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Publish date: Aug 30, 2010

Cole helped NCAA navigate litigious landscape

Elsa Kircher Cole knew the courtroom in North Dakota would be like the region’s winter – cold and unforgiving to an Association infringing on a sacred tradition: the mascot of the state university.

As the vice president for legal affairs and general counsel prepared to head to the courthouse with other NCAA officials and outside legal counsel to defend the Association’s policy on Native American mascots in November 2006, she instructed everyone to remove their NCAA pins and hide the NCAA logo on their briefcases. Walking up the path to the courthouse, lined with people cloaked in heavy winter coats on either side, Cole heard a voice ask if the group was from the NCAA. A little hesitant, Cole answered in the affirmative.

Elsa Kircher Cole

“They let out a cheer,” Cole said. “I said to our folks, ‘Put those pins on and turn those briefcases around!’

“I’ve never had that kind of reception before. They were so glad we were there to help them … They came up to me afterward to thank us for being there.”

That moment, several years ago now, can still bring tears to Cole’s eyes as she prepares to leave the NCAA and the general counsel’s office she created in 1997. Cole’s last day with the Association will be Tuesday. Associate General Counsel Scott Bearby will serve as interim vice president for legal affairs and general counsel.

“Elsa helped guide the Association through a most difficult and challenging period of litigation,” said NCAA Interim President Jim Isch. “I am grateful for her contributions during what have been turbulent legal times.”

When she was hired from the University of Michigan to be the first in-house counsel for the NCAA, Cole’s friends worried the job wouldn’t be intellectually stimulating enough for her.

“I guess the NCAA proved them wrong,” Cole said.

She has played a part in various decisions the NCAA has made over the last 13 years, including the mascot policy, academic standards, equipment changes and amateurism issues. Through it all, she said her policy has not been to say, “No, you can’t do that,” but to instead figure out how to help people accomplish what they wanted with minimal legal risk.

Of all the major decisions and boardroom discussions she’s been a part of, Cole is proudest of the staff she assembled in the general counsel’s office and the good work she is confident they will do for years to come. She is proud to have worked on behalf of an Association with a mission she values, but her greatest privilege was working alongside the genuine, hard-working people at the national office.

“Something I didn’t anticipate (before I came to the NCAA) is the wonderful people who work here who are trying to help student-athletes and preserve the integrity of intercollegiate athletics,” she said.

The goal of those hard-working people – and the mission of the organization itself – is often hidden behind misconceptions about what the NCAA is all about, she said. Overcoming those misconceptions − and educating judges, juries and a skeptical public about the values of the Association − has been Cole’s biggest challenge over the years. She has represented the NCAA in more than half of the nation’s states.

Cole embarked on a career in law because of the opportunity to analyze and solve problems. Throughout her career, which also included a stint in the Washington state attorney general’s office, she’s been able to work for causes she truly believed in.

“I’ve always been intrigued by intellectual challenges and the idea that I could help people solve their problems,” she said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have jobs where the purpose of the organization helped me to do that.”

After 13 years with the NCAA, Cole isn’t sure what the future holds for her. She said she’s trying to think “inside and outside the box” to find a place where she might be valuable. She hopes the next person to sit in her chair finds the NCAA to be as fulfilling as she has. Her advice?

“Appreciate being able to work here,” she said. “It’s a great place.”