I was in the car last night, en route home from New York where I had spent an interesting 90 minutes with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (for a piece I'm doing on him for Parade Magazine) when I heard the news that Myles Brand had died. It hardly came as a shock. Having lived through it three years ago with my father, I know what pancreatic cancer does to people. The difference is that my dad was almost 85 when he was diagnosed; Brand was 66 when he learned of his cancer a year ago.
I still remember the doctor at Georgetown hospital saying to my dad, "Martin, you're in a club no one wants to belong to." Truer words were never spoken.
I didn't know Myles Brand well at all. I think though that he was a good man who tried very hard to do the right things. He showed a lot of guts nine years ago when he fired Bob Knight. I've often thought that if Brand had been Indiana's President at the beginning of Knight's tenure rather than at the end that Knight's career and life might have been different. John Ryan, who was Indiana's President through most of Knight's time there had a lot of the right ideas about college athletics but he let Knight bully him the way he bullied almost everyone else in his life. When Knight threw the chair in 1985, Ryan more or less asked Knight for permission to suspend him. Knight threatened to quit if Ryan suspended him and Ryan backed down. It was then Big Ten commissioner Wayne Duke who suspended Knight and even then it was only for one game.
I tend to think that Brand wouldn't have backed down. He would have said something in his soft-spoken way like, "Coach, we love you and we want you to be here because you stand for all the right things about the college game. But if I DON'T suspend you I will look weak and so will Indiana."
My guess is Knight wouldn't have resigned. He might have railed at Brand to his friends but he wouldn't have walked away from Indiana.
Of course we'll never know. What we DO know is that Knight was given a "zero tolerance," edict by Brand after the Neil Reed tape surfaced in the spring of 2000 showing Knight putting his hand on Reed's neck after Knight had categorically denied that any such incident had taken place. Knight went on ESPN to do one of the network's classic softball interviews and declared that 'zero tolerance,' would be absolutely no problem for him to deal with. He lasted three months, bringing about his own demise by grabbing a wise-guy student who made the mistake of saying, “Hey Knight, how's it going?" Even though Knight held a press conference in which he literally diagrammed how the incident had taken place, Brand stuck to his guns and fired him. There were student protests on the lawn of his home and Brand is still a despised figure to many in Indiana, but he was resolute.
His tenure at the NCAA, which began in 2003, had mixed results. Brand wanted more emphasis put on academic progress and he got it. Academic progress standards were enacted and more athletes are now graduating. But the major powers have continued to control the agenda: Brand never made any dent in the BCS system, more or less throwing up his hands and saying, "not my job," whenever the issue came up. And for all the talk about the new academic rules, no major school has faced any serious sanctions as a result of them.
But Brand really did try. He recognized that the NCAA was a bureaucratic nightmare and picked his battles carefully. He was far more accessible than past NCAA Presidents and, even if you disagreed with him he often (as I did) would always answer questions, always without rancor regardless of what had been said or written in the past. I dropped him a note a couple months ago to see how he was feeling and told him that my one real argument with him--other than the BCS--was his continuing insistence that everyone at the NCAA refer to players as "student-athletes," all the time. I mean, what the heck is wrong with being a player?
He wrote back a funny, upbeat note saying that the most important thing any NCAA President could do was try to make life a little better for the student-athletes. We agreed to disagree. I'm truly sorry that he died so young and that he got sick before he had a chance to see a lot of the good things he was trying to accomplish reach fruition.
On an entirely different subject I had a funny moment--several in fact--with Roger Goodell yesterday. As most people probably know he is the youngest son (of five) of former New York Senator Charles Goodell, who had the distinction of drafting the first piece of legislation (in 1969) calling for the end of the Vietnam War.
A year later, with President Nixon essentially having turned on him, Goodell was involved in a three-way race to try to keep his seat. Richard Ottinger, a liberal New York City Democrat was running from the left; James Buckley, brother of William F. Buckley, was running from the far right on the conservative ticket. Nixon's base, naturally, supported Buckley. Goodell was very much a moderate in the mode of Jacob Javits.
I remember that election because I remember my parents arguing about it. My dad, who had always voted for Javits, tried very hard to convince my mom to vote for Goodell on the grounds that Ottinger couldn't win, that Goodell was a moderate and a good man and that if Ottinger and Goodell split the moderate and left wing vote, Buckley would win. My mother wouldn't budge. "You know what Bernice," my father said. "You just won't vote for a Republican no matter what."
My mother insisted that wasn't true. "If I ever think a Republican is the best candidate, I'll vote for them," she said. "I vote for the best candidate, regardless of party."
She never once found a Republican who fit that profile.
I told Goodell the story and he laughed and said my dad's prediction had been right on. (Buckley won). Later I asked him where his politics stood. "Well," he said. "Like your mother I'd like to think I vote for whomever is the best candidate, regardless of party.
"But my mother was lying," I said.
He nodded, then admitted he had gotten in serious trouble with his wife's family (his father-in-law was Bush 1's Secretary of Transportation) for voting for Bill Clinton in '92. I didn't ask but my guess is he voted Republican until last year's election. I'll give him this: unlike my mother he HAS voted for candidates from both parties.