ATLANTA (AP) — He sparred with reporters. He defended his record. He brushed off criticism as part of the job.
NCAA President Mark Emmert was downright defiant with anyone who questioned whether he’s leading the organization in the right direction.
The annual state-of-the-NCAA news conference leading up to the Final Four turned into a series of contentious exchanges Thursday, as Emmert insisted anyone pushing for significant reform is bound to rub some people the wrong way.
“Some of the criticisms about change and 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’re got to be willing to deal with criticism. So, OK, I deal with criticism.”
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. A new enforcement director was brought in to clean up the mess.
“The Miami issue had some enormous foul-ups in it,” he said. “We’ve addressed those issues.”
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 for covering up the Sandusky case, based largely on a scathing internal review led by former FBI chief Louis Freeh.
“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 faced questions about a report from USA Today Sports that accused him of shirking responsibility for problems when he worked 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 his previous troubles 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.”
Emmert spent the first 15 minutes of his news conference going into great detail about all the changes that have occurred on his watch at the NCAA, 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.
He also praised the city of Atlanta for its Final Four preparations and reveled in the tournament’s unpredictability, which included Florida Gulf Coast becoming the first No. 15 seed to reach the round of 16 and ninth-seeded Wichita State earning a spot in the Final Four along with Louisville, Michigan and Syracuse.
“We’ve seen some extraordinary performances to get to this place,” Emmert said. “If history is any guide at all, I’m sure there will be a lot more in the handful of games that are remaining.”
Louisville coach Rick Pitino praised many of Emmert’s initiatives beyond the Final Four.
“The things they’re doing, getting the rule book out of play and relaxing the rules and doing things, I think they’re doing some brilliant things,” Pitino said. “For us, as coaches, they’re doing a lot of great things right now.”
But the long-running Miami investigation has tempered much of the enthusiasm.
“You can’t do that to Miami, you can’t do that to a university, drag it out like that for a long period of time. It’s just not fair,” Pitino said. “Now, (the NCAA) did have some speed bumps where they’ve done the wrong things, but that’s dragging it out too much for the university. They’ve got to wrap this thing up.”
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 by USA Today Sports: allegations of academic fraud in the LSU 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 mostly responded 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 a report that Auburn paid football players during its 2010 national championship season to Rutgers’ firing of men’s basketball coach Mike Rice after a video emerged showing him abusing players and berating them with gay slurs.
Plus, there were plenty of questions about Emmert’s own record.
“I’m proud of my reputation at every place I’ve been,” he insisted. “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.”
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.”
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