ATLANTA — NCAA President Mark Emmert spent 15 minutes documenting the progress that the organization has made under his leadership, from making sure students go to class to fighting corruption.
Then he spent the next half-hour defending his record during an often-contentious news conference Thursday that took a bit of the glow off the Final Four.
A defiant Emmert shrugged off his critics, insisting that anyone pushing for significant reform is going to rub some people the wrong way.
“The fact of the matter is that change is what we’re about in the NCAA right now,” he said, “and we’re trying to work our way through some very, very difficult changes to make the whole notion of intercollegiate athletics strong and viable going into the second century of the NCAA and of college sport.”
On his way off the podium, Emmert even took a parting shot at a reporter who has called for his dismissal.
“I know you’re disappointed,” the president said with a sly grin, “but I’m still here.”
The NCAA has come under fire for botching the investigation into a rogue booster at Miami, and there have been complaints about the way the governing body handled other cases, such as the harsh sanctions leveled against Penn State in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
Emmert has acknowledged that investigators overstepped their authority in their zeal to collect information against Miami.
Still, the organization faces about a half-dozen legal challenges to the way it does business, including a federal antitrust lawsuit filed by Gov. Tom Corbett, of Pennsylvania. He believes the NCAA overstepped its authority when it imposed sanctions against Penn State over its handling of the Sandusky case.
“If you’re not getting sued today, you’re not doing anything,” Emmert said.
“I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have litigation pending, so I’m not going to apologize for the fact that we have a very litigious society and there’s plenty of reasons to file suit against large organizations.”
Emmert also was asked about a report from USA Today Sports that accused him of shirking responsibility for problems in previous jobs at Connecticut, LSU and Montana State. The newspaper said Emmert had a pattern of moving on to more lucrative posts before the full extent of problems at his previous posts were known. He has served as NCAA president since November 2010.
“The fact of the matter is that everywhere I’ve been, I’ve been asked by boards or other bosses to help drive change,” he said. “I’m very proud of the changes that have been made at every place I’ve been along the way. They’re all institutions that have wonderful traditions.”
Emmert started his state-of-the-NCAA news conference by going into great detail about all the changes that have occurred on his watch, many of them designed to toughen academic standards while streamlining the rule book to eliminate confusing guidelines and put the focus on more heinous offenses, such as paying players or fixing grades.
“It is also the time of year when we get to focus on what we’re supposed to focus on in this whole enterprise, and that’s the student-athletes,” he said, praising the city of Atlanta for its Final Four preparations and reveling in the unpredictability of the tournament, which included No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast winning two games and ninth-seeded Wichita State earning a spot in the Final Four along with Louisville, Michigan and Syracuse.
LSU athletic director Joe Alleva, who is also on the NCAA basketball committee, insisted that Emmert has the full confidence of the membership despite the recent missteps and negative publicity.
Among the cases cited in by USA Today: allegations of academic fraud in the Tigers football program in 2001-02, when Emmert was chancellor at the school and led an investigation that found five minor violations while declaring most of the claims “unfounded.”
“President Emmert is an outstanding leader,” said Alleva, who came to LSU after the academic fraud case. “I can tell you we currently have things in place that he put into place to make sure we don’t have any of those kind of problems again. The folks at LSU think the world of Mark Emmert and the way he was a leader during his time there.”
But, in his time before the media, Emmert spent nearly the entire session responding to questions about the seamier side of college athletics, everything from reports showing athletes are coping with tougher academic standards by choosing easier courses of study – a trend known as “clustering” – to Rutgers’ firing of men’s basketball coach Mike Rice after a video emerged showing him abusing players and berating them with gay slurs.
And there were plenty of questions about Emmert’s own record.
“I’m proud of my reputation at every place I’ve been,” he said. “If you want to go to my campuses, scratch around and find somebody that doesn’t like some of the decisions I’ve made, I’m sure you can find them.”
Asked if he felt like a lightning rod for everything that is wrong in college sports, Emmert said that goes with the job.
“Some of the criticisms about change or what’s going on naturally get leveled at the guy at the top,” he said. “If you’re going to launch a change agenda, you’ve got to be willing to deal with the criticism. So, OK, I deal with criticism.”