Emmert defiant, but does he get it?

Originally Published: April 4, 2013
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- One of the most common complaints about the NCAA is that the organization lacks teeth and backbone, that it is a feckless group of 98-pound weakling bureaucrats trying to wrestle a collegiate athletic elephant.

But there was nothing feckless or passive about the group's president, Mark Emmert, when he held his annual state of the union on Thursday afternoon at the Final Four.

Equal parts defiant, combative and downright snippy, Emmert got as close to a verbal duel with the media as maybe anyone in NCAA history.

But while the tenor of the news conference was entertaining -- when it wasn't mind-numbingly boring thanks to an opening filibuster that ran 17 minutes and 2,756 words -- it didn't offer any cures to what ails the NCAA.

If anything, Emmert's verbal sparring and in most cases, downright refusal to answer any pointed questions with direct responses, only heightened the notion that both he and the organization he heads are under fire like never before in their history.

[+] EnlargeMark Emmert
AP Photo/David J. PhillipMuch of the recent criticism of the NCAA has been directed at president Mark Emmert, who fielded questions Thursday in Atlanta.

"By the way, thanks for the career advice," he said in a response to a question posed by a reporter who had called for his job. "Kept my job anyway."

It was meant as a flippant joke, but it was about as close as Emmert got to acknowledging the disconnect between the organization that governs college athletes and the people it's governing.

Mistrust right now is rampant thanks in no small part to the botched investigations at Miami, UCLA, Ohio State and Auburn, not to mention the outside-the-rulebook penalties tossed at Penn State.

And Emmert is squarely in the middle of all of it.

He is under personal fire perhaps like no one in his office before him, viewed as a good politician but not necessarily a good leader.

"Some of the criticisms about change or what's going on naturally get leveled at the guy at the top," he said Thursday. "So you know, I suspect that's just a natural thing. If you're going to launch a change agenda, you've got to be willing to deal with the criticism. So I deal with the criticism."

Emmert kept mentioning change as the culprit, as if the problem here is that the NCAA has decided to deregulate the rulebook or offer new recruiting rules.

Except that's not it at all. In fact, plenty of people are happy about the rule changes.

"To tell you the truth some of the things they are doing with the rulebook and things like that are brilliant things," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said.

The problems are much deeper, systemic and personal than that.

Either Emmert is na´ve in thinking that this is about some simple change, or too stubborn to acknowledge the depth of his organization's mess.

Neither is a good place to stand.

He wrote off the Miami probe as a problem solved -- "The Miami issue had some enormous foul-ups in it. We've acknowledged that. We've addressed those issues," he said -- and failed to recognize how much that bungled probe has undermined the trust between his offices and the ones in athletic departments around the country.

He preached endlessly in his opening dither about the importance of academic performance for student-athletes. Yet when pressed about an article in USA Today where he essentially agreed that such reform is almost guaranteed to push athletes to easier majors, he backpedaled furiously on the NCAA's role in academics.

[+] EnlargeMark Emmert
AP Photo/David J. PhillipNCAA president Mark Emmert has recently seen his enforcement staff alarmingly dwindle.

"We're an athletic association," he said.

Emmert bragged about how part of the NCAA's new initiatives is to streamline the enforcement process -- but could offer no due date on a Syracuse investigation that is steamrolling toward endless right about now and has frustrated Jim Boeheim to no end.

"I'm not going to talk about the NCAA or what they do," Boeheim said. "They have some things they're trying to figure out. It's a complex issue and I don't have the answers."

Finally, in reference to a two-part USA Today series detailing his previous stops before the NCAA head office, including details about a construction project done at the University of Connecticut while he was chancellor -- one investigated by the state for mismanagement -- Emmert said merely it was part and parcel with a job that rarely wins the popularity contest.

"The executive committee hired me," Emmert said. "I'm sure they did an extensive search of my background. I'm proud of my reputation at every place I've been. … If you want to go to my campuses, scratch around and find somebody that doesn't like some of the decisions I've made, I'm sure you can find them." Emmert is not, of course, the first head of a major organization to stand in front of a firing squad and deflect directed shots with a Teflon response.

Politicians have made such nonanswer answers an art form.

Of course if, eventually, the constituents get fed up with tap-dancing inaction, the politician finds himself unemployed after the ballots have closed.

That's not near to happening here, or so it would seem. In late February, the executive committee did go so far as to issue a vote of confidence in its president, but it was an unprecedented action from the group, coming on a Saturday when usually NCAA business isn't even conducted. It showed just how critical the intersection was for Emmert.

But there he was Thursday, not giving an inch.

"I'm still here," Emmert said off the microphone as he was leaving the dais. "I know you're disappointed, but here I am."

He said it with a hint of defiance, a man who certainly doesn't lack a backbone.

That he even said it, though, just proves how big the problems are for him and for his organization.

Dana O'Neil | email

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