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SBJ/March 13-19, 2017/In Depth
He’s the man behind March Madness
Basketball runs in the blood of the NCAA’s Dan Gavitt
Published March 13, 2017, Page 1
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Gavitt, the NCAA’s basketball chief, had just wrapped up another round of March Madness planning with Turner executives and he was scurrying to a late afternoon meeting at the Hyatt Regency.
For Gavitt, this version of February Madness is every bit as harrowing as what’s to come this month. It was his seventh straight day on the road.
His late February cross-country tour started at the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, followed by a flight to Phoenix — site of the upcoming Final Four — for one last major review session.
Then he went to Minneapolis, home of the 2019 Final Four, for a site visit, and on to Atlanta to go over the broadcast of the tournament and digital coverage on March Madness Live, which is run by Turner.
“No one understands college basketball better, and that’s big for us,” said Lenny Daniels, president of Turner Sports. “He coordinates everything and you understand that if you have a question about the tournament, you have one place to go — Dan.”
For most college basketball fans, the madness starts this week. But for Gavitt, who recently was promoted to senior vice president of basketball, which means he now oversees NCAA men’s and women’s basketball at all levels, the madness never ends.
He wouldn’t have it any other way. Even though Gavitt doesn’t have a vote on the tournament selection — only basketball committee members do — the self-professed hoops junkie estimates that he watches more than 100 college basketball games a season and attends 30 to 40 more in person.
If there’s a question when it comes time to fill out the bracket, committee members know they can ask Gavitt, who has experience as a former coach, athletic director and Big East Conference associate commissioner.
Gavitt is that rare administrator who gets just as excited to see VCU play Dayton as he does Kentucky-Florida.
“I can find something valuable in every game I go to,” Gavitt said. “If I’m going to stay on top of the game, I’ve got to be out there talking to people and learning. I love it.”
Gavitt is approaching five years at the NCAA, and the man who is often called the czar of college basketball now has a role that fits the moniker.
First Look podcast with hoops and Dan Gavitt discussion beginning at 11:50 mark:
On any given day, Gavitt can find himself hashing out broadcast details with Turner and CBS, scheduling events with building operators, or listening to coaches talk about the time demands on their players.
“He has a rare set of knowledge across basketball, media, branding and promotion,” CBS Sports Chairman Sean McManus said. “He’s an incredibly important cog in the process. Our relationship with the NCAA is as good as it’s ever been and that, to a large extent, is because of Dan.”
Gavitt is the NCAA’s point person for all of its basketball committees, administrators, officials, coaches, the Naismith Hall of Fame, FIBA and USA Basketball. As part of his promotion, Gavitt now reports directly to NCAA President Mark Emmert.
There is literally no facet of college basketball that Gavitt doesn’t touch in his weekly routine, whether it’s NCAA tournament committee meetings or selecting sites for future championships.
“When you’re dealing with all of those different areas, it’s not an easy job,” said Mike Tranghese, the former Big East commissioner who hired Gavitt at the conference. “But when Danny was offered the job at the NCAA, I told him this is right up his alley. He had to take it.”
Connection between father, son
Gavitt studied history at Dartmouth College, but his education in basketball started much earlier under his father, the late and beloved Dave Gavitt.
Little Danny and his brother, Corey, were fixtures at Providence College basketball practices when their dad coached there from 1969-79.
Even now, anyone who knows the Gavitts calls Dan by his nickname, Danny, as if he were still a teenager. It’s not at all disrespectful, even though Dan is now 50 and has one of the most influential positions in college athletics.
|The lessons and stories of Dave Gavitt, former Providence coach and creator of the Big East Conference, provide a course for son Dan to follow at the NCAA.
“Dave had a gift when it came to making everyone in the room feel valued, and Danny has inherited the gift,” current Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman said. “He just says the right thing at the right time.”
Tom Jernstedt, a former NCAA executive for 38 years, calls that quality “the Gavitt touch,” something Dave passed on to his son.
“Dan’s a tremendously respected leader because he has such credibility,” said UCLA AD Dan Guerrero, who also chairs the men’s basketball oversight committee and was part of the NCAA’s search committee that selected Gavitt for this role in 2012. “We can be talking about governance, officiating or USA Basketball, and Dan is the touch point for all of it.”
While Dan Gavitt forged his own reputation as an AD at Bryant College and associate commissioner at the Big East, he understands why he’ll always be a link to his father, whose picture sits on Dan’s desk at the Indianapolis office. His basketball background gave him an appreciation for his dad’s place in the game, and his stories still provide a course for Dan to follow now that he’s in charge of the tournament.
