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Faces of the NCAA: One in a series of profiles from the Winter 2011 issue of Champion magazine.
By David Pickle
Jim Naumovich has had many good days as commissioner of the Great Lakes Valley Conference over the last 11 years, but his first day was not one of them.
“We were a one-man shop, so it was just me,” Naumovich recalled. “It was the Tuesday of Labor Day weekend, and the other people leasing the office had made a four-day weekend out of it. I remember getting to the office, sitting down all by myself and thinking for the first time: ‘I have no idea what it takes to be a commissioner.’ ”
Not every Division II commissioner has had such a solitary moment, but only three of them – Dave Brunk of the Peach Belt, Nate Salant of the Gulf South and Tony Stigliano of the Heartland – have come to the job with previous experience as a commissioner. The other 19 (20, counting Will Prewitt of the new Great American Conference) have arrived at their current positions through various trails, including seven who attained their positions immediately after having served as Division II athletics directors.
The progression seems natural enough, but the positions are significantly different from one another. Butch Raymond, of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, said his adjustment from Southwest Minnesota State to the Northern Sun was relatively easy. Bob Boerigter – only about four months into his job as Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association commissioner – already can see some of the challenges that Naumovich faced on his first day.
“One thing that I didn’t really think about is that you’re really running a small business as opposed to operating at a college or university,” Boerigter said. “An example would be recently when our Internet went down. At the college or university, you simply call IT, and they advise you that the whole campus is going to be down for an hour or that you’re the only one who’s down and they’ll send someone over. As commissioner, you figure out who you need to call and you make that call and solve the problem yourself.
“The other thing is the balance between money in the bank and the budget. At the university, you were only concerned about the budget. Someone else was concerned about making sure the bills could get paid. Now I’m concerned about both.”
Naumovich can relate, based on his early days.
“Carl McAloose (his GLVC predecessor) had been gone since July,” he said, “so there was a good two months of bills to be paid and our big fall meeting was scheduled in the middle of September. So it was like, ‘You know, you’d better figure this out in a hurry.’ ”
Naumovich did figure it out, of course, just like the other commissioners did. Along the way, they discovered a world with different pressures and fresh opportunities.
Many commissioner responsibilities are different from what is required of ADs, but three seem to top the list: scheduling, officiating management and presidential relationships.
Multi-team scheduling is an important part of a commissioner’s job and something that many have not tackled in their previous experiences. But, while it may be daunting and sometimes a bit out of their comfort zones, it is a task that can be managed and usually worked to a solution that satisfies most parties.
Other responsibilities, however, relate more to the “people skills” so often touted in job interviews.
The biggest is officiating.
“It’s interesting in the transition from coach to AD to commissioner,” said Dan Mara, Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference commissioner. “You go from ‘all the officials are lousy’ as a coach to ‘half of the officials are good’ as an AD to ‘all the officials are great’ as a commissioner.”
That continuum seems apparent to those who have filled all three positions. The irony often provides bemusement, as with University of Mary AD Roger Thomas, who led the North Central Conference for three years after having been AD and football coach at North Dakota.
“I get to be the commissioner and I go into the meeting where there are all the football officials for the league and I’m standing up in front of them and we all just started laughing,” he said. “I started off by saying, ‘I’ve yelled at all of you guys at one time …’ But we all just kind of laughed. It was pretty funny.”
While the irony is real, so also is the difficulty of managing officiating-related issues. It doesn’t take long for commissioners to bond with quality officials.
“They take a lot of heat,” Thomas said. “They don’t get paid very much. There’s a lot of travel. And of course we all complain when it looks like they don’t do a good job. So you field those complaints and then your next thing to those folks is to say, ‘Do you have any better ideas?’ ”
The Northern Sun’s Raymond said he has made it a point to experience life from the officials’ perspective.
“Very honestly, it’s been neat to experience what they go through,” he said. “I’ve traveled with them a little bit and seen how hectic it is for them to be on the road, get home late, fight blizzards and everything else, and not get a chance to eat very often because it’s too late. I think I’ve grown to appreciate officiating more than I ever have.”
The positive attitude helps because officiating gripes often provide the kickoff for each week of a commissioner’s academic year.
“Monday mornings, that’s basically what you’re dealing with,” Raymond said, “officiating situations – coaches, ADs, fans. It’s really what Monday mornings are all about.”
The other major change in moving from AD to commissioner may relate to dealing with the presidents of conference institutions. An AD is required to relate to one president, but dealing with them collectively is different.
“It’s intimidating,” Mara said. “The first time I sat in a president’s office, I was 18 and I was being suspended. And that sticks with you, and so when you walk into a room with 14 presidents, you really try to be on your best behavior.”
Joking aside, all commissioners meet the best-behavior standard. But the most successful build a bridge of respect so that presidents become powerful allies. Thomas said this is an area where background as an AD can help.
“I had much more sympathy for the role of a president who has a million things going on on their campus and yet we sit here with our athletic issues,” Thomas said.
“It’s one of many issues for those individuals. It’s the biggest thing for us, and it’s one of many for them. You have to try to keep that in perspective and then help that president with perspective and help with data-driven decisions and do the legwork for them.”
Commissioners who arrive at their job from a member school don’t always have rose petals thrown at their feet when they begin their new role.
“Sometimes you go in somebody else’s press box as the commissioner, and they look at you like you’re still the enemy,” Thomas said. “They think you’re a spy or something going in there. But you have to defuse some of that to prove to them that you’re not giving any preferential treatment to the school that you emanated from. You’re there to do a job. You’re there to help better the league.”
Ultimately, fairness is the currency of the successful commissioner.
The stakes of conference-office decisions can be high, either positively (awards) or negatively (discipline). “If there’s even a perception that you’re not doing it fairly,” Mara said, “your credibility is shot pretty quickly.”
With all of those factors to juggle, being a Division II commissioner is challenging, but Raymond said the benefits are substantial.
“Whenever you’re coaching or you’re an athletic director, you’re always in competition with your conference,” he said. “You don’t get to know people as well as you would like. You like them, but you’re jealous of this or that. That’s been a fun part of this for me, getting to know people in the manner a commissioner can.”
Boerigter has been at the job only briefly, but he also likes that part of the job.
“It’s been fun, really, to go to games when I haven’t had a team involved,” he said. “For example, Lincoln University (Missouri) is a new member for us, and I had the opportunity to attend their homecoming, to attend their fireworks display, attend their parade and be on the sideline at their game. That was terrific to be able to do.
“That part of the job I’m looking forward to every weekend.”