The brief e-mail came late Friday afternoon, when the work force was about to head out for the weekend. Except Greg Shaheen’s time off will be longer than most.
“I hope you are well,” said part of the mass mailing. “I departed the NCAA office for the last time as a staff member and became, instantly, among the ranks of millions of college sports fans . . .”
A good bit of eyebrow-raising and head-scratching is going on among some high-level college-basketball coaches and administrators over the ouster of Shaheen as NCAA vice president of championships and alliances. Which means that by extension, a lot of those people are wondering about the leadership of Mark Emmert, the former University of Washington president.
Effectively, Shaheen’s cumbersome title meant he ran the NCAA basketball tournament. And what his dismissal means is, this is the second time in two years that a major figure in that operation has been cashiered.
Some of it is semantics. The first man bounced out was Tom Jernstedt, the Oregonian who grew to have a magical name in the growth of the tournament, from when he arrived in the mid-’70s to when, in 2010, he became a victim of president Emmert’s “streamlining” of the NCAA.
When I heard about the Shaheen situation, I surmised it was another ham-handed personnel move by Emmert. That could be the case, but that also may be oversimplification.
Here’s the background: Jernstedt was the key man behind the growth of the tournament, working with all facets of it – host cities, sponsors, TV, you name it.
He came to have a big salary, and by the time Emmert arrived in 2010, one of his first acts was to inform Jernstedt his job no longer existed.
Oh, and he did it from time zones away, by speaker phone.
On the official NCAA website, Jernstedt’s departure was noted in the 23rd paragraph of a 2010 release on the reorganization. Thanks for your 38 years, and don’t let the door bruise your backside on the way out.
Indeed, by this time, Jernstedt had ceded most of his duties to Shaheen, whom everyone describes as an incurable workaholic. Shaheen swept up any and every detail surrounding the tournament. He was the world’s worst delegator. It wasn’t unusual for recipients of his e-mails to get them at 2 a.m.
Now, as it turns out, that weakness may not only have contributed to Jernstedt’s departure – Shaheen had become the de facto chief of the tournament – it appears to have played a part in his own demise.
I’m told, reliably, that Shaheen’s plate was so full and his appetite for work so capacious that he developed a habit of failing to respond – promptly, anyway – to phone messages and e-mails. That might be OK if it’s a newspaper writer on the other end, but if it’s a conference commissioner or a key suit at CBS – which is paying $10 billion in the current contract for the tournament – that’s a no-no.
Shaheen didn’t change his ways, so I’m told, and that led to the awkwardness of his job being posted publicly in December. He conducted the 2012 tournament, amid a lot of speculation and public plaudits from heavyweight coaches like Tom Izzo of Michigan State and Bill Self of Kansas.
He actually worked his final tournament with the tag of “interim” — despite the fact he had a decade of experience at it. (I’m wondering how well that would have worked with, say, Lou Piniella, in his last year of managing the Mariners.)
Now, Shaheen has been replaced by Mark Lewis, president of Jet Set Sports in New Jersey, a company that caters to the Olympic hospitality industry.
To be sure, it’s behind-the-scenes maneuvering that seems to mean little to the average fan. But it’s also important, because the tournament doesn’t just run itself, and seemingly little things like ticket distribution, fan amenities and selection transparency don’t just happen. And they’re part of the fan experience — whether that fan is in person or watching on TV. (For a small example, Shaheen had something to do with this year’s refreshing transparency about the first teams left out of the tournament, an element that’s traditionally been lacking.)
In the big picture, we shouldn’t be surprised at some attrition in the big office that governs college athletics. The NCAA is a business — at least there’s that side of it — and with change at the top of any business comes change down below. It’s happened in the Pac-12 with commissioner Larry Scott.
Hard to say how well-conceived was the Shaheen decision, which ultimately was Emmert’s. But it’s unusual to see the axe wielded on somebody who essentially gave his existence for an enterprise that worked famously.
This much is certain: Emmert hasn’t been afraid to use the broom in his position as NCAA czar.