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BENNER: Meet the steady hand behind March Madness

March 27, 2010

I have known Tom Jernstedt for something like 30 years and am routinely reminded that the most difficult thing to get him to talk about is … Tom Jernstedt.

The NCAA’s executive vice president wears humility like an overcoat on a winter’s day. Credit is to be dispensed, not received.

But as the Final Four unfolds in Indianapolis April 1-5, Jernstedt’s imprint will be all over it. Jernstedt is not well-known among the general public, but he has been the tournament’s and association’s constant the past 38 years.

Along with his longtime NCAA colleague, the late David Cawood, Jernstedt nurtured the growth of the tournament from the time it was just another event on the American landscape into the three-week behemoth it has become.

Think about it: March mildness to March madness. Twenty-four teams to 65. Matinee games to prime time. Conventional 17,000-seat arenas to 70,000-seat stadiums. Three games on two days with no ancillary activities in between to 30-plus events over parts of six. And relatively modest television rights fees to a $6 billion bonanza spread over 11 years.

Again, Jernstedt deflects. The tournament’s popularity, he insists, is more the work of the Division I men’s basketball committees than it is of he or anyone on the NCAA staff.

“The outstanding leaders on these committees have had a profound impact on the policies and procedures put in place during this time,” Jernstedt says. “Their commitment and dedication to intercollegiate athletics has been unwavering.”

In recent years, Jernstedt has relinquished more of the tournament responsibilities to his protégé, Greg Shaheen, who has the title of vice president of championship strategies. Shaheen came to Jernstedt’s attention when Shaheen served as the local liaison during the NCAA’s move to Indianapolis in 1999.

Though he won’t admit it, I doubt the relocation would have taken place without Jernstedt’s blessing.

“The move was a very easy one,” Jernstedt recalls. “While I did enjoy Kansas City [Overland Park, Kan., the NCAA’s previous headquarters], it was the right move for the NCAA. Over the years, I had been in and out of Indianapolis so often because it hosted more NCAA competitions than any city in the country. I got to know the community and its commitment to intercollegiate athletics, and I got to know the people here. In fact, I knew more people in Indianapolis the day I moved here than I did in 28 years in Kansas City.”

We were again reminded of the value of the NCAA’s move when IBJ’s Anthony Schoettle detailed in the March 22 issue the finalization of the extraordinary agreement among the NCAA, the Indiana Sports Corp. and the city of Indianapolis that keeps Indy in a five-year rotation for men’s and women’s Finals Fours, regionals and the association’s annual convention.

Jernstedt’s longtime role with the NCAA might never have happened if not by mistake—literally. A scholarship football player at the University of Oregon, Jernstedt had returned to his alma mater as an events manager in the athletic department. One of the events he was tasked with was the NCAA Track & Field Championships. A day before the meet began, NCAA officials discovered distances on the track were incorrectly marked.

Jernstedt worked through the night to have the track marked correctly. It made an impression on the NCAA. Two months later, he received an offer to join the association. The following March, he was overseeing the 1973 Final Four in the Checkerdome in St. Louis.

While he is not well-known among the public, Jernstedt’s contributions have not gone unnoticed. Later this year, he will be inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. USA Basketball also has honored him with its prestigious Ed Steitz Award.

“I’m humbled,” he says. “I grew up in a little town—Carlton, Oregon—and the first thing I did every day was get the newspaper and read the sports section. To end up doing what I am professionally—well, I never thought it would happen. And I’m just as excited today as the day I arrived. It’s been an incredible ride.”

That’s because of the steady hand on the wheel.•

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Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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