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NCAA's Emmert at crossroads

10/31/2014

INDIANAPOLIS -- With the Freeh report in his hands amid the biggest scandal in college sports history, NCAA president Mark Emmert had his moment -- and he seized it in the most public and substantive way possible: handing down unprecedented sanctions against the vaunted Penn State football program ahead of going on a national media tour to talk about the decision.

A year to the day after he stood in Indianapolis and announced his plans to change the culture of college athletics in light of the Penn State child sex abuse case, Emmert stands amid even more significant developments: In recent days, influential conference power brokers such as SEC commissioner Mike Slive, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and ACC commissioner John Swofford have been publicly and loudly calling for change in the organization Emmert oversees, while also questioning its entire leadership structure.

The Penn State announcement was supposed to be the defining moment of Emmert's tenure. But instead of signifying his and the organization's status as tough on NCAA crime, it has become Emmert's Waterloo moment. Since that announcement, his leadership style, combative personality, and most of all, his decisions, have directly intersected with an NCAA in deep crisis. Employees are headed for the exits in droves, and instead of helping to alleviate the NCAA's problems, the man at the top may be compounding them.

"It's been one misstep after another," said a longtime administrator and former NCAA staffer, echoing the statements of several sources who have spoken to "Outside the Lines."

The perceived crisis of Emmert's leadership also has dovetailed with an NCAA at a pivotal intersection of its own. The drumbeat from BCS football-playing schools is growing steadily, with demands that they find their own place in the NCAA structure, apart from the other schools that look different, and most of all, spend differently.

Those problems aren't Emmert's doing; he inherited them. Nor is his CEO position responsible for the structure of the NCAA itself, and he is not empowered to change it. The recently outspoken college athletics power brokers have been careful not to take direct aim at Emmert the man; rather, they've kept their comments at a more macro level: "NCAA leadership."

But there is no doubt that, in the opinions of many, his mistakes and approach have helped sever the tenuous trust between membership and the association, and if Emmert remains at the helm amid such substantial change, it will be over the objections of some of the NCAA's most powerful school athletic administrators.

One source said that at least one major conference has gone so far as to send a directive to its representative on the NCAA Executive Committee -- which, among other duties, hires and fires the association's president -- to make it "crystal clear that they were not at all happy with the direction of the entire enterprise under Emmert."

The Executive Committee, a board made up of university and conference administrators that acts as the NCAA's highest governance body, meets on Aug. 1. To date, committee members have had Emmert's back, and at least some members remain steadfast.

"Rather than blaming Mark as an individual for the lack of success, maybe the system is wrong, and no one could navigate the system," said Michigan State president Lou Anna Simon, committee chairwoman. "Governance is the most important issue on our [upcoming] agenda. We have to evaluate people in the context of a system that works. We can't do that fairly otherwise."

Added Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch, on the prospect of replacing Emmert: "We're not there. He's a very strong leader. He's done good things. I don't think we are there. This is an association, a member organization, not the NBA or the NFL. It represents a lot of different constituencies and putting all that together, making that sausage, is complicated."

But the executive committee may be the vocal minority. The voices against Emmert are growing louder and coming from people with not only authority, but leverage in the college athletics game.

"I really think we need to reconfigure the leadership in the organization," Bowlsby said Monday, though he later told ESPN.com's Mark Schlabach, "I'm not critical of Mark Emmert. I'm critical of an organization that is not very efficient."

Emmert steadfast amid criticism, questions

The embattled NCAA boss is nothing if not cocksure and feisty.

In an "Outside the Lines" interview last week at the NCAA's headquarters in Indianapolis, when asked if there was anything he would have done differently in the Penn State case, Emmert, 59, said there was nothing.

What about a mulligan on any decision in his almost three years on the job? "I can't think of one decision, no -- if that is what you are asking."

His critics -- and not just Nittany Lions fans -- no doubt will howl at those responses.

Emmert's unpopularity isn't altogether unusual. There have been five presidents in the 60-odd years of the NCAA, and none enjoyed perfectly smooth waters. But Emmert's run, which hasn't even reached its third anniversary, is easily the most volatile. He has been accused of pandering in search of public relations approval; using his position to entertain his guests at events at the expense of NCAA staff; disenfranchising leaders in college athletics and his own employees; engaging in public wars of words with the media; misreading his own membership by attempting to fast-track a new rule to provide some student-athletes a $2,000 stipend; and mishandling two of the highest-profile NCAA cases in history -- the drawn-out, bungled University of Miami investigation, and the Penn State case -- both of which he inherited and, in the case of Penn State, was portrayed by a former NCAA enforcement officer as an "abusive circumvention of the enforcement process."

Most troubling to many is that his enforcement staff -- the aspect of NCAA governance that, along with staging postseason championships, draws the most public attention -- has been portrayed at times as a corrupt cop shop. The NCAA botched a key portion of the Miami case when the attorney for former booster and convicted Ponzi scheme architect Nevin Shapiro was used by the NCAA to improperly obtain information.

