Tim Sands gives Virginia Tech another president engaged in athletics

By David Teel

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Sands applauds academic achievement of non-revenue athletes.

Tim Sands plays pick-up basketball twice a week at Virginia Tech's War Memorial gym, a Dell Curry 3-pointer away from his Burruss Hall office. The games among faculty and administrators tip at 6:30 a.m., affording Sands an early start to his day as the school's president.

"That's what keeps me from falling apart," he said. "It's friendly basketball. I've only had three or four bruises in the several weeks I've played with them. No broken bones, no blood."

Hoops is hardly Sands' lone sports interest. He took over at Tech last month amid chaos in college sports, and during a wide-ranging interview Thursday with the Daily Press' editorial board, Sands indulged questions about athletics and expressed compelling views.

Chief among them: He supports the autonomy movement among the five power conferences in NCAA Division I, believes enhanced scholarships should be for all athletes, not just those in revenue sports, and worries about major college sports' financial future.

In short, Sands, like Charles Steger and Paul Torgersen before him, gives Virginia Tech a president who not only appreciates athletics but will be actively engaged in the enterprise.

"This move to the power five autonomy I think is a practical thing," Sands said. "These are institutions that have the money … to be able to address some of these long-standing concerns that our student-athletes have had. And they're legitimate, for the most part, concerns.

"They have to do with their futures, health insurance, cost-of-attendance, which I think most of my colleagues who I talk to support. I certainly think within reason that's OK. It would be nice to make (enhanced scholarships) need-based, (but) the mechanism for doing that is not so straight forward and I'm not sure that's even possible. But that's something I think is aspirational.

"I do think it has to be across-the-board. I would not favor singling out a couple of sports. The so-called revenue sports, I don't think that's the issue. I think the issue is our student-athletes in general. So that's the approach we're going to take at Virginia Tech."

Sands is spot-on. Providing cost-of-attendance stipends and improving health insurance for football and men's basketball players would be unfair, divisive and welcome legal challenges.

Sands is an engineer by trade but clearly understands economics, and he rightfully wonders whether the television rights fees that finance a majority of major college sports can keep pace with escalating costs. Ticket revenue certainly won't pay the freight, as schools nationwide struggle to fill their stadiums — the Hokies' streak of 93 consecutive home sellouts, dating to 1998, ended last season.

"The real concern (at) Virginia Tech is about the whole business model," Sands said, "and whether people will maintain their interest in the revenue sports for the foreseeable future. I presume for the next five or 10 years that March Madness will be March Madness and the college football bowl season will be exciting.

"But if you look at some of the things that are happening at every institution, you've got, as (athletic director) Whit Babcock likes to put it, everybody has a high-definition television in their basement almost, so they can watch the game there rather than coming to the field. There's a lot of concerns there. … The whole thing I think is up in the air for the long term."

I asked Sands if conferences such as the ACC, which Tech joined 10 years ago, have become too reliant on television.

"I think I would agree with that statement generally," he said. "It is where we are, and going forward, I think the concern is, will we be able to keep that up? We have these (television) contracts that lock in these revenue streams for a certain period of time, so I don't think we're talking about a crisis in the next 2-3 years. But if you look out 10 or 20 years, and the same thing can be said about professional sports, there are vulnerabilities there, so we need to be thinking ahead."

Sands is a strong advocate for athletes in non-revenue sports and applauded their collective academic achievements. Keeping their programs viable, he said, is a priority.

Calling non-revenue athletes "phenomenal assets," Sands said, "They have much, much higher GPAs. They are people who are inherently driven. They are competitive, and they really want to push themselves to the limit, and they don't do it just on the field. They do it in every aspect of their lives. …

"Yeah, there's a hundred and some of our 500 student-athletes who are attached to a revenue sport, but the other 400 are not, and they are absolutely critical, I think, to the university experience. Now they're not on TV that often, and the fan base isn't as large, but we recruit incredible students through the student-athlete programs, and I really feel like we have to find a way to sustain that, and the revenue sports do sustain them."

Sands, 56, worked previously at the Pacific 12's Cal-Berkeley, his alma mater, and Big Ten's Purdue, so he's been exposed to high-level college sports. But he's heard that Virginia Tech football is different, and his Twitter handle, @VTSandsman, is a clever shoutout to the Hokies' entrance into Lane Stadium.

"I haven't been to Lane Stadium," Sands said, "so I'm still a few weeks away from my first 'Enter Sandman' experience."

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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