MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Two powerful businessmen with WVU ties are teaming up to help the Mountaineers win in an all-important, off-the-field category: name, image and likeness, commonly known as NIL.
Oliver Luck, the former Mountaineer quarterback, director of athletics and pro football executive, and Ken Kendrick, a WVU alumnus and long-time managing general partner of the Arizona Diamondbacks, are combining their resources to launch the Country Roads Trust.
That trust, which was officially revealed Wednesday morning, will connect current and future WVU athletes, in all sports, with name, image and likeness opportunities that are comparable to opportunities their peers around the country have received.
“Ken and I certainly believe — and I think many others — this is something we need to do, not just to level the playing field, but just to be able to compete,” Luck told Gold and Blue Nation.
The trust will operate completely independently from WVU Athletics, though according to a website launched Wednesday morning, it will align “closely” with the university’s mission statement as it seeks to secure new NIL opportunities for student-athletes.
Luck said the trust will target three different sectors: corporate engagement, contributions from major donors, and “retail level” engagement that could incorporate fans.
The trust’s primary function is to connect corporations and local businesses in West Virginia to student-athletes who present “legitimate value” to their brand, according to Luck. Those athletes could then be paid, via the trust, to do any number of things, including autograph signings, advertisements or social media campaigns that promote a brand or a key topic, such as financial literacy.
All of these things would have been completely foreign to Luck when he played quarterback for WVU from 1978-81.
“One can find it somewhat distasteful, if you know what I mean, in the sense that, for decades, student-athletes were not allowed to profit off their name, their image and their likeness,” Luck said.
But now, NIL is very much the name of the game in college sports. The NCAA suspended amateurism rules related to NIL on July 1, and though pay-to-play is still forbidden, college athletes can now gain access to various lucrative opportunities.
The Country Roads Trust seeks to connect athletes with those opportunities.
“One can agree or disagree with the reasons behind the change, but the fact of the matter is, as Ken likes to say, it’s a ‘brave new world’ in college athletics, and we want to make sure WVU students have the same or similar opportunities to everybody else in the country,” Luck said.
Similar trusts connected to other Power 5 institutions, including Big 12 foe Texas, Washington of the Pac-12 and at least three SEC schools, have popped up over the last several months. Luck projects that more NIL-related entities will begin to appear in Power 5 college towns throughout the country, and that they will soon become prominent at other levels of college sports.
As the overall ecosystem of college athletics shifted over the last six months — and perhaps with it, the future of the competitive balance in all sports — Luck and Kendrick decided to team up in an effort to benefit athletes at their alma mater.
“Our sense is, that if we don’t do this, we very well could be left behind,” Luck said. “We don’t have a lot of the advantages that other schools may have in large metropolitan areas with lots of corporations or companies that are engaged. West Virginia is not the most affluent state.”
Under NCAA rules, there will be a quid pro quo element to each NIL deal, as athletes can only be paid for a service, not for their athletic achievement.
Luck also hopes the trust will soon offer opportunities for WVU fan contributions. It’s possible that in the near future, fans could make monthly donations to the trust and receive exclusive benefits in return, such as merchandise, autographs, game-worn gear, video or audio shoutouts from their favorite Mountaineers and more.
“That’s a space that we absolutely will be building out. It’s gonna take a while, of course, but everything with this name, image and likeness ecosystem, everything has changed,” Luck said. “It’s arguably the most significant shift in policy in college athletics in the last 50-100 years.”
The founders of the trust, which is affiliated with Bowles Rice Law Firm, will not earn a profit from any contribution.
“If we find a deal tomorrow morning for a student-athlete, and it’s worth $2,000, this group doesn’t take a cut of that. That $2,000 goes directly to the student-athlete,” Luck said. “This is not an agency that’s being set up to take a percentage.”
An athlete advisory committee made up of several WVU sports legends, including current NBA executive Jerry West, former Mountaineer football coach Don Nehlen, multimedia sensation Pat McAfee and Olympic gold medalist Ginny Thrasher, will also “provide counsel” to the trust’s leadership. Luck said the advisory committee could expand as needed.
In addition, a small leadership team will handle the day-to-day operations of the fund and work with companies within the state and region. The members of that leadership staff will be announced Friday.