor its athletics board was consulted about Todd's decision on Barnhart.
Brockman said he hopes to have the committee, composed of eight to 10 members, running by the March 29 UK board of trustees meeting. The committee will include Todd and Brockman, faculty members, athletics board members and community representatives.
The committee will not complete its work before the next president is selected. Todd is retiring as UK president in June.
"I think we will have started, but I think the next president absolutely needs to be part of the process," Brockman said. "I think it's critical."
Barnhart said in a statement he thinks the current system at UK is working well, but he is not opposed to the committee.
"Our current governance structure has worked very well, in my judgment, in terms of the success of our program both on the field and in the classroom," Barnhart said.
"I think that's a testament to President Todd's leadership and the culture of excellence he expects throughout the department and the institution."
Barnhart also said he thinks "it's always wise and prudent to examine what other programs and institutions are doing and to be open to changes that might make our program even better."
Brockman said he didn't have a specific model for what UK's athletics governance should look like, "but I've got an open mind."