Myles Brand, a philosopher and former Indiana University chief who became the first college president to lead the National Collegiate Athletic Association, died Wednesday after an all-too-brief battle with pancreatic cancer, the association announced. He was 67.
No leader of the NCAA can please all of the many constituencies who care about college sports but approach the topic from many different angles -- athletics administrators and coaches who build sports programs and depend on the association to set the rules and run their national tournaments, some professors and critics who are troubled by perceived overemphasis and excessive commercialization, and boosters and fans who love their teams and often see the NCAA as a faceless regulatory body that picks on athletes.
But as a philosophy professor who went on to head the University of Oregon and then IU, Brand was different from the NCAA leaders before him, all of whom had been athletics officials. He was a strong advocate for college athletics, but was unafraid to acknowledge its flaws and pushed hard to align the big-time sports enterprise with his vision of what it should be. Perhaps first and foremost, Brand changed the NCAA by innately understanding -- and reminding others at every turn -- how sports fit into the larger picture of higher education, said Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford.
"He brought with him an academic sensibility, and thought about college athletics within the context of higher education," Harrison said in an interview Wednesday about a man he called "one of the greatest leaders and finest people I've ever known." "In almost every speech he ever gave" -- like this one, his last full State of the Association Speech in 2008 -- he repeated the message that college athletics is not an institution separate from their colleges and universities, it's part of us. He was able to strike that chord in a way that as far as I know no other leader had."
"The results of his efforts will live on for years to come, and American higher education will continue to benefit from his service," Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education, said of Brand. (The NCAA's Web site has a page where those who wish to can offer their remembrances of Brand.)
Brand's pre-NCAA career path arguably made him an unlikely candidate to lead the country's dominant college sports group. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Rochester and specialized as a professor at a series of major research universities (Pittsburgh, Illinois-Chicago, Arizona) on "action theory," which examines the nature of human physical movement. But he quickly moved into a series of administrative posts that eventually led him to the presidencies at the University of Oregon and then, in 1994, Indiana.
It was there, in 2000, near the end of his eight-year presidency, that he had an encounter with the famed basketball coach Bob Knight that, ironically, might have positioned him to go on to lead the NCAA. After years in which he and his predecessors at Indiana had frequently been criticized for failing to rein in personal misbehavior by the Hall of Fame coach with the combustible temper, Brand fired Knight for a pattern of "defiant and hostile" behavior.
When the NCAA searched to replace Cedric Dempsey as its president in 2002, college presidents had been pushing, with mixed success, to stake claim to true leadership of the NCAA. Of course presidents ultimately "run" the NCAA, because it is a membership group made up of colleges and universities whose chief executives control key NCAA boards and committees. But conference commissioners and athletics directors owned much of the power within the association, and the selection of a new NCAA president was seen, fairly or not, as a symbolic struggle for control of the group.
In that context, Brand's battle with Knight gave him street cred with the college presidents charged with choosing the next NCAA leader, even though sports critics on his own faculty did not necessarily see him as a reformer.
In his years in the job, though, Brand pushed a series of potentially serious reforms while, at the same time, celebrating the mission and in many cases the conduct of college sports. Foremost among his endeavors was an aggressive push to carry out major changes in the NCAA's academic requirements for athletes; though the changes had already been approved by the time he took office in January 2003, he became their most forceful advocate and their public face. While concerns remain about whether potential unintended consequences of the changes -- like the clustering of athletes in less demanding majors -- graduation rates and other indicators of athletes' academic success are on the rise.
Brand also drew attention to other concerns, acknowledging the explosion of sports spending and promoting better accounting of the actual finances of sports program, for example. He and the NCAA undertook vigorous efforts to bolster the hiring of minority coaches and a high-profile (and sometimes criticized) effort to force member colleges to stop using American Indian mascots. He defended the NCAA against Congressional suggestions that big-time college sports were no longer an educational enterprise, and urged college presidents to rein in sports excesses on their own campuses.
Most of his rhetoric, though, and his passion, focused on his belief that athletics could and should be integrated into the life of the university, to help athletes use their physical skills to get a meaningful education. In that view, he rejected the views of both critics who argued that athletics fundamentally conflict with academics and of those sports officials and enthusiasts who bristled at the NCAA's tougher standards and their institutions' oversight.
"To take stock, I have been arguing that intercollegiate athletics is integral to and embedded in higher education. It is not an ancillary activity to which universities can turn for entertainment on Saturday afternoons or marketing at alumni events," he said in that 2008 State of the Association speech. "Intercollegiate athletics, rather, is part of the university -- for better or worse... In order to gain the advantages that intercollegiate athletics brings to the university, its roles must be well understood and promoted; and the challenges it faces in meeting the obligations that these roles generate must be met.
"It is a great advantage for intercollegiate athletics to be woven into the fabric of the university. Without this significant intertwining, intercollegiate athletics would devolve into professional club sports or something similar that occurs in countries that separate athletics from academics. If that were the case, both universities and intercollegiate athletics would be worse off. But it is not the case: in America, universities and their athletics programs are joined together.
"This is an extraordinary union and let us celebrate it!"