Former staffers told "Outside the Lines" of multiple examples of questionable practices, including:

• Targeting specific head coaches and programs presumed as being "dirty," particularly within a separate in-house group investigating basketball.

• Enforcement and NCAA staff sharing and reviewing information about student-athlete academic transcripts at various times with the media, a violation of federal privacy laws.

"There is no trust. None," said Don Jackson, an attorney who has represented athletes facing NCAA sanctions.

Emmert himself is accused of commenting publicly on cases, contrary to NCAA policy. He is said to have had a role in what ultimately has evolved into a bickering, dysfunctional enforcement department. And he's played a larger role in enforcement than past presidents, while also handpicking Julie Roe Lach to head the staff. Those quick in describing Lach as a "nice person" also say she was unqualified for the lofty responsibility, the first department head who never worked in the field as an enforcement representative, and was unable to push back on the demands of the powers above. She was fired in the wake of the Miami debacle.

"That is Julie Roe, which stems from Mark Emmert," a former enforcement staffer said of the troubling behavior in the enforcement operation. "Mark Emmert is putting pressure on them. He wants more infractions cases, and done faster."

Several sources echoed the same refrain: Emmert has charged his investigators to think outside the box to unearth information and adhere more strictly to timetables to wrap up investigations quickly.

Emmert doesn't deny that, noting membership and the media have harped on resolving infractions cases faster. That said, he adds, it's no excuse for the practices uncovered in the Miami case.

Yet there was trouble even before Miami, sources said.

"The prevailing attitude was 'Whether it helps the school or hurts the school, our job is to gather information.' Lately, it has been, 'Our job is to take these schools down,' " another former enforcement rep said. "That is the big change. ... They have a lot of young, competitive people trying to out-do each other, which I never got that sense when I was there."

Several staffers have left, including two NCAA enforcement directors and five investigators, and some claim that the same executive branch that is pushing to make cases won't support its investigators in the end.

"I know people who have worked there for 10 years," one source said. "They said the first nine years and the last one are completely different. It's not a good place to work right now."

The organization is incurring hefty legal bills, at least in some part from enforcement actions. In its most recent tax filings, the association reported $9.5 million in legal fees, more than double each of the previous two years and a figure certain to escalate with bills coming due from, among others, the outside independent review of the NCAA's investigation of Miami, and the class-action suit brought against the NCAA over its use of athletes' likenesses in video games, which resulted in Moody's Investors Service recently downgrading the NCAA's credit rating.

Style, actions have made Emmert lightning rod

Certainly, Emmert's availability and accessibility, particularly at such a volatile time for the NCAA, has put him more in the line of fire. But instead of putting out the flames, he often has fanned them.

Described by some as a man who never met a microphone he didn't love, he is great for the speaking circuit -- "more external than internal," as one person described him -- but not terribly in touch with his staff.

Some of that can be attributed to travel. Emmert estimated that he spends about 60 to 65 percent of his time away from the office visiting campuses -- though past NCAA presidents Dick Schultz and Cedric Dempsey said they, too, spent considerable time on the road. But many college athletic officials and people in academia are disturbed by his salary of more than $1.7 million -- almost $600,000 more than his predecessor. And some say he's used his position of authority for his own benefit.

At the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans, Emmert hosted a private party inside the Superdome, an event that also included midcourt seats and a private tunnel for guests to exit the court to get to the reception. Those seats, sources said, typically are reserved for members of the basketball committee and their families, legends of the tournament and their guests, as well as other NCAA personnel.

Instead, they were given to people affiliated with Emmert.

A guest list obtained by "Outside the Lines" showed that five invitees serve with Emmert on corporate boards: Debra Cafaro, the CEO of Ventas, a real estate investment trust, and a member (along with Emmert) of the board of directors for Weyerhaeuser, a timberland company; Robert Wright, president of Matthew G. Norton Co., a real estate investment firm; John Meisenbach, the president of a financial services company who, along with Emmert, sits on the board for Expeditors International, a global logistics company; Steven Heyer, CEO of Fathom Studios; and James Shelton, chairman of Legacy Hospital Partners. Heyer and Shelton join Emmert on the Omnicare board of directors.

Former Omnicare CEO John Figueroa also was invited to the party, as were several heavy hitters from Emmert's days as president at the University of Washington, including Neal Dempsey, an investment adviser who has donated millions to UW, and David Bonderman, who in 1995 created the Bonderman Travel Fellowship, a program that allows University of Washington students to travel abroad.

Neal Dempsey, along with party invitee Charles Barbo, president of Catalyst Storage Partners, are also members of the UW Foundation board, the school's fundraising arm.

