In recent years, the top college sports news headlines have arguably featured an equal mix of stories about teams winning and stories about teams and players who did not comply with the NCAA’s bylaws.
Through these stories, the average sports fan has become more well-versed in the NCAA’s bylaws, as well as the officials at respective schools who enforce said bylaws. With the ever-changing nature of college athletics, the role of an NCAA compliance official is arguably one of the most interesting sports-related career fields.
How does one go about becoming a compliance official?
While not the mandatory route to take, one path is clear: obtaining a law degree. This path was one which Preston Wages, the Compliance Coordinator for the University of Arizona, followed.
Wages completed his undergraduate degree at North Carolina State University, where he received a degree in Political Science and a minor in French. While there, he also served as the equipment manager of the football team. His path toward becoming a compliance official arguably began during the summer of his junior year at North Carolina State, when the school offered a 1-credit NCAA compliance course, which Wages completed.
“I met Jon Fagg, who was the Associate Athletic Director at NC State at the time. I enjoyed the class and got to know Jon really well. At that point, I didn’t know what I was going to do [after college]. I knew I was going to law school, but figured if I wanted to get into college athletics, he [Fagg] would be a good guy to know who would vouch for me,” explained Wages.
After completing the course, Wages continued to keep in touch with Fagg. The maintenance of this professional relationship would later benefit Wages greatly in terms of landing a career as a compliance official.
“I sent him emails periodically to see how he was doing. My 2L year, I learned he had taken the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Compliance position at Arkansas. Through an exchange of emails, he asked if I wanted to come down and work at Arkansas. My dad played football at Arkansas, so I was always an Arkansas fan. I thought it would be awesome, but it was September of my 2L year. I asked if the offer was available the next year, and if it was, I would make the arrangements to make it happen. He said, ‘sure,’” said Wages.
The next year, the job was available. True to his word, Wages made the arrangements necessary for him to take the job during his last year of law school.
“I arranged to be a visiting student at Arkansas my 3L year. All of my classes were night classes. I’d go to work in the morning. I’d work until 5 p.m., and then go to class until 9 p.m.,” said Wages.
The sacrifice he made to finish his third year of law school as a visiting student, while also working and completing classes at night, provided Wages with a great reward: he found his calling.
“I enjoyed working in compliance. It came to me, that this is what I want to do for a living,” noted Wages.
After graduating from law school, Wages took the necessary steps toward becoming a compliance official at an NCAA Division-I university.
“After I graduated, I took the Missouri bar. I passed, and then Arkansas extended an invitation to be a paid intern for a year, so that I could start applying [for compliance positions] at other schools. Most compliance jobs require two-years of experience. Even though I was a paid intern, I worked from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. everyday. After I got my two years in, Arkansas told me that I could stick around if I wanted to, but that they couldn’t offer a lot compensation wise. But, the experience was valuable,” explained Wages.
Grateful for the offer from Arkansas, Wages also decided to test the waters elsewhere.
“I considered it [the Arkansas position], but thought I’d apply to other jobs to see the reaction. I had on-campus interviews with several schools. It was encouraging and showed just how competitive it is [to obtain a compliance position],” noted Wages.
Ultimately, Wages career would take him west, to the desert. This past August, Wages began his career as a Compliance Coordinator for the University of Arizona. Wages is quick to note the great things about his career choice and in working at the University of Arizona.
“I just love athletics and sports in general, so for me, it’s great being around athletics. I like working on campus. Living in Tucson isn’t bad, obviously. I get to travel with the football team, so you get to see other campuses and stadiums. You also get to develop personal relationships with coaches,” said Wages.
Wages also offers sound advice for those seeking to follow his career path, and begin a career as an NCAA compliance official for a Division-I institution.
“I’m kind of lucky, because it fell in my lap with meeting Jon[Fagg] when I did. Once I started working towards becoming successful, I looked at the person whose job I wanted and noticed how he did his job. I was constantly thinking, ‘How would I handle that situation’” said Wages.
Wages also stresses the importance of networking and willingness to “work hard for very little” to begin with as keys to finding a compliance position.
However, he does not feel that a law degree is a must-have for obtaining a position. Yet, he maintains that a law degree will definitely benefit a candidate seeking a position as a compliance official
“I understand now, with the amount of money it can potentially cost universities, that they are going to be more likely to lean on someone with a law degree, but I don’t think that [a law degree] is a deciding factor. A lot of the people I worked with received their Master’s in Higher Education. However, the skills law school teaches you can definitely be applied to compliance. Law school definitely provides you with skills that you can carry over into the profession,” said Wages.