Myles Brand has never run from challenges

January 26, 2009
The term "pancreatic cancer" gets my attention. That's because two years ago, my wife and I were shaken to the depths of our souls by the thought that she might have it.

A year of her "just not feeling well" led to a battery of diagnostic tests and x-rays that finally revealed she did, indeed, have a tumor on her pancreas. By the grace of God, it was benign, but, left untreated, it could become cancerous at some point.

Thus, a difficult and lengthy (five-and-a-half-hour) surgery followed by a complicated and prolonged hospital stay (26 days). God again graced us by putting my wife's care literally in the hands of an exceptional surgeon at the IU Medical Center. His name is Thomas Howard, and he will forever be our MVP (Most Valuable Physician).

Thus, when I heard the terrible news that NCAA President Myles Brand has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, I was able to relate on both practical and personal levels. One, I know all too well about this awful cancer and its high mortality rate. Brand's own words -- "the prognosis is not good" -- were chilling. But, two, on the personal front, Brand is a man I have come to know, respect and admire.

In Indiana, of course, that may put me among the minority. Here, Brand is foremost known as the Indiana University president who enacted the infamous "zero tolerance" policy and then ultimately fired Bob Knight as the Hoosiers' men's basketball coach.

In other words, Brand finally had the courage to stop the runaway train and demand accountability from a subordinate.

Early on in his IU presidency, my assumption was that Brand was like his predecessors, fearful of confronting the basketball coach about his behavioral excesses and the damage being done to the university's reputation in ways that overshadowed the championships, library donations and graduation rates of his players.

It was my mistake to underestimate Brand, for when the time came, he had the courage to show Knight the door, even though there would be hell to pay.

I believe similar underestimation occurred when Brand emerged as NCAA president. Not many thought a lofty academic could possibly lead the organization in charge of intercollegiate athletics.

As it has turned out, Brand has been an exceptional president. He has used his bully pulpit wisely and with significant effectiveness.

At Brand's urging, true academic reform, with strong penalties for institutions and teams that don't want to get with the program, is now in place. Academic progress and graduation rates are being tracked, laggards are being exposed and graduation rates are improving. The oft-ridiculed concept of "student-athlete," especially in Division I, is truer than it has been in decades.

Brand has waded into what he has called the "dysfunctional" world of youth basketball and has enlisted previous adversaries, such as the NBA, the National Association of Basketball Coaches, USA Basketball, the AAU and shoe companies as partners in trying to establish some semblance of order among those clutching for the present and future services of 13- and 14-year-olds. At Brand's urging, the problem is no longer being ignored.

Similarly, he formed the College Basketball Partnership in 2005 to deal with issues facing the sport. The partnership included administrators, coaches, former players and even media representatives.

Brand has made student-athlete welfare a priority on such matters as eligibility. He also has fought for diversity among the NCAA's ranks, and the NCAA staff itself reflects that diversity. He even took on the issue of institutions that use Native American nicknames.

The point is this: Brand hasn't run from the issues, no matter how difficult or seemingly insurmountable. He has been anything but a figurehead.

One last thing: Brand, the "academic," has been a tireless advocate for the values of intercollegiate athletics and the positive difference participation can make in the lives of young people, especially as they take those values with them into adult life. He has not allowed the cynics to have a free run.

Now, my prayers are with Brand and his wife, Peg.


Benner is director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com.

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