Everything changed when the NCAA launched an investigation into improper benefits in the football program in 2010. That soon expanded to academic misconduct involving a university tutor, then got worse with findings of fraud and no-show classes in an academic department with significant athlete enrollments.

"We don't have a commission that tells us not to trust the dean of medicine to run the hospital, but we do have a commission that tells us not to trust the ADs to run athletics," he said. "It doesn't make any sense." – Holden Thorp

Murray Sperber, a critic of commercialization in college sports, wonders why presidents don't stumble more often when it comes to overseeing a realm that is often foreign to them. Most come from the academic side and make their way through the administrative ranks that exist as separate worlds from athletics on a college campus, he said.

The idea of presidential control in athletics took hold with the recommendations of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics in the early 1990s.

The commission was created by the Knight Foundation in 1989, after a string of college sports scandals created a sense that athletic departments had gotten out of control and threatened schools' academic integrity. The commission noted in one report that 57 of the 106 schools then competing at the highest level of sports had been penalized by the NCAA in the 1980s, along with reports of athletes taking courses like "recreational leisure."

Putting the school president at the center of reform efforts was a key part of what the commission advocated.

Thorp certainly understands the difficulty finding that balance.

"Either we put the ADs back in charge and hold them accountable if things don't work," Thorp said in April during a campus forum, "... or let's be honest and tell everyone when we select (presidents) to run institutions that run big-time sports, that athletics is the most important part of their job."

Thorp will resign from his alma mater at the end of June to work as provost at Washington University in St. Louis.