The first question that comes to mind with the NCAA hiring a new president: Why would anyone want this job?
Well, aside from the money, which pretty much answers any similar question regarding a major CEO position.
This is different. Leading the NCAA has traditionally been vocational, more like a calling than punching a timecard.
And early on, Charlie Baker has shown he is willing to take on the vocation. He’ll take less than two months off from being a two-term Massachusetts governor to lead an organization Mark Emmert did his best to run into the ground.
“I certainly think the challenges here are significant,” Baker said.
File that away as understatement of the year.
In hiring Baker, 66, at least the NCAA admitted what it has become: A diminished nonprofit monolith that has lost traction, power and respect.
It needs political influence to keep it from, well, folding. To the point Baker said he will lead, “to make sure we don’t lose this jewel going forward.”
He is the first leader of the association without a background in college athletics administration or higher education, which might be fine.
The NCAA’s new leader averaged 1.6 points playing basketball at Harvard. If you’ve been paying close attention, the NCAA is becoming less about college athletics and even less about higher education.
Baker must shake hands with players not only as “student-athletes” but soon-to-be equals in a giant economic enterprise. They (or their collective bargaining representatives) will hold that much power in the future.
“What he has is what most people don’t understand,” said Tom McMillen, CEO of LEAD1, the FBS AD organization, and a former Maryland Congressman. “When you say he’s political or has political acumen, that means he knows how to work with individuals. The biggest constituency he has is the 1,100 schools that heretofore have been pretty fragmented.
“He’s got to get those folks behind him. Once he has that, then he can go to legislators and talk a whole different game. You don’t get to be the most popular Republican governor in a Democratic state by not being able to do that.”
As NCAA president, Baker does have to accept that the transfer portal and NIL are pretty much the way of the world. Perhaps they’ll be altered slightly with Baker’s guidance. But any decision to call on Congress to fix things comes with … calling on Congress would to fix things. Be careful what you wish for.
“There is no consensus for the type of legislation [the NCAA] wants,” said powerful attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who has been a legal NCAA antagonist in the courtroom. “It has found that out very painfully over the last few years.”
What do we really know about this guy? More importantly, what assurances do we have that he doesn’t become the punching bag that Emmert did?
McMillen made a good point: It’s rare that a governor of the opposite legislative party in the state house can, well, get along with that body.
Baker worked with 160 members in the Massachusetts House of Representatives and 40 state senators. How does that compare to wrangling millionaire Power Five commissioners and those 1,100 schools from Ohio Wesleyan to Ohio State?
We’re about to find out.
The Baker bio includes the usual accomplishments: job creation, “get stuff done” guy, etc. But when asked directly if there is a comparison for the job he is about to undertake, Baker noted his effort in 2017 to increase funding for the National Institute of Health. He fought against a proposed 19% cut to the budget by then-President Donald Trump.
“We and our colleagues across the country created an enormous coalition basically arguing that NIH funding was one of the most important engines of economic activity and scientific and discovery process in the United States,” Baker said. “Rather than cutting funding for it, we should actually increase funding for it.”
That’s important on two levels: consensus building and student-athlete welfare.
Still, any analysis of Baker’s hiring has to come with the obvious question: Does it really matter who runs the NCAA these days? The organization’s previous lack of foresight means it must bend towards a compensation model or wither. It absolutely must find a way to lessen its crippling legal liability.
“I would hope a new NCAA president would divorce himself from everything that has come before,” said Kessler. “Take a new look and bring the NCAA into the 21st century. There is an opportunity here for somebody to transform this organization and end the violations of law, the exploitation of the athletes and everything they’ve done and turn the organization into a positive .”
Perhaps it’s an advantage Baker has scant experience for the job. He is the latest non-traditional hire in big-time college sports. The Big Ten (Kevin Warren), Pac-12 (Larry Scott, George Kliavkoff) and Big 12 (Brett Yormark) all went outside the ranks for their latest commissioner hires.
It’s worth taking a shot at different leaders with different ideas. Warren keeps calling himself a “disruptor,” publicly bent on further expanding his conference that has already snatched up USC and UCLA. Yormark is right there with him as a fomenter of change. Kliavkoff must think on his feet, preserve and reshape his conference — or risk having it collapse.
Most of all, Baker must get along with those Power Five commissioners as the true power brokers. They’re the ones who are going to decide if they break away from the NCAA or not. They’re the ones whose conferences are going to be making more (combined) than the NCAA annual budget when the new expanded College Football Playoff comes online.
Those commissioners run things in the only places that really matter these days. Maybe it takes a politician to unite these diverse (and powerful) conferences.
“Really, the power is in the Power Five conferences,” Kessler added.”[Baker’s] power is in his ability to lead that group. He doesn’t have any statutory power to decree what they should do. He has to get support for what he wants to do. A true leader can do that.”
Early on, significant figures are willing to give Baker a chance.
“Great credentials and past success at many things. Gives me hope,” said North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham.
“Seems a well-prepared, well-qualified leader,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said.
But Tulane AD Troy Dannen cut to the chase just last week at a conference in Las Vegas. If there is a football breakaway from the NCAA, basketball will follow right behind. Then what do you have?
“I promise you, if that happens, there will be zero revenue left in the NCAA structure,” Dannen said.
The possibility of that breakaway continues to loom if the aforementioned Power Five commissioners don’t get their way.
In many ways, Baker’s hiring is a Hail Mary to defend what’s left of the amateur model. The NCAA board did not target an athletic administrator or a former college president. They went with a likeable Republican governor who is known for his ability to organize, unite and accomplish.
What a concept, especially in Indianapolis right now.
That’s code for bipartisan unity. That’s arguably the thread the NCAA hangs by on Capitol Hill. The lack of such ability and vision to see around the corner is what doomed Emmert as NIL and player empowerment, overwhelmed his advisors and the membership.
“These senators hate me,” Emmert was quoted as having said by the Wall Street Journal last year while speaking with powerful college administrators at a Final Four luncheon.
Less than a month later, Emmert announced he would be leaving the NCAA “by mutual agreement.”
Those senators now will meet the new guy. For however long it lasts, the NCAA has a chance.