There’s no mention of athletics in her official bio. This is not an omission. They can’t list everything. JoAnne Epps, Temple’s acting president, didn’t miss too many stations in her decades on North Broad Street. In addition to all her years teaching law students, she’s been dean of the law school and provost, Temple’s chief academic officer.
Growing up, Epps never played many organized sports, she said last week, which is a regret. But her understanding of college sports is framed by more than a decade as Temple’s faculty athletic representative.
“I’m pretty sure it was ‘94 to 2006,” said Epps, sitting in a conference room attached to her office in Sullivan Hall.
I’ve talked to a bunch of Temple presidents over the years in this suite of offices, from Peter Liacouras to most of his successors. Some were objectively pro-sports, at least one clearly anti-sports. None was more thoughtful about sports as the current acting president.
How did Epps, then a law school professor, get roped into being faculty rep to the athletic department?
“Oh, I was standing in the right place at the right time,” Epps said, explaining that Liacouras had an athletic committee at the time advising him about sports, how she was on it when the faculty rep job opened and Liacouras asked if anyone on the committee was interested.
“I said, ‘I am, I am,’” Epps said. “That was it. No interview. No process.”
So did that experience inform her current role?
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“I think for sure, but, interestingly, I think it’s a work in progress,” Epps said, immediately looking to the next president, since she’s made it clear she does not want to be in this office past the next year or two. “I think it is quite possible that we could hire a president that’s agnostic about sports. We could hire somebody that hates sports, but probably not. We could easily hire somebody agnostic about sports. I wouldn’t put myself in that category. I love sports. And I care about Temple teams and I love our Philly professional teams. So I think that my experience as faculty athletics representative solidifies my belief that sports are an important part of the institution.”
At the same time, she said, she stepped away from that “insider role” almost two decades ago. She explained that she had been on a two-hour American Athletic Conference call the day before, presidents and athletic directors. “I realized how much I have to re-familiarize myself, because I’ve let that go.”
‘Changing shape of sports’
The day after this interview, Southern Methodist announced it was leaving the AAC, accepted into the Atlantic Coast Conference. But the call wasn’t only about such moves.
“Just the changing shape of sports,” Epps said of the call. “There’s some part of that I’m not at liberty to talk about yet, but I think I can say just the changing landscape of sports. The role of money in sports.”
If we’re going big picture, the questions never end.
“College sports, what is that even going to mean in a decade?” Epps said. “Sports that happened to be played by people who are also in college.”
Does she have a viewpoint at this point on whether Temple should have a campus football stadium?
Epps paused for a full dozen seconds.
“This is going to sound like I’m dodging your question, but I don’t mean to be,” Epps said. “I think I’ll start by saying, I think it doesn’t really matter what I think as an acting president, because I’m not going to be here long enough to either kill it or build it. But I think what I would say secondarily, my honest answer to that is, if I were starting a six- or eight-year presidency, I’d want to stay open-minded about the question, to see where Temple football lands in the next three to five to seven years. That, to me, would be a relevant portion of what one ought to think about, and that to me is way up in the air at this stage.”
Nope, that’s not dodging the question. That’s the most honest you can expect from a university president, acting or not.
“So backing up to this day, I don’t really have an opinion,” Epps said. “Because I’m not sure what I think today would really inform what we ought to do.”
Maybe this is a loaded question, I said, but Liacouras used to see money spent (i.e. lost) on sports as money well spent if it provided important national exposure. But as the millions poured into athletics keep adding up, is that sustainable?
“I don’t hear it as a loaded question,” Epps said. “I guess the answer is, I think the investment is sustainable. It would, of necessity, impact other things.”
She added how that needed to reflect the “combined judgment” of a variety of parties.
“I get the viewpoint that, part of Peter Liacouras’ vision for Temple was influenced by our ascension as a fully functioning global institution. You can be a fully functioning global institution without Division I sports. For sure. But Division I sports helps. It’s a point of access. It builds awareness about you. I understand that theory, and that theory hasn’t gone away.” Then she gets to the heart of things.
“I think the answer to the question is really going to be influenced by the place and prevalence of money in Division I sports,” Epps said. “I think I worry that money is going to skew Division I sports ― it’s almost like America is divided into the haves and have-nots.”
She worries about the “accessibility of sports” for the generation just becoming sports fans, “people who are 6 to 10 ― I think that’s unfortunate, but I have no control over that.”
She has seen the NCAA completely restructure itself since she first began going to national meetings as a faculty rep.
“The NCAA meetings went from what was almost a democratic process to a representative process,” said Epps, who has a Yale law degree. “When I started, there would be floor votes, hundreds of people [involved], and it would be exciting. You just felt you were on the ground level. Then they went to a representative process, which was intellectually interesting, but not nearly as much fun.”
And either you’re on the governing boards or councils or you’re not.
“That’s exactly right,” Epps said.
Her own college sports experiences were formed by being around Temple teams at the time when John Chaney was in his windowless office, ready to debate all comers.
“He was, honest to God, one of a kind,” Epps said. “He was in his heart I think, a teacher, so he was always interested in people and playing back to them what he thought you ought to know, whether you wanted to know it or not.”
Always offering his views of the world — “but he was simultaneously warm, and not a bully, so he was generous with his time and his goodies — he’d show up and give you something sweet to eat.”
Sounds like Chaney, sure.
“Just his amalgamation of various personalities all wrapped into one,” Epps said.
A different world now, with the transfer portal always open for business. Her thoughts about instant transfer eligibility? She paused again.
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“The reason I hesitated, I haven’t thought about it,” Epps said. “I’m thinking about whether I have an opinion. I think I think it’s fine. Because I think it reflects the movements of college athletics. This, in some regards, can be seen as pro-student. I’m generally in favor of rules that are pro-student.”
Knowing Temple teams lost transfers and brought others in, Epps continued: “Not having really thought that through deeply, my inclination is, it’s terrible when you’re the loser and delightful when you’re the winner. But I think it probably reflects where college athletics is in supporting the student-athlete.”
I mentioned there can be unaccounted-for consequences that aren’t entirely pro-student … for instance, an athlete is a reserve player for two years, thinks the next season means a starting role, until a transfer shows up. (Hey, welcome to sports. A freshman also can show up and take your spot.)
“Those kinds of considerations would be thought of as old-school values,” Epps said.
Of course, her current task is to worry about how all this applies to Temple. A have or a have-not?
“I worry about how we’re going to come to a point where there are going to be some teams that are struggling in a way that becomes unsustainable,” Epps said.
She means teams in the big-time sports, usually categorized as “revenue-producing,” whether revenue is actually produced or not.
“I don’t think it’s unsustainable now, but I worry that that could happen,” Epps said.
It turns out she has been paying attention in recent years, as the Power 5 conferences move toward a Most Powerful 2, and other schools and leagues fight for survival.
“We’re right on the cusp,” Temple’s acting president said on the last day of August 2023. “So the question is, do we end up a winner?”