SBJ/March 24 - 30, 2008/This Weeks News

NCAA tourney’s guiding force

The phone conversation started as nothing out of the ordinary. The year was 1973 and Tom Jernstedt, then the NCAA’s rookie director of events, was giving Providence basketball coach Dave Gavitt the lay of the land in St. Louis, where the Final Four would soon be held.

They talked for 10 minutes about flights, buses, hotels and practice times before Gavitt began telling Jernstedt how special it was for his Friars to make the Final Four for the first time in the school’s history. Jernstedt, then just 28 years old, simply listened as Gavitt went on for half an hour.

“It was my first lengthy conversation with a coach headed to the Final Four and I was really taken aback by it,” Jernstedt said. “He went on and on about how this was the highlight of his life and the lives of his student athletes to be in the Final Four.

“It was a real exclamation point to me about how important this tournament is.”

Jernstedt’s “been the constant over
the years,” says CBS’s Mike
Aresco. “He’s the rock.”

Jernstedt, 63, presides over his 36th NCAA men’s basketball tournament this month, and Gavitt’s words remain as clear today as they did in 1973.

Now the executive vice president — the NCAA’s No. 2 to president Myles Brand — Jernstedt has made this tournament his life’s work, shepherding the Final Four from a weekend that struggled to sell out to an event that draws crowds of 20,000 — for practice.

“He’s the guy more than anybody else who has allowed the event to evolve,” said Jim Delany, the Big Ten Conference’s commissioner and former chairman of the NCAA tournament committee. “The beauty of the tournament is the way it’s been allowed to grow from the bottom up, not from the top down. And that’s a credit to Tom. His genius is the subtlety of his leadership.”

Other than agreeing that he’s been around a long time, Jernstedt has hands of stone when it comes to receiving credit. He’d rather point to all of the tournament committee members, elite college administrators like Gavitt, Delany, Tom Butters, Mike Tranghese and Wayne Duke, who through the years have helped steer the tournament.

It’s through the tournament that Jernstedt has developed such deep relationships with so many key figures.

“Tom has to be known as the most powerful person in intercollegiate athletics over the last 30 years,” said Greg Shaheen, the NCAA’s senior vice president of basketball and business strategies. “And what’s interesting is that there are a fair number of people who know him by name and not sight. It’s almost become his trademark that he doesn’t get the credit he deserves, but it’s not lost on any of us.”

By the NCAA’s nature as a member-driven organization, athletic directors and conference commissioners make up the committee charged with overseeing the tournament and its key issues, such as team selection and field size. But those committee members come and go every five years.

It’s up to the NCAA, mostly Jernstedt over the years and now Shaheen, to monitor day-to-day responsibilities and to execute whatever changes the committee decides on.

Jernstedt and Shaheen, for example, are in the room on Selection Sunday and provide any background, history or research necessary, but it’s the committee’s job to select and seed the teams. That’s why the committee chairman is typically interviewed on TV after the selections as the face of the championship, while Jernstedt maintains his place in the background.

He’s been the direct link between the committee and the NCAA going back to his first tournament in 1973.

“Tom’s been the constant over the years. He’s the rock,” said Mike Aresco, CBS’s senior vice president of programming. “The tournament has grown, but its fundamental nature has not. That’s because of Tom.”

Preserving the image

The tournament has experienced such organic, measured growth that it’s hard to find fingerprints on the event, but Jernstedt’s influence is clear, even if it’s colored in subdued earth tones rather than bright pastels.

He’s been a guiding force as the tournament expanded from 32 to 48 to its current format with 65 teams. He’s overseen the move from arenas to expansive domes for the Final Four and even some regionals so that more fans could enjoy the event.

He has nurtured a 26-year relationship with broadcast partner CBS, which pays nearly $600 million a year for the rights, and worked with the network to develop a corporate partner program just this decade. He helped broaden the Final Four’s appeal to those who don’t have tickets with fan-fest activities outside the domes.

Tom Jernstedt
Title: Executive vice president
Organization: NCAA
Age: 63
Family: Wife, Kris; children Derek, 34; Jaci, 28; and Cole, 5
Hometown: Carlton, Ore.
Resides: Indianapolis
NCAA tenure: Started in 1972 as director of events
Last book read: “Wooden on Leadership,” by John Wooden
Most difficult decision: Whether or not to play the 1981 championship game between Indiana and North Carolina after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.
Business advice: Learn more by listening than talking.

Jernstedt’s influence also is in the subtle attention to detail. Each regional features the same characteristics, all the way down to the moderators of the postgame press conference who unfailingly refer to the players as “student athletes.”

“Tom is the steady, instinctive, anchoring piece that makes the committee so successful,” Shaheen said.

Jernstedt said he’s taken much of his approach to expanding the tournament from watching the Masters, carefully balancing integrity and tradition with commercial interests.

