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A Wishlist for a New NCAA President

I’m generally not a “heads must roll” person when it comes to scandals. The idea that after a scandal everyone must be fired up to and including the leader of the organization is reductive and almost always adds additional challenges when an organization needs to retool as much as its needs new people.

Sometimes though a scandal happens on someone’s watch that prevents them from effectively carrying out their job. That also is not yet the case with Mark Emmert. The membership is certainly concerned in light of the Penn State sanctions and the botched Miami investigation. But considering that not even Miami is demanding Emmert’s resignation, he still has enough support, provided the ship is righted sooner rather than later.

The fact is though that Mark Emmert is no longer suited for the job of NCAA president not because of anything he did, but because the job has changed. In November 2010 when he took office, the job of the NCAA president was more or less to continue the work of Myles Brand’s NCAA, which included steadily increasing academic standards and not screwing up the men’s basketball tournament. That job changed through 2011, but Emmert responded accordingly, gathering representatives of the membership together to come up with solutions.

But now in 2013, the job of NCAA president is that of a highly politicized head of state. It has elements of business restructing, public relations, and campaigning. The idea that a college president is uniquely suited for the NCAA presidency is rooted in the idea that presidents must control the NCAA. But they already do, through the Executive Committee and Board of Directors.

So what follows is a semi-realistic wishlist of candidates for the next NCAA president. In athletics terms, if I were chair of the Executive Committee, this would be the list of five names I keep in my desk drawer just in case. None of these individuals have careers exclusively as academics or higher education administrators, and only one has extensive college athletics experience.

The Insider: Jamie Zaninovich

If we’re talking conference commissioners, Larry Scott probably leaps to the forefront with his combination of outsider experience and knowledge of college athletics. But there are enough questions about whether he would get offered the job and more importantly whether he would take it that we have to look elsewhere.

Zaninovich, current commissioner of the West Coast Conference, is also a better choice given the challenges facing the NCAA over the next decade. The next NCAA president may have to deal with substantially reduced revenue and membership challenges in a post-O’Bannon world. A mid-major conference commissioner will have more experience with that than a power conference leader riding a television rights bubble with their pick of potential members. Zaninvoich is a career athletics administrator, but that career has a decidedly academic flavor. He graduated from Stanford where he started his career and moved to Princeton before taking over a conference of private religious schools.

The Politician: Mitch Daniels

At this point, Mitch Daniels is the all-rounder of the group. Daniels has business experience as a former vice president at Eli Lilly, political experience in the Office of Management and Budget during the second Bush administration and as governor of Indiana, and higher education experience as the current president of Purdue University. Daniels is also still very popular in the state of Indiana, which is not to be discounted given the location of the NCAA headquarters.

The biggest issue with Daniels is timing. Daniels is barely over a month into his tenure as Purdue’s president. If the NCAA had an extended interim president through 2014 doing mostly cleanup and reorganization, Daniels might be available then.

The Educator: Arne Duncan

The current Secretary of Education is well-known in college atheltics circles now as an outspoken advocate of stiff punishment for low graduation rates. Between his time as CEO of Chicago Public Schools and being America’s top education official, Duncan will have more experience than any other possible candidate with the concept of how the NCAA and college athletics fits into a larger system, especially how it connects to high schools. Duncan is also a former student-athlete, which should earn him a couple credibility points since student-athlete welfare and fairness issues are the biggest challenges for the NCAA going forward.

The downside is that Duncan is like a possible Supreme Court nominee with too big of a case record. He has strongly held positions a number of issues critial to what type of organization the NCAA is going forward. That may hurt his hireability with a membership that may be looking to reassert control.

The Professor: Sunil Gulati

Outside of the NCAA, you would be hard pressed to find another leader of a major sports organization that will command the respect of the academic world like Gulati could. In addition to running the United States Soccer Federation, Gulati is also a full-time economics professor at Columbia. Heading up USSF also gives him the “whole system” experience that Duncan has, but on the sports side rather than in education. And if you believe the NCAA is corrupt, having a guy who has dealt with FIFA cannot hurt.

On the other hand, Gulati has been accused of playing ball with rather than standing up to FIFA (and CONCACAF). In addition, Gulati’s part-time presidency raises questions of whether he would be too hands off as NCAA president and whether he would give up what is a pretty sweet gig.

The Favorite: Robert Gates

Like Daniels, Gates has a variety of experience in politics and government (Director of the CIA, Secretary of Defense), business (service on a number of corporate boards) and higher education (president of Texas A&M, current chancellor of William and Mary). For someone with that long of a career in the intelligence and military community, Gates has emerged highly decorated and without controversy that might hinder work as head of the NCAA. He also has the academic chops (Ph.D from Georgetown) and Indiana connections (masters at Indiana University).

The objection raised almost immediately by Bomani Jones when I was floating names on Twitter is that hiring a former director of the CIA is not going to help the perception that the NCAA is not transparent enough. There’s also the question of whether Gates would leave his alma mater to take over the NCAA.

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