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SBJ/20090921/Remembering Myles Brand
‘The right man at the right time’
Published September 21, 2009
In the days before his death, while he still had the strength, Myles Brand would sit on the couch in his Indianapolis living room with a legal pad in his lap and a pen in his hand.
With his death from pancreatic cancer imminent, Brand was still thinking “What’s next?” and jotting those notes down for the next NCAA staff meeting.
Before his diagnosis in January, the NCAA’s president typically traveled 150 to 175 days a year, meaning he wasn’t in his office at the Indy headquarters very often and seldom did he sit in on staff meetings. But with his cancer treatment keeping him off the road, Brand was in the office far more in the last eight months than he’d ever been.
He attended staff meetings, replied quickly to e-mails, hopped on conference calls and met with visitors like Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Haney, the executive director of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, both of whom stopped by Brand’s office two weeks ago.
“It was incredible to see him so engaged with everything that’s going on,” said Greg Shaheen, the NCAA’s senior vice president and a friend of Brand’s for the last 15 years, dating to Brand’s time as Indiana University president. “He was active and weighed in on the full spectrum of issues.”
Brand’s battle with cancer ended when he died on the afternoon of Wednesday, Sept. 16. Not surprisingly, he had a call scheduled just the day before with Michael Adams, the University of Georgia president and chairman of the NCAA’s executive committee.
“Up until a week or so ago, Myles was in the office doing what an NCAA president does,” Adams said. “We had our regular Tuesday call set up. But when I called into his office and reached (his assistant), she said, ‘I want to connect you to Peg,’ Myles’ wife. Peg said that there had been real deterioration in the last 48 hours.”
Brand died the next day, but not without leaving a stamp on the NCAA and intercollegiate athletics that his colleagues admittedly didn’t see coming when he started the job in January 2003.
His most visible achievement was the academic reform movement he started early in his tenure and completed with the implementation of the Academic Progress Report, which measures how student athletes are progressing academically and penalizes those programs that don’t keep up.
He also initiated an open and vibrant debate about commercialism in college athletics, saying there should be more, not less, as long as it stays within the framework of amateurism and promotes the accomplishments of the athletes and their teams. Until Brand broached the topic and made it a hot-button item for the past year, commercialism was a word to be whispered on college campuses.
“Myles was a maverick in a lot of ways,” said Chris Plonsky, the women’s athletic director at the University of Texas who spearheaded an NCAA committee that explored the enhancement of commercial activities. “He saw room for commercialism. Coming from the chair of a university president, he understood the financial model and knew that you have to allow for the freedom to create revenue.”
A maverick is not what most expected when Brand was appointed as the first former university president to take the seat as NCAA president. His predecessors had been athletic administrators.
All most of his colleagues knew was that he fired Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight. The immediate perception in intercollegiate athletics was that Brand was about to make their life hell.
“A lot of people expected things to go back to the dark ages,” said Jim Host, a veteran marketer in the college space for 30-plus years. “But Myles got actively involved with a number of TV entities, promotional entities. He understood the role of corporate marketing. Whatever experience he had in marketing, he had to learn. He called people he respected and he increased the revenue side while at the same time instituting really stringent academic reform.
“He recognized the role of college athletics on campus and a lot of people didn’t think he would.”
The NCAA’s Shaheen remembers the water-cooler talk after Brand had been hired.
“There was a period of six to eight weeks where everyone thought that we’d be wearing suits to work every day, that there’d be this very buttoned-up, strict atmosphere, that we’d no longer have cooperative relationships with the media and our corporate partners,” Shaheen said. “At the first staff meeting, you could tell that he’d heard a lot of these rumors. So he starts ticking off each one of those concerns and says, ‘I don’t want to wear a suit unless I have to.’
“One of the really enjoyable processes over the years was watching him surprise people.”
“You see this erudite philosophy professor in glasses and he’s the guy who sat down with the NBA and brought them together with the coaches, the high school federations and said, ‘We’ve got a problem to deal with.’ That was a tribute to Myles’ leadership,” Adams said.
“I was sort of surprised at how tenacious he could be.”
Maybe there shouldn’t have been such surprise at the way Brand tackled controversial issues, given the way he dispatched Knight at Indiana in 2000. Certainly, commercialism was considered a dirty word around college campuses until Brand forced the dialogue out from under the table.
No one expected a former university president to champion such a cause.
“In the time that Myles was in office there was more of a focus on working with sponsors, without sacrificing their mission with student athletes,” said Tim McGhee, executive director of corporate sponsorships at AT&T, an NCAA corporate champion. “I see an NCAA that is more responsive to corporate partners and how we market our products and services, while also celebrating the tradition and history of college sports. That’s a credit to Myles because he was willing to listen and see that what we want is the imagery of college sports, not the endorsement of a student athlete.”
To the dismay of some, like Sonny Vaccaro, the sneaker guru who signed Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to shoe deals, the NCAA still represents a hypocrisy.
“I don’t think the NCAA’s approach towards amateurism will change,” Vaccaro said. “These rules have been in place for a long time before Myles Brand ran the NCAA. It’s part of the NCAA’s system that they have these archaic rules against these kids in today’s environment.”
Brand was comfortable, even confident, in the NCAA’s ability to draw a fine line between college and pro sports, while embracing the sponsorship activities around it. While his colleagues might have been surprised at how a former university president could endorse commercialism, Brand stuck to his guns on protecting the amateur status of the athletes.
“I think Myles laid out a direction for the future,” said Robert Hemenway, the former University of Kansas chancellor who was on the NCAA committee that hired Brand. “He made it clear that the NCAA is not just a stone-cold bureaucracy, but that it can actually move out and make changes in both higher education and athletics.”
Graham Spanier, the president at Penn State and potentially a candidate to succeed Brand (see box), said Brand’s legacy was different than what he thought it would be at the beginning. He had known Brand for 23 years as they both moved up the leadership ranks within academia.
“Myles was not a university president who was heavily focused on athletics,” Spanier said. “He was a philosopher who was a great academic leader, and at the time he became president of the NCAA it seemed like an interesting choice. He had somewhat of a learning curve, but he jumped right in and used his background in academics and administration to create a new focus and perspective for the NCAA.”
Despite his many accomplishments, Brand died with unfinished business on the table. He successfully shined an uncomfortable light on the finances of athletic departments and commissioned studies on fiscal responsibility, even though administrators have been reticent to adopt his advice and slow their spending.
Over the last few years in office, Brand was quick to point out that only a dozen or so athletic departments are truly self-sustaining and he expressed concern about the considerable debt load that many universities take on to improve their athletic facilities.
That almost certainly will be a baton the next NCAA president carries forth. The NCAA’s executive committee, chaired by Adams, who is believed to be a candidate himself, is expected to meet this week to discuss interim candidates and the process for selecting Brand’s successor, who will likely again come from the ranks of the university presidents.
Brand’s success in the job seems to have steeled the opinion that a president brings the right balance of protecting the academic endeavors while also promoting the athletic achievements.
“When you look back, Myles rescued the NCAA. We do need a president in that role,” said Robert Kustra, president at Boise State and a member of the executive committee. “When you look at something like the APR, I don’t know whether anyone but a university president could have attacked that issue as firmly as Myles did.
“This was the guy who fired Bobby Knight, but what we got instead was a stalwart defender of coaches, athletic directors, student athletes. They wanted someone who had the courage to make tough decisions, but Myles did it with a finesse that brought everyone together. I sure hope we can find someone of Myles’ caliber. He’s not going to be easy to replace.”
Staff writers Ross Nethery, Liz Mullen, John Lombardo and John Ourand contributed to this report.