Connecticut head women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma accepts the trophy from NCAA Interim President Jim Isch at the Women’s Final Four April 6 in San Antonio. Connecticut defeated Stanford, 53-47, for the national title. Stephen Nowland/NCAA Photos
By Gary Brown
Longtime NCAA executive Wally Renfro says that if you take a walk with Jim Isch, expect it to be a quick one.
“It won’t be a hands-in-pocket, contemplative stroll,” said Renfro, the vice president and senior advisor to the NCAA president who has been with the NCAA staff for more than 35 years. “It’s going to be a fast walk, which is indicative of Jim’s nature. The walk is simply a process of getting to where he needs to be.”
Renfro was almost sprinting to keep up when Isch took his last walk as chief financial officer of the NCAA last September. He had just been asked by NCAA Executive Committee chair Mike Adams to become interim president and was granted a 30-minute lunch break to “think it over.”
Much had happened in the weeks and months prior, all leading to the sad day when seven-year NCAA President Myles Brand succumbed to pancreatic cancer September 16. While still grieving, the Association nonetheless needed to act with great haste to name an interim leader.
Isch and Renfro walked – briskly – over the canal bridge outside the national office that connects to a number of eateries. Isch all the while was contemplating, having to convince himself that he should say yes to an offer that Adams had just told him he couldn’t say no to.
Along the way, Isch got a call on his cell phone from his wife, Janie, who was having car trouble. Isch told her as politely as he could that he was a little preoccupied and that she should do whatever it took to get the matter resolved. Noting his hurried tone, she asked him what the matter was.
“I’ve got 30 minutes to get back to Mike Adams,” Isch said. “What about?” Janie asked. “He wants me to be interim president,” Isch replied.
After the expected pause, Janie simply said, “Oh.”
Of course, Isch said yes to Adams shortly thereafter, and it turned out to be a good answer for the entire Association.
While the story of Isch transitioning from chief financial officer – a position he had held for 11 years – to chief executive officer is marked with humor, there’s nothing funny about Isch’s stint as interim president during what turned out to be a historic 12 months for the NCAA.
Since Isch was appointed September 22, 2009, the Association stabilized its primary revenue stream for the next 14 years, hired a new permanent president and began construction on an addition to the national office, all while making steady progress on academic reform, officiating improvements and 17 task forces Isch established to make life easier for Mark Emmert when he takes over from Isch on October 4 as the Association’s fifth chief executive.
To not include Isch in the list of permanent chief executives that features Walter Byers, Dick Schultz, Ced Dempsey and Myles Brand feels the same as putting an asterisk on someone’s name in a list of home-run hitters. Home runs are home runs, after all. The word “interim” connotes a period during which major decisions might be delayed, but there was nothing interim about anything Isch accomplished during the last 12 months.
First, he was a chief negotiator for the Association’s latest and perhaps most historic broadcast rights agreement,. In April, the NCAA announced a 14-year television, Internet and wireless rights agreement allowing CBS and Turner Broadcasting to present the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship beginning in 2011 through 2024 for more than $10.8 billion.
That came after months of speculation that the troubled economy would prevent the Association from negotiating a contract that would grow the annual payments without drastically expanding the tournament field. Many in the business doubted the NCAA could maintain existing payment streams even with the addition of a cable partner.
Isch, working with NCAA staff and a group of membership leaders, proved otherwise.
“I was most proud that the process was handled with integrity, and that we were able to negotiate a deal that was in the best interests of the entire membership,” Isch said of the negotiations that “ebbed and flowed” enough to cause many sleepless nights for the interim leader. “The contract maintained the relationship with an old partner, brought in a new media company and essentially maintained the size of the tournament (with a modest expansion from 65 to 68 teams). This allowed us to sustain the maximum benefit to our member institutions and conferences for their regular-season games and conference tournaments.”
While those negotiations were occurring, so were efforts with a six-person search committee (which Isch supported as primary liaison) to identify candidates to permanently succeed Brand. Just five days after the contract announcement, the NCAA made another big splash by introducing Emmert as its next leader.
Among Emmert’s first remarks upon being selected were to recognize Isch for his leadership. He has done that repeatedly in other presentations to NCAA groups since then.
“The fact that the work of the Association continued on as well as it did in light of the tragic circumstances that led to this ‘interim’ period being necessary at all is a tribute to Jim Isch and the national office staff,” Emmert said.
Though University of Georgia President Mike Adams agrees that he gave Jim Isch an offer he couldn’t refuse, Adams disputes how long he gave Isch to think about it.
“Yes, I did call him shortly before lunch that day and said, ‘I want you to think about this through lunch and call me back and tell me yes,’ ” Adams said. “And I did want him to tell me right then. As I recall, though, he took a few hours, which was more than reasonable.”
However long the decision really did take, it certainly was the right one to make.
