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Associates note Jernstedt’s impact at NCAA

News of Tom Jernstedt’s departure was delivered unceremoniously by the NCAA late on a Friday afternoon.

For 38 years, Jernstedt had been the architect of the NCAA’s basketball tournaments, a driving force behind its women’s championships and a security blanket to the organization’s presidents. But as incoming NCAA President Mark Emmert restructured and consolidated his front office, Jernstedt was one of three high-ranking executives who were not retained.

The lengthy 24-paragraph NCAA release detailing the personnel changes finally got to Jernstedt’s departure in the 23rd paragraph. Talk about burying the lead.

Jernstedt’s fingerprints have been all over the men’s basketball championship since 1973 when he and one other NCAA executive, Dave Cawood, essentially ran the whole tournament. Now it’s a property that recently drew a 14-year, $10.8 billion media contract with CBS and Turner.

Jernstedt’s executive VP post at the
NCAA was cut.

His friends and associates called Jernstedt, who is 65 years old, the guiding force behind the tournament and one of the most influential figures in basketball over the last 30 years. Many of them had urged him to make a bid for the association’s presidency over the years, but he declined, saying he’d prefer to keep his hands on the tournament.

Now those friends are struggling to understand why the executive vice president was not part of Emmert’s administration moving forward.

“I was surprised by the announcement and, frankly, I’m displeased,” said C.M. Newton, a longtime administrator and coach who runs the NCAA’s NIT events and consults with the SEC. “Tom is the one common thread through the entire NCAA structure.

“Tom will be fine. I don’t know what else he could have done there anyway. I’m a lot more worried about the NCAA moving on without Tom.”

The NCAA also said that Dennis Cryder, senior vice president of branding and communications, and Elsa Cole, vice president of legal affairs and general counsel, would not return. The last day for all three will be Aug. 31.

Emmert said he understood and appreciated Jernstedt’s contributions over the years and that his 38 years of service will not go unnoticed. The NCAA is working on a proper send-off, he said.

“It was very difficult to eliminate the post he had,” said Emmert, the University of Washington president who plans to start at the NCAA’s headquarters in Indianapolis the first week of October. “It’s not something I relished. Tom’s got four decades of experience and he’s one of the best-known guys in the business. At the same time, as I looked at consolidating into a tighter structure, that was a decision that I made.”

Emmert said he intends for the NCAA to be a more nimble organization that can respond more quickly to any number of issues, from student-athlete eligibility to new legislation or any other changes in the sports landscape.

“The role of the national office is to serve the members and do that as directly and as speedily as we can,” Emmert said. “The office does many things well, but there are also many things we can do better. … We want to create a model for better communication and a smaller, tighter leadership team in each category. The goal is for the organization to be as responsive as we can, to streamline communications so we can make decisions more rapidly.”

In his 38 years at the NCAA,
Jernstedt oversaw tremendous
growth in the NCAA tournaments.

The type of change that has the NCAA moving on without Jernstedt comes with new leadership, said Gene Smith, Ohio State’s athletic director and chairman of the NCAA’s basketball committee.

“Change occurs and we know that in every line of business,” Smith said. “I actually foresaw some of that, although I didn’t know what it would be. President Emmert is going to be a great leader for the association, but he’s going to do things differently.”

Jernstedt’s touch with the tournament led to its enormous growth, but he also represented college basketball as the NCAA’s liaison with FIBA and the NBA.

“You could poll all of the coaches and people who really count in basketball and it’d be unanimous that no one has had more of an impact,” said Jim Host, the NCAA’s first marketing partner and a longtime friend. “He’s been a gentle giant in this sport, but always behind the scenes.”

In Jernstedt’s typically understated fashion, he downplayed the accomplishments. He recalled the growth of the tournament and talked at length about the process of moving women’s championships from the old AIAW to the NCAA in the early 1980s.

When asked last week if the departure was his decision, all he said was, “You’ll have to ask the NCAA about that.” But he offered no regrets and little sentimentality for things to continue as they were.

“I was surprised,” said Jernstedt. “There had been, to my knowledge, no conversation about it. … But a new president is coming in and it’s fair for any new leader to put his management team in place.”

Jernstedt usually kept his mind focused on how to make the tournament better for the student athletes and ways to keep corporate partners happy while maintaining a clean, uncluttered environment for the game. He took the approach of measured growth for the tournament, using the Masters golf tournament as a guide.

“He always had a sense of what made the tournament special,” said Mike Aresco, executive vice president of programming at CBS Sports. “He was deliberate about pushing its growth, but still very flexible.”

Jernstedt’s satisfaction showed in the form of a simple pregame handshake with members of the basketball committee in the moments before tip-off of the Final Four, signifying the conclusion of another successful tournament.

Among Jernstedt’s fondest memories will be his final tournament, which ended with Duke’s dramatic victory over Indianapolis-upstart Butler, and the vetting process as the NCAA expanded the tournament from 65 to 68 teams, while also considering a field of 96.

“It was amazing to see so much concern about going to 96,” he said. “But we didn’t want to risk tarnishing what we have at this point and I’m pleased with the way it turned out.”

Jernstedt said he’ll continue his work as vice chairman of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association and will consider any consulting opportunities that come along. His voice in intercollegiate athletics won’t go quiet.

“Tom knows everybody in our industry,” said Jon LeCrone, commissioner of the Horizon League, which is based in Indianapolis. “He’ll stay connected and he’ll continue to be a very valuable voice.”

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