NEW YORK – James Isch has settled comfortably into his role as interim president of the NCAA.
He uses words like “constituency” in casual conversation, talks passionately about the student part of student-athlete, and brings a deep and diverse business background to the job during one of the worst recessions the country has ever known.
He’s just not getting too comfortable.
The man who describes himself as “just a Kansan” has already made it clear that he doesn’t want to be the permanent replacement for Myles Brand, who succumbed to pancreatic cancer in September after one of the most successful tenures in the organization’s history.
“I had this conversation with the chair of the executive committee. I’ve got a relatively short period of time I’ll be in this job and the question I had for him was, ‘Do you want me to be a caretaker or do you want someone to continue the momentum that Myles has begun, and intersperse a few other new initiatives?'” Isch told The Associated Press last week. “Certainly I wanted to do that.”
It wouldn’t be the first time he turned down an overture from the NCAA.
Isch worked in administration at Kansas State, Montana State and Arkansas before being hired to oversee business at the governing body, which at the time was moving its offices from the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park to its current home in Indianapolis.
He turned down the offer saying he was happy in Fayetteville, but the NCAA couldn’t find another candidate and came back to the modest, unassuming philosophy scholar.
“One of the advantages you have as a senior administrator in all organizations is you have the opportunity to touch a number of issues, you have a significant amount of breadth in your day-to-day job, and finances have a way to find their way into most activities,” Isch said. “The financial area especially is one that gives you that breadth and understanding because most of them need money.”
He means that in jest and laughs at his own joke, but it’s a serious point, especially as schools deal with tightening budgets all across the country.
Northeastern University said this week it will cut its football program after 74 seasons, the latest decision made by colleges at all levels over the past year to cut costs by trimming sports. More could be on the way as they deal with crushing state budget deficits that have slashed government aid.
“One of the things I’ve learned as a CFO is you have to be on the campus, you have to understand the other pressures they’re facing,” Isch said. “I don’t know what Northeastern’s pressures are, but I’m sure they’re significant. Would we like to see them keep their football program? Absolutely, and yet we have to be realistic enough to understand they have financial pressures they’re dealing with.”
It makes sense that Isch, given his background, is concerned about the financial prospects of not only the NCAA, but also its member institutions. He espouses many of the same values as Brand, who also came from an academic background.
Acronyms like APR became synonymous with Brand, who created a stir by restoring the NCAA’s focus on academics. Isch promised that will not change, even after a permanent president has been found.
“The NCAA is different than the pro model. We’re about educating student-athletes, that’s who we are, and that’s always at the forefront of our organization,” Isch said. “I don’t see that issue ever come off our radar screen.”
Besides finances and education, Isch identified student-athlete welfare and diversity as issues that are of paramount importance. He said the NCAA can still do more to increase representation and inclusion of various thoughts, ideas, perspectives and backgrounds.
Then there’s the search for the man who will ultimately lead the NCAA into the future.
Isch has created a search committee that will touch base with a number of constituencies across intercollegiate athletics. Along with help from a search firm, the NCAA will determine the appropriate requirements and qualities for its next president with the intention of having somebody in place by the beginning of the next academic year.
“It’s very interesting to me that there were those in the athletic world when Myles was hired that weren’t sure a president was right for the NCAA, and certainly not him,” Isch said. “What Myles showed was important was having a vision and bringing diverse groups together, allowing them an opportunity to interact and come to a consensus to improve the lives of student athletes.
“Do I know someone like that? I’m sure they’re out there. Myles was there.”