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XFL's hiring of Oliver Luck signals new direction for Vince McMahon's revived football project

NCAA honcho Oliver Luck is about as controversial as peanut butter. His son, star NFL quarterback Andrew, is perhaps even less polarizing. There isn’t much counter-culture in that gene pool.

“The Lucks,” Oliver said with a laugh Tuesday, “are not renegade material.”

So why in the name of He Hate Me is a certified non-renegade going to work for Vince McMahon as the commissioner of the new XFL? Why would the No. 2 guy at the NCAA, of all establishmentarian places, link up with the man who perfected the pro wrestling hustle — and already tried once to bring it to the football field at the beginning of this century? Why, at age 58, jump this far out of your sturdy, well-constructed career box?

Because Oliver Luck needs a business challenge and Vince McMahon needs credibility and the sport of football needs at least a minor reinvention. Where those Venn Diagrams overlap, a new league will be born.

“It’s not often that an opportunity to build a professional football league from scratch comes along,” Luck said. “I came away very impressed with Vince, but also in the key ingredients for a viable launch and to keep this thing viable for the long haul.”

In this Feb. 3, 2000 photo, Vince McMahon speaks during a news conference in New York. The XFL is set for a surprising second life, McMahon announced on Jan. 25, 2018. Hiring NCAA exec Oliver Luck to lead the league is evidence of that. (AP file photo)

Although he’s spent the last eight years in college athletics on campus and at the national governing body level, Luck has an entrepreneurial thirst — something that clearly wasn’t getting quenched in a corner office in Indianapolis. He oversaw NFL Europe for a time, was chief executive officer of the Houston Sports Authority and president of Houston’s Major League Soccer franchise. He’s spent plenty of time in a pro sports environment.

For McMahon, here was the chance to drive home the proclamation that the new XFL will bear little resemblance to the old XFL. McMahon already had declared in January that players with criminal records weren’t welcome in the new league; now here he was hiring a CEO who provides instant respectability. If a classy guy like Luck is willing to throw in with the XFL, that should resonate with potential corporate partners and companies considering media rights.

“We want to be family friendly and affordable,” Luck said. “Vince said the raunchy concept of the original XFL will not be repeated. I agree with that 100 percent.”

(That said, don’t rule out Johnny Manziel as a potential future XFL player. He has a rap sheet that may be a disqualifier — but maybe not. Luck wouldn’t discuss any specific players but did say, “The quality of the person is as important as the quality of their football skill set, but I believe there can be second chances.”)

The premise of XFL 2.0 appears to be less about showbiz and more about playing decent football, with some innovative alterations to the current template. Specifically, Luck mentioned an emphasis on player safety while still maintaining football’s physical ethos; curtailing the laborious length of games, caused in part by commercial constraints; new approaches to fan engagement; and incorporating the coming wave of legalized sports wagering.

But even if the XFL seeks ways to be smarter than the NFL — which seems addicted to making idiotic decisions — it has no illusions of offering a better football product.

“In no way is the new XFL a competitor with the NFL,” Luck said. “We don’t envision that at all.”

In other words, Andrew Luck isn’t leaving the Colts for his dad’s new startup. But there are plenty of accomplished, popular players coming out of college football who aren’t making 53-man rosters.

“One thing any football league needs to do is offer a top-notch, high-quality product,” Luck said. “The original XFL didn’t spend enough time and energy on that. Vince acknowledged that. The pool of players who can play football at a pretty high level, that pool is pretty large.”

In this Jan. 16, 2015, file photo, Oliver Luck speaks with members of the media at the NCAA Convention in Oxon, Md. Luck is leaving his high-ranking position at the NCAA to become commissioner of the XFL, the second edition of professional wrestling mogul Vince McMahon’s football league. (AP file photo)

The plan calls for eight league-owned franchises, with proposals to be sent out to roughly 30 cities. Launch is set for 2020, which means it will be a busy 18 months.

Now, let Oliver Luck tell you what’s not the reason for taking up the cause reinventing professional football: It’s not because he’s disillusioned by the NCAA and college athletics.

“I’ll be honest, when I called Mark [Emmert] last week, I said this doesn’t reflect at all on the NCAA,” Luck said. “I thoroughly enjoyed my 3 1/2 years there. Mark Emmert is a good leader for intercollegiate athletics.

“Things move slowly at the NCAA. It is a big institutional tanker that is hard to turn around. But at the end of the day, college athletics is healthy and it will change in ways it needs to. That’s happening — out of all the competing interests, the first and foremost interest is now the student-athlete. American parents, cutting across all demographic lines, still think getting a scholarship is one of the great things in the world for their sons and daughters.”

That’s a traditionalist worldview, hardly the outlook of a renegade. Which is just the kind of leader Vince McMahon needed to take the edge off his reformed (in more ways than one) new league.

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