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Volume 23 No. 17
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Gloria Nevarez — ‘She just gets things done’

The first Latin American woman to lead an NCAA Division I league has had an eventful first year as commissioner of the West Coast Conference.
Gloria Nevarez convinced Gonzaga to stay in the WCC, extended the conference’s TV deal with ESPN, launched a branding campaign and sold title sponsorship to the WCC basketball tournament.
Photo: kyle terada / wcc
Gloria Nevarez convinced Gonzaga to stay in the WCC, extended the conference’s TV deal with ESPN, launched a branding campaign and sold title sponsorship to the WCC basketball tournament.
Photo: kyle terada / wcc
Gloria Nevarez convinced Gonzaga to stay in the WCC, extended the conference’s TV deal with ESPN, launched a branding campaign and sold title sponsorship to the WCC basketball tournament.
Photo: kyle terada / wcc

Gloria Nevarez put an exclamation point on a frenetic first year as commissioner of the West Coast Conference by renewing its TV agreement with ESPN, revealing a brand campaign that will define the conference for years to come and landing a basketball tournament title sponsor that is the most lucrative deal in WCC history.

The last 12 hair-on-fire months left her precious little time to contemplate the significance of her barrier-breaking hire. Her appointment to lead the WCC on March 20, 2018, made her the 10th current female commissioner among 32 NCAA Division I conferences, and the first Latin American woman to be a D-I commissioner.

She barely had a chance to move into her new office at the league’s San Bruno, Calif., headquarters near San Francisco when she encountered her first crisis this time a year ago. Gonzaga, the conference’s dominant basketball program for two decades, was in talks with the Mountain West Conference about a possible move. Nevarez couldn’t lose the league’s marquee school in literally her first week on the job, so she began devising a plan that would entice the Zags to stay.

The WCC instituted a new scheduling strategy that reduced conference games from 18 to 16, providing schools with more opportunities to find challenging nonconference matchups. The league also adjusted the way revenue is distributed so that teams advancing in the NCAA Tournament keep more of the money they make.

Eventually, the Zags ended negotiations with the Mountain West. Crisis averted, for now.

Others around the conference took note of her poise and leadership during those first few weeks on the job. She no longer was the pioneering Latina commissioner. She was just commissioner. And right away, she earned major equity with the league’s stakeholders, namely school presidents and athletic directors.

Gloria Nevarez

■ Director of compliance, San Jose State University, 1998-99
■ Assistant AD, compliance and legal, University of California, Berkeley, 1999-2001
■ Associate commissioner, West Coast Conference, 2002-07
■ Senior associate AD, University of Oklahoma, 2007-10
■ Senior associate commissioner, Pac-12 Conference, 2010-18
■ Commissioner, West Coast Conference, 2018-present

Those anxiety-filled first days, along with the promising TV and sponsorship news at this month’s conference tournament, made perfect bookends for her first year in the commissioner’s chair.

“The schools told me they wanted a conference office that’s dynamic,” Nevarez said. “They wanted to improve our national exposure and reputation and they’re willing to invest in athletics, especially basketball.”

Nevarez’s status as a role model for gender and ethnic minorities already is part of the WCC’s story, and the rest of the country is becoming more aware of the league because of the media attention she’s received as commissioner. She said she’s still figuring out her message when she talks to the media about her background. She grew up in the Bay Area before going across the country to UMass to play basketball and go to school, and she’s technically half Mexican, one-quarter Filipino and one-quarter Irish.

That presented a bit of a head-scratcher when the WCC’s press release announcing her hiring a year ago described her as Latin American. Given the diversity within her family, does she consider herself Latina?

“That is the question and I don’t know if I completely worked through it yet,” Nevarez said. “How do I talk about it? How do I label myself? And what does it mean?”

For those in the business, however, they were aware of her rise long before she joined the WCC for a second stint.

Nevarez came up through the ranks in compliance departments at San Jose State and Cal-Berkeley after earning a law degree at Cal. She did one five-year tour at the WCC from 2002-07 when one of her biggest breaks came from Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione. He hired Nevarez as senior associate AD and senior woman administrator.

While her background in compliance had helped her learn other aspects of the athletic department, the job at Oklahoma gave her a higher level of responsibility. She had oversight of the Sooners’ marketing, human resources, strength and conditioning, and several sports, including men’s and women’s basketball.

“I’ve always been open to going back to campus and I’m one of the few people who bounced back and forth, conference or campus,” she said. “I love both. As long as I’m being challenged and working with good people, I hadn’t really had my eye too far on the horizon.”

Ultimately, she was drawn back to conference work in 2010 to be a part of Larry Scott’s staff at the Pac-12, which is where she stayed until being named WCC commissioner.

Many of her peers began thinking of her as a commissioner-in-the-making in late 2017 because of her role in handling the highly sensitive, potentially volatile arrest of three UCLA basketball players in China on shoplifting charges. Representing the Pac-12, Nevarez, a senior associate commissioner and senior woman administrator, stayed in the town of Hangzhou where the players were jailed for two days after the Bruins’ travel party departed.

“There were tense moments, for sure,” she said. “They had to go through the legal process in China and we were just trying to communicate with everyone what was happening.”

Jamie Zaninovich, the Pac-12’s deputy commissioner and formerly commissioner of the WCC from 2008-14, said Nevarez’s leadership and composure was on full display.

“She really worked through a very unpredictable situation in a foreign culture,” Zaninovich said. “It was a great example for people to see how she leads. Her interest was never distracted from understanding that the priority was the student athletes.”

Craig Pintens, formerly a senior associate AD at Oregon, crossed paths with Nevarez during their days in the Pac-12. When he was named athletic director at Loyola Marymount last summer, he wasn’t surprised to hear from other ADs that Nevarez was already earning their trust.

In just a year, Nevarez has taken several steps to secure the WCC’s future. A three-year extension will keep the WCC basketball tournament at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas. The tournament’s new title sponsor, University Credit Union, which owns title rights to the men’s and women’s events, provides a vital revenue stream. The league’s multimedia rights partner, Van Wagner Sports & Entertainment, sold the sponsorship. And the TV extension keeps the WCC well-positioned on ESPN and CBS.

“When you consider everything that’s happened in the last year, the Gonzaga situation was a very early defining moment for her,” Pintens said. “From talking to people around the conference, the way she handled that instilled a lot of confidence in her. … She just gets things done.”