According to Forbes, in 2011 Emmert made an additional $619,483 in compensation from his affiliation with the three corporate boards.

Nothing within the NCAA bylaws prohibits Emmert from working on the boards, but doing so at some universities has become a hot-button issue for some university presidents who have done so.

Former NCAA presidents Dempsey and Schultz opted not to sit on any corporate boards, while Emmert's predecessor, the late Myles Brand, worked only in conjunction with nonprofits.

"There were opportunities, but I personally felt I had my hands full dealing with the NCAA and essentially had corporate sponsorships, and I didn't want to be in a position where I might be in a conflict of interest," Schultz said. "Most importantly, it was a question of time."

Asked about the seats he used for his reception in New Orleans, Emmert said he "didn't know what that was about."

Pictures show Emmert seated at press row, alongside Democratic strategist James Carville.

"I don't know if it's right or wrong, but I don't think you'd see his predecessors sitting at a scorer's table at the Final Four," one source said. "You don't see those things at the pro level. You don't see David Stern at the scorer's table."

NCAA executive committee holds association's future

As the NCAA deals with the lightning rod that is Emmert, the association itself can appear lost, confused and unsure if the new way of doing business is better than the old. Publicly at least, leadership wants to re-evaluate its governance structure and expectations before determining if Emmert is still right for the job.

The Executive Committee, which signed off on Emmert's hiring and in whose hands his fate rests, issued him a rare vote of confidence in February.

That has happened only once before, when Schultz received a similar endorsement in 1993 following an interest-free loan scandal involving athletes at the University of Virginia, where he had previously served as athletic director. He ultimately stepped down for fear of damaging the "credibility of the NCAA."

The question now: Is Emmert at the same crossroads? Some say yes, that he is little more than a dead man walking, while others argue that the same presidents who hired him wouldn't want to lose face by now showing him the door -- though he may eventually find a way to exit gracefully.

"From what I have seen the last few months, he has certainly pulled back in style and is starting to try to go back and make amends," a former NCAA administrator said. "I think he has had a meeting with [athletic directors] recently, a select group of ADs, to analyze what he is doing -- what he has done wrong and those things. Whether he can recover ... he obviously has been a lot quieter. He may have gotten word from the Executive Committee, too. Their message of support was a pretty guarded message in how they said it. It is his style more than anything else, and people have trouble with his style."

Simon, the Michigan State president, said Emmert's modified style is to be expected from a savvy leader.

"It takes a leader to be able to step back and remember why you did this in the first place and what needs to be done differently to meet that original goal," Simon said. "He is in that process now."

The NCAA was shopping for a change agent in 2010 when it hired Emmert.

Brand was a reasonably popular in-house leader but a typical academic: more cerebral, thoughtful, and content to be behind the scenes rather than in front of a microphone.

"We wanted someone more attune to the modern age of blogs, tweets; someone who would be more visible," Simon said of Emmert. "We hired somebody to be out there. He had a mandate to be more visible. Instead, it's made him a lightning rod."

Within NCAA headquarters, he is viewed at best as aloof, and at worst an autocrat, streamlining his inner circle to essentially three people: chief operating officer Jim Isch, whom he first met in the 1990s when the two worked at Montana State; Donald Remy, general counsel and vice president of legal affairs; and Wally Renfro, a former NCAA public relations staffer who in January retired from his position as senior vice president, but many say still wields a great deal of influence.

In describing Emmert's management style as autocratic, a former NCAA administrator said: "That leads to problems because it is a very complicated organization. It is important if you are going to lead that you turn around and make sure you have people with you ... that's the major responsibility, trying to create change through persuasion. I think that is an effective way for that to happen. You have to bring people along for change."

Emmert struggled initially when a reporter asked him to identify his management style. He then bristled when told someone had suggested it was autocratic, saying, "Anybody that has worked with me in any of my other jobs -- actually worked with me and not speculated about -- would never describe my style that way."

Instead, he said, he relies heavily on his senior management group as well as the views and opinions of membership. "Well, I try very hard for it to be collaborative, to work with the people around me and reach conclusions collectively."

Still, the unprecedented executive action in the Penn State case -- not so much the penalty -- is something many inside and outside the NCAA grapple with.

"Each president has different styles in terms of involving their staff," said Cedric Dempsey, who served as NCAA president from 1994 to 2002 and has a building named after him at NCAA headquarters. "That is going to happen no matter who is in charge. But there seems to be more centralization in the executive branch. ... I feel the three branches have worked effectively over the years, and I would prefer personally to see that structure be maintained."

That would be hard, however, under Emmert's tenure. Since he took over in 2010, 10 vice presidents and executive vice presidents have left the association, retired or been forced out.

For his part, Emmert isn't taking time to concern himself about people's opinions or perceptions of him.

"I don't spend time worrying about legacies," he said. "I worry about the ability of the association to do its job."