U. of Washington's President to Lead NCAA

U. of Washington

Mark A. Emmert sees “no shortage of issues” ahead in his new role, which he is expected to take by November 1.
April 27, 2010

The National Collegiate Athletic Association has tapped Mark A. Emmert, president of the University of Washington, as its next chief executive.

Mr. Emmert, who has been president at Washington since 2004 and is a former chancellor of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, will be the second college president to lead the NCAA. He is expected to begin November 1.

At various stops throughout his three decades in higher education—at Washington, Louisiana State, and other posts at the University of Connecticut, Montana State University, and the University of Colorado—Mr. Emmert said he had developed a "great affection" for college sports.

"There are few social forces that shape the lives of young people in more immediate and direct ways," he said. To have a hand in shaping the experiences of more than 400,000 NCAA athletes is "a compelling position," he said.

"The NCAA has, for more than a century now, had the responsibility of making sure that the interests and welfare of student athletes are the first and foremost priority," Mr. Emmert said during a news conference at the NCAA's headquarters in Indianapolis. "It's my intention to carry on that tradition."

Tuesday's announcement came just over seven months after the death of Myles Brand, who had led the NCAA since 2003. A search firm had identified nearly 100 candidates since January, and a search committee had considered 32 "truly outstanding individuals" from higher education, corporate America, and government, said Edward J. Ray, president of Oregon State University and chairman of the NCAA's executive committee.

Final interviews took place on Tuesday, with Mr. Emmert, whom Mr. Ray described as "no stranger to higher education," emerging as the top choice.

"This is not just another job for Mark Emmert," Mr. Ray said in announcing the new president. "He has a commitment to intercollegiate athletics and to student athletes that runs deep."

'No Shortage of Issues'

Mr. Emmert takes the reins of college sports' governing body at a difficult time. Many athletics programs are reeling from budget cuts, dozens of teams have been dropped, and within Division I, the divide between the wealthiest programs and those that struggle mightily to keep up has grown ever larger. Some athletes in high-profile sports still lag in the classroom. And talk of major conference realignment has dominated sports headlines for weeks.

"There's no shortage of issues sitting on the next president's plate," Mr. Emmert acknowledged.

During the brief news conference, Mr. Emmert outlined a few goals. He said he would stay the course with academic requirements for athletes that Mr. Brand had championed. "I don't foresee revolutionary change in academic-accountability issues," he said.

And he said he would help campus leaders navigate the tough economic circumstances. "The most fundamental question is, Can we help presidents of colleges and universities manage these very difficult issues?" he said. The NCAA cannot regulate the financial affairs of college athletics departments, he said, but it can "arm them to make those decisions as wisely and effectively as possible."

Mr. Emmert also said he aimed to help those outside the world of college sports better understand what athletes' experiences are like, and to deal with challenges athletes face in devoting long hours to excel at their sports while also putting in "the time required to be a serious student."

Familiar With Sports

The NCAA's new leader has firsthand experience with some of the thornier sides of college sports.

Last year, in an effort to close a nearly $3-million budget shortfall, Washington's athletics department eliminated its nationally ranked men's and women's swimming program, shaving $1.2-million off a budget of around $65-million.

And he knows the roller coaster—and the cost—of hiring a new coach for a struggling, high-profile program: In the fall of 2008, just as the economy bottomed out, Washington hired Steve Sarkisian to breathe life back into the Huskies' troubled football program. The price tag for the new coach was nearly $2-million a year—a sharp increase over the previous coach's pay.

"Economic considerations simply were not considered," Scott Woodward, Washington's athletic director, told SportsBusiness Journal last year. Mr. Emmert, he said, "was part of the search committee, and he fully understood the importance of hiring the highest-paid state employee."

Mr. Emmert's history at Louisiana State and at Washington "suggests a very aggressive CEO in terms of trying to support big-time football," said Robert Malekoff, a professor of sport studies at Guilford College. Yet, he added, under Mr. Brand's leadership, the NCAA stressed the importance of keeping spending under control. In Mr. Emmert, the association has "now hired someone who appears, from the record, not interested in that. Is that good, bad, indifferent? Who knows."

Mr. Emmert has given some signals of how he might approach his new job. He has highlighted his enthusiasm for college sports in other arenas, penning an op-ed column in 2008 in The Seattle Times in which he compared the $60-million brought in by the Huskies' athletics department to the $1-billion in research grants and contracts Washington faculty members had won the previous year. Athletics and academic programs, he said, are both competitive pursuits with much in common.

"Sports can serve as a resilient glue that holds a far-flung community together," he wrote in the article. "But, if unattended to, college sports can also carom out of control, causing significant damage to a university's reputation."

College sports, he concluded, are "a valuable part of our traditions. But we must keep them in perspective, something often challenging to do."

Reactions to New Leader

As news of Mr. Emmert's appointment spread, athletics officials, faculty members, and campus leaders said they were pleased to have a new president in place—and wondered how his background would influence future decisions.

In picking another university president who has chosen to emphasize academics so strongly at his own institution, the NCAA has made "a superb choice," said Nathan Tublitz, a professor of biology at the University of Oregon and a former co-chair of the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics.

Christine A. Plonsky, director of women's athletics at the University of Texas at Austin, said the announcement came at an important juncture for college sports.

"The most critical thing," she said, given the NCAA's new television contract and rumors swirling about major conference realignments, "is having a leader in the NCAA office."

While Mr. Emmert hails from a big-time college-sports background, one campus leader in Division III said he was hopeful that the new president would look out for athletes across the NCAA's three divisions.

"His academic background is most impressive, so I think that bodes very well for those of us in Division III who stress academics so highly," said Joe Gow, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse. "He really has done a lot of things in different administrative roles. When you do that, you certainly get steeped in academic culture, so I don't think he'll have any difficulty understanding our perspective."

William E. (Brit) Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said any changes to come demand a leader from a major university to guide them.

"If we're really going to make progress, the leadership has to come from a big-time program," said Mr. Kirwan, who is also the co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, a group that has been critical of the spending habits of many big-time programs. "You have to come from that world to have the credibility to make the needed changes."

Jeffrey Selingo contributed to this article.