Dave Gavitt took one of those Providence teams to the Final Four in 1973 and, as long as he lived, Dave told others how much it meant for that high-scoring collection of Ernie DiGregorio, Marvin Barnes, Kevin Stacom and the rest to simply be a part of the spectacle in St. Louis that year.
With his dad’s voice in his ear, Dan still talks about making sure the NCAA gets it right for the coaches, the players and their families, the same traits that made the Final Four special in 1973.
“Their experience is the most important thing,” he said.
Gavitt’s formal basketball training took root during those days in the 1970s at Providence College.
“By the time I was 10 or so, you start to really understand what it means when your dad is the head coach at Providence,” Dan said. “That program, in the smallest state in the nation, is a big deal, a really big deal. All your friends know your dad is the Friars’ coach.”
When the basketballs finally stopped bouncing, the Gavitts would go to their second home on Cape Cod, where Dave Gavitt managed a team in the summer baseball league. Few recall that Dave played in the Cape Cod Baseball League starting in 1958, that he met his wife, Julie, there, and that both sons, Danny and Corey, were born on Cape Cod.
Back on the mainland, Danny Gavitt was an adequate high school basketball player and made the junior varsity team at Dartmouth, which was his father’s alma mater as well. But he quickly realized that his future was not in playing the game.
“Yeah, I didn’t live up to those expectations,” Gavitt said with a laugh. “I was a very average basketball player, but I loved it. I tried hard, but I was not big enough, strong enough or fast enough.”
Gavitt got his first coaching job the following year. As a sophomore at Dartmouth, he spent the winter coaching the freshman team at Hanover (N.H.) High School.
After his junior year, basketball again helped chart Gavitt’s course when he went to Washington, D.C., as an intern for Bill Bradley, the New York Knicks great who became a U.S. senator.
By the time he graduated with a history degree, Gavitt knew exactly what he wanted to do — coach high school basketball and teach. The only problem was that he couldn’t get a job.
So Gavitt returned to his roots at Providence College and became a graduate assistant for then-coach Rick Barnes.
“I thought I’d be a head coach one day,” he said.
It was during those years as an assistant at Providence from 1988-94 that Gavitt met so many of the coaches he works with now. Prominent head coaches like Villanova’s Jay Wright, Georgetown’s John Thompson III, Indiana’s Tom Crean and Steve Lavin, formerly of St. John’s, were part of Gavitt’s fraternity of assistant coaches back then.
That coaching background provided Gavitt with relationships and a layer of credibility when he moved on to the Big East and the NCAA as an administrator, especially when legislation is being considered that could affect practice time, scheduling or the recruiting calendar.
“Dan just has a great feel for the business,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, 1st vice president and soon-to-be president of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. “He’s been a huge asset for the coaches and he’s respected by everyone in our business. People want to hear his perspective.”
Grace under fire
Gavitt, who now sits at the head of the NCAA’s table for anything related to basketball, can’t think of a job that better suits his background as a former coach and AD.
But he also admits there have been times that challenged him like no other.
Namely, he’s talking about last year’s Selection Show on CBS that, for the first time, ran two hours and was roundly panned for taking too long to reveal the brackets.
While the analysts jabbered on, the brackets actually leaked on Twitter and all 68 teams were revealed. Gavitt called the leak “very deflating, very discouraging.”
After an investigation, Gavitt said he believes a breakdown at NCAA.com led to the brackets leak, but there remains some uncertainty about what really happened. Last year was the first time that the bracket had been shared with NCAA.com and CBS at the same time.
In the aftermath, the NCAA decided to go back to its old model of sharing the brackets with only a small circle within the CBS/Turner production crew until they are aired.
“It’s a huge deal,” Gavitt said of the leak. “We were disappointed for the teams watching, and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
Gavitt’s poise and grace after such a letdown impressed those on the basketball committee and network partners CBS and Turner.
“It’s his demeanor,” Daniels said. “He just doesn’t get mad. He’s very cool in situations where you have to make a decision.”
“Unflappable” was the word Ackerman used to describe Gavitt.
Even though the NCAA tried something new last year with the Selection Show and it bombed, Gavitt remains committed to taking an innovative approach to the tournament. He envisions a day when the brackets are revealed in front of a live audience, and perhaps the Selection Show will travel to different cities.
The NCAA is constantly evaluating tip times to give as many games as possible a national window without overlapping other tournament games.
“The tournament has got to continue to evolve, it’s got to stay relevant,” Gavitt said.
As Tranghese said, this is the job that Gavitt was groomed for since he was a little boy.
“The name gets you in the door, but you’ve got to prove yourself,” Tranghese said. “You’ve got to deal with problems and issues. You can’t do that job unless you have an absolute love affair with the game, and Danny’s got that.
“He was brought up that way.”