Even if you think the role of college sports in higher education is out of whack, it says something about how much the landscape has changed that when the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced its new leader Tuesday night, it would have been a Butler-almost-winning-the-NCAA-tournament sort of shock if a college president had not been selected.
But the association did indeed choose another academic leader as its new president: Mark A. Emmert, president of the University of Washington. Emmert succeeds Myles Brand, the former Indiana University president whose tenure at the NCAA was cut short last year by his untimely death from pancreatic cancer.
When Brand was chosen to lead the NCAA in 2003, the selection of a college president was seen as a major victory for sports reformers. The association had previously been led by former athletics directors and other sports officials, and the selection of a new NCAA president was seen, fairly or not, as a symbolic struggle for control of the group.
This time around, the association reportedly considered non-academics for the job, too; politicians like Evan Bayh and business leaders were also said to be in the running. But while some sports officials may also have been considered, in many quarters the selection of anything but a college president would probably have been seen as a retreat from the aggressive academic accountability agenda that Brand undertook.
For his part, Emmert, a lifelong academic who previously led the Louisiana State University's main campus and had top administrative posts at the University of Connecticut, Montana State and the University of Colorado at Boulder, vowed to "continue the traditions of academic accountability that we've launched" under Brand, "keeping our eye on that ball."
He put that on the short list of issues he would face as the head of the world's largest college sports group, which included helping the NCAA's member colleges deal with increasingly unbalanced budgets. Emmert acknowledged having much to learn about some aspects of the NCAA's domain, notably the experience of operating smaller-scale programs in Divisions II and III.
But he described the NCAA job as a "natural extension of what I've been doing for nearly 30 years now," and called the NCAA "one of the most important intercollegiate -- and collegiate -- associations in the United States." "There are few social forces that affect the lives of young people in more direct ways ... and the idea of taking on that challenge and being able to shape those experiences is one I find incredibly compelling."
Emmert has seen some of the country's biggest and highest-profile sports programs up close and personal, and his dealings with them have not been without controversy. He made Nick Saban the highest-paid football coach in history after he led LSU to a national championship in 2003, giving Saban a seven-year contract that would have paid him $3 million a year by its end (Saban left for the University of Alabama in 2007 and now earns at least $4 million a year.)
At Washington, Emmert forced out the athletics director, Todd Turner, in 2007, and fired the football coach, Tyrone Willingham, in 2008 amid disappointment about the latter's won-loss record and the football program's direction.
And while neither LSU nor Washington had trouble with the NCAA during Emmert's time at those institutions, the universities are emblematic of the tensions in big-time college sports. The latest NCAA data put UW's six-year graduation rate for male athletes who entered in 2002-3 at 61 percent (compared to 73 percent for all male students); the rate for black male athletes is 40 percent.
Washington athletes fare better under the Academic Progress Rate system that the NCAA uses to measure teams' and athletes' real-time classroom success, with its football and men's basketball squads in the 70th-80th percentile of its peers in keeping players on track toward a degree.
"This is a fine appointment to lead the NCAA," said John V. Lombardi, president of the Louisiana State system, who did not overlap with Emmert there. "Mark has extensive and high quality experience at major universities with high academic standards and major athletic programs. He is highly qualified and will be a major force in leading college athletics through what promises to be a challenging era."