As former Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker prepares to take over as NCAA president on March 1, he is already changing the paradigm of the job in one significant aspect: He will not relocate to Indianapolis to work out of the association’s headquarters.
The NCAA confirmed to USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday that Baker plans to maintain his residence in Massachusetts while traveling around the country to “get out and work directly with the people who make the NCAA what it is — first and foremost the student-athletes, and the athletics administrators, coaches and conference commissioners in addition to national office staff in Indianapolis,” according to a spokesperson.
While not a traditional arrangement, especially given how much equity the NCAA has built in Indianapolis, where its picturesque campus and Hall of Champions has anchored the west side of downtown since 1999, it reflects the reality of the job he was hired for in replacing Mark Emmett.
With Congress yet to act on the NCAA’s pleas for national legislation governing a host of issues including name, image and likeness, the presumption around the industry is that Baker will spend a significant portion of his time in front of lawmakers in Washington, D.C., which is viewed as far more important to the future of college sports than being a day-to-day presence in Indianapolis.
“I don’t think that’s a bad strategic decision to focus more attention and resources on Washington,” said Tom McMillen, a former congressman who now runs the LEAD1 Association that represents the 133 athletics directors in the Football Bowl Subdivision. “As long as you have a myriad of states passing conflicting legislation, I don’t think you have much choice other than to have an activist Washington presence. That was sort of a premise of the search.”
The NCAA did not make Baker available for comment, but it’s unclear at this point — even among senior NCAA staff — what kind of leadership structure Baker plans to implement or if he will have a designated vice president running the ship in Indianapolis.
Changing role of NCAA president
Baker’s decision to continue living in Massachusetts while running the NCAA was not common knowledge around college sports. Several high-level administrators, including athletics directors and conference commissioners, said it was the first they had heard about it when contacted by USA TODAY Sports on Monday night.
But they were not necessarily critical of that decision given what they view the primary role of NCAA president should be going forward.
“While I think you have to be really present and active, 90 percent of what you do is going to be serving the membership and getting out,” said Mountain West commissioner Gloria Nevarez, who transitioned the West Coast Conference into a fully remote work environment in her previous job. “I think culture is a concern and being visible and accessible is definitely a concern, but being deliberate about that, prioritizing it, is doable with technology.”
One longtime Power Five athletics director, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because they hadn’t previously heard about Baker’s residency plans, said they would expect a new NCAA president to be spending more time on the road than at headquarters anyway in the first couple of years on the job.
But that athletics director and a separate conference commissioner who requested anonymity noted a potential concern in Baker maintaining connectivity to the NCAA staff of more than 500 employees in Indianapolis who provide a range of resources and services to member schools and are tasked with carrying out NCAA policy.
Restore ‘common touch’ to NCAA
One of the primary criticisms of Emmert’s tenure was that he did not communicate effectively with campus-level administrators and did not understand the practical, day-to-day challenges they faced as a result of NCAA decisions.
At first blush, Baker choosing to maintain his residence in Massachusetts could give off a similar ivory tower vibe. But McMillen, who has spoken with Baker frequently since he accepted the job, said that isn’t going to be the case.
“He’s got to restore that common touch to the NCAA,” McMillen said. “I think he’s going to be on the road, going to events, being more of a visible presence. I don’t think being in Massachusetts means he’s going to be in Massachusetts. When you run for office, you’re out there in the hustings. You go out and meet as many people as you can and listen to all these voices. It’s part of being a public official. It’s part of the game. He’s going to approach this like that.
“Where he calls home isn’t as important as being out there, going to meetings trying to engage, getting all 1,100 schools involved. I don’t think it’s as important. I see him approaching it more from a political standpoint and that will be very, very refreshing and helpful to college sports that someone is listening to all these constituencies.”
Story Credit: usatoday.com