“The way the Masters is run, it’s an example of what we’ve tried to emulate over time,” Jernstedt said. “It’s a remarkable venue for the participants and the fans. Just watching it on TV when I was younger, it always captured my respect for the way they handle the event, even the fewer commercials. It’s all about golf and the players, and that really shaped my thoughts.”

The keep-it-simple, no-frills approach starts with a focus on basketball, but it touches other aspects of the tournament as well, even the music that’s played. None of that piped-in, eardrum-bursting noise at the Final Four. The participating schools’ pep bands provide the music — and to a large degree, the atmosphere.

The NCAA also allows few signage opportunities around the court. You might see the occasional Dasani mark, but Jernstedt likes to keep the court and its surroundings clean.

“All you have are players warming up and the pep bands playing music and it’s the most electric atmosphere — unlike anything else I’ve ever been to,” said Jim Host, whose agency, Host Communications, was the NCAA’s first marketing partner in 1975. “Tom has done such a wonderful job preserving the image of the tournament; if you talk to anyone who has served on the men’s basketball committee, they’ll tell you that no one deserves more credit for the character and integrity of the tournament than Tom.”

‘World class’ before it was

So how did a football player at the University of Oregon — Jernstedt called his scholarship a “poor investment” by the school — become one of the most influential figures in amateur basketball? Not only has he presided over every NCAA men’s basketball tournament since 1973, but he was president of USA Basketball from 2000 to 2004 while also serving on the board of the U.S. Olympic Committee. In 2001, he was awarded the prestigious John Bunn Award, the highest honor given by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Jernstedt’s career in administration started in 1972 when he was a wet-behind-the-ears events manager for his alma mater. He had briefly played quarterback for the Ducks, and the opportunity to return to campus in an administrative role was so appealing that he took a pay cut, sacrificed his company car and left a sales job in San Francisco.

One of his first assignments was the NCAA track and field championships on Oregon’s campus, which offered Jernstedt a harsh initiation. Turned out that the measurements on Oregon’s track were off and Jernstedt had to scramble to re-mark the track’s surface, so he also learned quickly about damage control with a guy named DeLoss Dodds looking over his shoulder. Dodds, now the athletic director at Texas, was the Kansas State track coach and chairman of the track and field committee in 1972.

Jernstedt must have done OK. About six weeks later he received a call from the NCAA, which was led by Executive Director Walter Byers at the time, offering him a job as director of events.

Jernstedt had hoped to parlay his experiences at Oregon and the NCAA into a career as an athletic director. Instead, he took ownership of the men’s basketball tournament as director of events and began shaping its future. It was a nice event at the time, drawing crowds of 16,000 to 18,000 for the nationally televised title game, but Jernstedt saw a brighter future.

“Tom saw the tournament as ‘world class’ even before it was,” Delany said. “He just had a real intuitive feel for the coaches, the players, the competition. He treated it as something that would grow and prosper, but at the same time needed to be protected. As it grew and TV began showing the early rounds and it expanded, all of these issues were debated and Tom provided that firm and steady leadership.

“He always saw the Final Four as something between the Super Bowl and the Masters. The tradition, the integrity, he always knew the right balance, even on the commercial side.”

Enjoying the scene

When four teams convene in San Antonio for this year’s Final Four in April, Jernstedt and Aresco will stand courtside with a few of the committee members and soak up the atmosphere.

Dueling pep bands will try to outplay each other, fans in four different color groups will cheer on their teams, and the student athletes will run onto the court for warm-ups.

Jernstedt is the link from the dome-filling
Final Four of today to the modest success
of 1973, before the March Madness
phenomenon took off.

Just before tip-off, Jernstedt will turn to the committee chairman and shake his hand, then shake Shaheen’s hand. It’s a small, but moving acknowledgment, Shaheen said, of the work done the past 364 days.

Another year’s worth of logistics and planning will culminate and Jernstedt will allow himself just a few minutes to soak up the scene.

“So much time is spent on running the tournament that sometimes you lose sight of the fun of the game,” Aresco said. “The NCAA tournament is a tremendous heirloom passed down from one generation to the next, and you can see in Tom the pride that he takes in that.”

Those who know Jernstedt best can’t envision a day when his thumb is not on the tournament.

He’s been a guardian of its tradition and character but hasn’t been afraid to move it forward with initiatives such as March Madness on Demand and relationships with Facebook and RazorGator. The “in-the-round” layout, debuting this year at regionals in Houston and Detroit, will put the court in the middle of domes and potentially draw crowds of more than 70,000 when that format is used at the Final Four in 2009.

“You always think about the things that might enhance or grow the tournament,” Jernstedt said.

Yet he still comes back to a simple thought that still serves as a guide.

“As long as you’ve got great players,” he said, “you just stay out of the way and let them play the game.”

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