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As NCAA president flails, whispers of an exodus get louder

Pete Thamel
·7 min read
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INDIANAPOLIS – NCAA president Mark Emmert has long passed the point where the failures of his tenure register as shocking news. Emmert has been so ineffective and so unpopular for so long that leaders within college athletics have long given up hope that he could evolve into a functional leader.

So when Emmert became the face of the equity issues between the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments last week, it only further entrenched opinions among leaders around college sports.

The fresh indignation came with the declaration of support for Emmert from Georgetown president Jack DeGioia, who is the chair of the NCAA Board of Governors. He expressed the board's support for Emmert in an Associated Press article on Saturday by saying what virtually no one in college athletics is thinking: “We have confidence in Mark’s continuing leadership of the NCAA,” DeGioia told the AP’s Ralph Russo.

One high-profile athletic director summed it up this way to Yahoo Sports: “The Jack DeGioia comments completely misread where the membership is.”

The comments sparked outrage, eye-rolls and unflattering emojis on every athletic director group text around college athletics. It redirected any disappointment at Emmert’s clumsy public handling of the tournament equity issues to the antiquated structure that’s aided and abetted a tenure defined by inertia and missteps. And it prompted chatter about this being an inflection point for major conferences considering breaking away from the NCAA.

“It was dispiriting, deflating and depressing,” said a conference commissioner. “This to me shows not only a disconnect, it shows the Board of Governors doesn’t even understand the magnitude of the current issues.”

NCAA president Mark Emmert speaks to the media ahead of the Men's Final Four on April 04, 2019. (Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
NCAA president Mark Emmert speaks to the media ahead of the Men's Final Four on April 04, 2019. (Brett Wilhelm/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports spoke with more than a dozen leaders around college athletics in the wake of DeGioia’s comments, which provoked a rare level of anger that could someday be viewed as a pivot point. (DeGioia himself did not return a call seeking comment.)

Many accused DeGioia of cronyism, taking a public stance rooted far outside reality to protect Emmert amid a time of intense criticism. Presidents protect their own, and Emmert is a former chancellor at LSU and president at Washington whose most deft skill has been surviving in this job by convincing other presidents that he’s doing a good job.

DeGioia is generally regarded as a brilliant academic, and he’s lasted nearly 20 years at Georgetown’s president. But his comments were so disconnected from the day-to-day reality of college athletics that one president of a Power Five school speculated that they were a diversion to set up a quiet exit for Emmert out the back door.

How mad are the leaders around college athletics? There have been open conversations — nothing formal, just general — about the NCAA’s failure of leadership and president-run governance structure being a wedge that could contribute to major conferences eventually breaking away from the NCAA. “How does it not?” said a Power Five athletic director. “This is failed leadership.”

No one is saying DeGioia’s comments will lead directly to major conferences breaking away from the NCAA. But if the major football school/leagues do break away, the inability of the NCAA to find effective leadership and a nimble governance structure, which this moment epitomizes, would be remembered as a pivot point.

“The level of trust and confidence is deteriorating. There has not been a more critical time for leadership in the association,” said one high-ranking college official.

Yahoo Sports spoke to multiple commissioners who estimated that there’s at least an 85% disapproval of the job Emmert is doing among college commissioners. Among Division I athletic directors, his support is about the same. And those estimates are considered conservative. All are quick to point out that his job is hard and thankless because it lacks unilateral power, but there’s a consistent message that they want more for the $2.7 million he was paid in the last reported year.

One major conference had an athletic directors conference call recently where the unhappiness with Emmert was so unanimous that the athletic directors all agreed to take their issues with Emmert to their president.

That action underscores why the current NCAA system is so clunky. The massive enterprise of college athletics includes a billion-dollar business that’s essentially run by presidents who spend only a tiny fraction of their time in athletics. The Board of Governors, the highest governance body in the NCAA, is comprised of 16 college presidents and chancellors among the board of 25, which includes everyone from former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to former Duke star Grant Hill.

That’s the group that controls Emmert’s fate, salary and a contract that’s extended into 2023. And it’s that group, chaired by DeGioia, that’s come under the scrutiny by the people who live in college athletics every day. They are tired of the whims of many board members who only moonlight in athletics.

“How much time is the Board of Governors spending on this issue?” another high-ranking official said of the vote of confidence for Emmert. “How are they evaluating? How do they know? To whom is the board being held accountable?”

NCAA president Mark Emmert watches the first half of a college basketball game between North Carolina State and South Florida in the second round of the women's NCAA tournament on March 23, 2021. (AP)
NCAA president Mark Emmert watches the first half of a college basketball game between North Carolina State and South Florida in the second round of the women's NCAA tournament on March 23, 2021. (AP)

Emmert’s survival skill is a copycat version of the same scenario that allowed Larry Scott to survive for so long as the Pac-12 commissioner despite ineffectiveness and rampant unpopularity among his athletic directors. Scott catered to the right bosses, especially Arizona State president Michael Crow, and survived not on accomplishment, but rather relying on their apathy and presidents being unable to muster the will to fire a leader. The same scenario allows Emmert to survive, with bosses that aren’t fully engaged.

But the stakes have ratcheted up higher recently. The NCAA’s inability to dictate Name, Image and Likeness issues and the enforcement department’s failure to come up with decisions on the federal basketball cases have underscored the lack of leadership. And so little has happened, fingers are being pointed to the people above Emmert.

The criticism isn’t new for Emmert. Gonzaga coach Mark Few scolded Emmert in 2018 for inactivity in the federal basketball cases. “Emmert needs to step up and be a leader and make some quicker decisions,” he said nearly 2 1/2 years ago about cases that still have no resolution. A letter from SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, obtained by Sports Illustrated in December, said there’s a “crisis of confidence” with the NCAA infractions process. In the Wall Street Journal this week, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said the NCAA “has failed to articulate a clear vision for the future of college athletics.”

One of the high-ranking college officials summed it up this way: “It causes you to take a step back. There’s presidents that are fed up. This is both campus presidents and athletic leaders. They’re asking, ‘What’s going on with the Board of Governors?’”

What’s at stake now is summed up by one conference commissioner outside of the Power Five, who is worried the high-revenue leagues are so angry that they’ll walk away. “For the leadership of the NCAA to be the tipping point for a Power Five exodus, it would be such an epic failure on the part of the NCAA to not read the room or even listen to its membership on campus or in conferences whose frustration has been brewing for years,” the commissioner said.

The mechanics of any potential breakaway are complicated and make many believe that one would not be imminent. There are layers of politics involved at a time when the future of college sports is already being decided by judges and politicians. (The crux of the political hangup is the intertwined state politics. If Indiana University leaves the NCAA, it would hurt Indiana State and Ball State. Sub in almost any state, and the example holds. Think of Texas Tech getting thrown in with Texas in realignment, and it’s the same idea.)

Whether chatter about breaking away intensifies remains to be seen. But DeGioia’s comments underscored just how far away from reality the NCAA is as an organization from its membership.

“The question is this,” said one of the high-ranking officials, “has the NCAA charted its own course to irrelevance?”

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