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Can the NCAA Be Saved? A Former Pentagon Chief Will Try

  • September 17, 2021

“I think that if we do not succeed in this effort to bring significant change to the association, that it will spell real trouble for the organization because it would demonstrate what a lot of people think, which is that it is incapable of reforming and changing itself,” Gates said.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the N.C.A.A. in an antitrust case this summer, a signal event for many college sports officials, but Gates worried about the association’s future long before that decision. When he was president of Texas AM, he considered the N.C.A.A. proficient at organizing championship events and maintaining national eligibility standards for athletes, but he also saw a rule book that he likened to the tax code, “a stultifying bureaucracy and an organization that found it very difficult to change.”

Asked which organizational chart he found more daunting — the Pentagon’s or the N.C.A.A.’s — he chuckled and replied: “Well, they’re comparable — and incomprehensible. They look like an ATT wiring diagram.”

Gates’s subordinates at Texas AM regarded him as attentive to athletics but not as a micromanager. He relied on athletic administrators for day-to-day decisions, but he also regularly dined with R.C. Slocum, the celebrated football coach whom he ultimately ousted. (Speaking to Time while he was atop the Defense Department, Gates said that he had often observed that “Texas AM football caused me more stress than any job I’ve ever had.”)

Slocum, who spent 30 seasons as a coach at Texas AM, nonetheless recalled Gates fondly.

“I liked him, I thought he was smart and he was not someone who was going to try to interfere with what we were doing,” Slocum said on Thursday.

Jeanne Sutherland, who led the women’s golf program at Texas AM for 15 seasons, recalled that Gates and his wife, Becky Gates, would invite championship teams to their home for dinner. Like Slocum, Sutherland remembered Gates as a president who set explicit standards and then moved out of the way.

“He was very clear with us what his expectations were, and that was to, No. 1, run a clean program and, No. 2, to win,” Sutherland, now the associate head coach at Nebraska, said. “The clean program was at the top of the list.”

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