Adams and the NCAA Executive Committee he chaired made the decision September 22, six days after seven-year NCAA President Myles Brand lost his battle with cancer. The Executive Committee was about to appoint a search committee to find the Association’s next chief executive, but in the meantime the NCAA needed stability.
“We came to the overwhelming conclusion that Jim was the best person to provide it,” Adams said of the Executive Committee’s meeting that day in Chicago.
Isch’s national office experience, his command of the financial landscape in intercollegiate athletics and his relationship with Association leaders were critical factors.
As for pressuring Isch for a quick answer, Adams said, “Jim is a numbers guy – and these kinds of people can usually come up with 15 reasons not to do something. I didn’t want to give him a whole lot of time to construct his list and have to debate him on each point.”
Adams called Isch’s performance over the year “extraordinary.”
“I had very high expectations for Jim and he has exceeded them,” Adams said. “Mark (Emmert) has made a wise decision in broadening Jim’s role as COO going forward, and that will serve all of us very well.”
“This certainly has been an interim presidency at a fast walk,” Renfro said. “There have been so many issues that if you had said we’re going to have an interim president take on any one of them, the plate would have been considered full. But there was no choice in this case – these major issues were thrust upon Jim and the organization to take them on.”
Even before the call from Adams, Isch had expected to be highly involved in the contract negotiations and the presidential search, simply because he had done both in the past. But he also had spearheaded the Association’s strategic plan that the Executive Committee adopted in 2004, and he was instrumental in developing “dashboard indicator” tools that college and university presidents now use regularly to inform their financial investments in athletics programs.
In addition, Isch had campus leadership experience before coming to the NCAA, and he had established dozens of strong relationships with Association leaders in his liaison role to the NCAA Executive Committee.
In sum, Isch had the perfect resume for the job. And even if he was reluctant to accept it at first, he was well aware of why Adams had picked him.
“What helped at the time was that Greg Shaheen, Wally, Bernard Franklin and I already had been working in a tight leadership capacity throughout Myles’ illness, and we had become comfortable with one another, and I knew I would still have that support system as interim president,” Isch said. “This wasn’t going to be about me. If we were going to be successful, it was going to be about the entire staff pulling together in the same direction. I certainly didn’t relish being in this role given the circumstances, but not one day during this period did I consider it a chore to get up and go to work.”
“Jim provided extraordinary leadership during a difficult time of transition,” said Franklin, the Association’s executive vice president of membership and student-athlete affairs. “His calm demeanor gave all of us a sense of stability while continuing to move the national office staff and the Association forward on critical projects. We are fortunate to have him as a member of the NCAA leadership team.”
Isch’s performance hasn’t been lost on the Association, either. Current Executive Committee chair Ed Ray of Oregon State called Isch “one of the most direct, honest, hard-working people I know.”
As chair of the Executive Committee’s financial subcommittee (even before chairing the overall group), Ray already knew of Isch’s talents as a chief financial officer. Ray lauded Isch’s commitment to open and transparent presentations of data and creativity in helping the Association develop financial performance metrics for the Association and its members.
“In his capacity as interim president,” Ray said, “Jim brought all of those same qualities to bear on carrying out his duties. With the help of Greg Shaheen and a little kibitzing from me and others, Jim did an excellent job of negotiating a new long-term media contract for the men’s basketball tournament with CBS and Turner. He also launched a number of program area reviews and assessments to be used by the new president to keep the momentum of the organization going forward. So, he was an excellent steward of the presidency.”
Ray also called Isch “a genuine and caring individual” who helped the Association move forward during the difficult times after Myles Brand’s death.
An obligation to sustain momentum on the many issues that Brand – Isch’s friend in addition to his president – carried out through his seven-year tenure was among the many reasons Isch agreed to the interim role at all. While Isch said it appeared uncomfortable at first blush, he admitted, “I think it worked out OK.”
“It required me to get out of my comfort zone and do things I personally did not care to do,” he said. “Would Myles have done it better? Sure, but somehow, collectively, we made it work.”
And now, as Emmert assumes leadership beginning October 4, Isch prepares to become the chief operating officer at the national office, completing a unique “triple crown” of CFO, CEO and COO in a little more than a year.
Isch said he will focus on three more initials – CCA (communication, collaboration and accountability) – in guiding the national office with its membership service and leadership functions.
“Yes, as the COO, I’ll be the CCA guy,” Isch said. “I firmly believe in those three headings, if you will, to guide the national office staff. None is able to stand without the other two, and together we can develop the kind of metrics that help build a more efficient and effective structure to serve our members.”
Having been both behind and in front of the curtain now during his tenure, there should be no underestimating Isch’s ability to flourish in this role. And he doesn’t have to worry about being an “interim” anything anymore.
“Which means people had better be prepared for a fast walk,” Renfro said.