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Publish date: Sep 27, 2010

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Emmert prepared to assume leadership mantle

By Gary Brown

When Mark Emmert comes to the national office for the first time October 5 as NCAA president rather than NCAA president-elect, he will have waiting for him an Association firmly grounded in student-athlete academic success, an organization financially fortified by a 14-year, $10.8 billion broadcast and digital rights agreement with CBS and Turner, a governance structure committed to student-athlete well-being and an NCAA brand enhanced by more than a decade of over 400,000 student-athletes going pro in something other than sports.

Mark Emmert

Emmert also will face issues familiar to his four chief executive predecessors: misperceptions and confusion over the Association’s amateurism principles, growing commercial pressures that threaten the collegiate model of athletics, increasing reliance on institutional subsidies to balance athletics budgets, and unsavory influences from external forces that do not have the student-athletes’ best interests in mind.

Emmert is familiar with the successes and challenges of the more than century-old NCAA after three decades in higher education leadership, including stops as chief academic officer at Connecticut, chancellor at LSU and most recently president at Washington.

Armed with experience in overseeing mega-million-dollar athletics programs and known for building relationships and collaborating with constituents, Emmert nonetheless said his first order of business will be to get to know the Association’s membership – many of whom he’s already worked with – even better.

“First and foremost I need to get to know all of our people both internally – the commissioners and presidential leaders and athletics directors – and our external stakeholders and start to build relationships,” Emmert said. “I know a great many of them already, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

He also will work aggressively on an agenda shaped by the broad themes of academic success, student-athlete well-being, financial stability and collaboration among diverse constituents. He already has been plenty visible as president-elect, speaking at the NACDA convention, the Division II Chancellors and Presidents Summit and the NCAA Champions Forum for prospective head football coaches, among other engagements this summer. Emmert also has faced the press, noting his agenda in just about all the major media outlets.

Among what he has learned about the NCAA in the 159 days between being announced as the Association’s fifth chief executive on April 27 and actually starting his duties on October 4 include:

  • The breadth of commitment from the NCAA membership: “I’ve learned an enormous amount about how we engage with the membership. I obviously had an appreciation for some of the complexity of it before – I have a deeper appreciation for it now.”
  • The challenges of a representative and complex governance structure: “The Association’s governance operation is broader and more complex than even I understood. Today as I look at it, I realize to a greater extent the need for constant communication and interaction with that membership so we can do things collaboratively but also so we can get things done.”
  • The immediate issues: “People are concerned about the financial health of our colleges and universities. They are struggling with how athletics fits into a more rigid financial construct. Also, there is a growing concern about creeping commercialism and how we protect amateurism in intercollegiate athletics. Those are themes that keep coming back again and again. And those are the issues I want to address assertively.”
  • Communication as a priority: “If we are as clear about our communication as we can be, if we educate as many people about the processes and the rules of engagement by which we practice enforcement, set eligibility standards and create safe competitive environments for our student-athletes – if we are as transparent as we can be about what we are trying to accomplish, then I think we can elevate the perception of the Association.”

Emmert also is familiar with the thornier issues that have dominated the collegiate landscape over the past few months, such as conference realignment, the omnipresent idea of a football playoff in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, pay for play, the involvement of agents in big-time sports, and the effect of the NBA’s “one-and-done” rule on the Association’s most high-profile and financially solvent championship sport.

Not all of those issues are ones the NCAA owns, but Emmert says he will develop partnerships and collaborate to resolve these broader issues in ways that serve the Association’s – and student-athletes’ – best interests.

That means, Emmert said, starting with the fundamental premise that the NCAA’s authority is given by or lent by the members themselves. The NCAA is an organization that advances its agenda almost entirely by the use of discussion and persuasion, he said.

“And while some of these issues might lie outside the purview of the membership, they are in fact these same kinds of issues where in order to advance the cause of our student-athletes, we need to be thoughtful and persuasive and understand what the factors are for all the people we partner with,” Emmert said.

“You’ve got to approach student-athlete retention issues such as the one-and-done rule in a fashion that is sympathetic to all the needs of all the parties involved and manage it in a diplomatic and constructive dialogue. If you just jump up and down and wave your arms and shout, you’re not going to do anything except frustrate people. So instead, we have to find a way to engage in meaningful discussion with people who do have control over those issues.”

As for his primary goal as a first impression?

“For people to understand how deeply committed I am to the student-athlete experience,” Emmert said.

For many in the NCAA construct, that impression already has been favorably implanted.

Jim Isch

Jim Isch, who is transitioning from his role as interim president to be the Association’s chief operating officer, said people who have not yet met Emmert will have the same favorable reaction when they do.

“Mark has a personality that allows him to befriend just about everyone,” said Isch, who worked with Emmert in the 1990s at Montana State when Emmert was the provost and Isch was vice president for administration and finance.

“He takes the time to understand issues, reach out to people to get various opinions and then form his own direction. He’s a tireless worker and someone that our membership will not only enjoy but also be extremely happy in five years, in 10 years, that Mark Emmert was at the helm of the NCAA.”