A career of high-level appointments in sports administration has brought Valerie B. (Val) Ackerman to an odd spot: leading a new college athletics conference whose origins date to 1979.
In July, Ms. Ackerman became commissioner of the reconfigured Big East Conference, a league known for its powerhouse basketball programs.
When Ms. Ackerman, who is 53, says by phone "I think that on a couple of fronts I come into this with a head start," she sounds undaunted by the task of revving up the conference, whose mainstays, Syracuse and Pitt, defected in 2011. After all, she has experience to burn in basketball administration.
With a law degree from the University of California at Los Angeles, she began a long stint at the National Basketball Association in 1988, ending as vice president for business affairs. In 1996, Commissioner David Stern of the NBA appointed her founding president of the new Women's National Basketball Association. For eight years she made the WNBA the most successful women's professional league, ever. Along the way, she also reorganized the American women's basketball Olympic team, putting it on the path to gold in 1996. As the first female president of USA Basketball she saw gold medals again, for both men's and women's teams, in 2008.
At the new Big East's outset, Ms. Ackerman will have to keep basketball on track at a time when institutions are still liberally conference-hopping. Roman Catholic institutions have dominated in both the league's incarnations—the likes of Georgetown, Marquette, and St. John's Universities. Now, the only non-Catholic institution among the league's 10 members is Butler University, which enters with a stellar men's basketball pedigree.
Did the Catholic-institution leaders ask Ms. Ackerman to make the conference convey a Catholic flavor? "Not at all," she says. More prominent in branding, she says, are academic accomplishment and "values relating to service and community engagement."
That is right, says the Rev. Timothy R. Lannon, president of Creighton University, another Big East newcomer. If anything, he says, Butler was brought into the fold to make the conference not exclusively Catholic.
A more significant aspect of the conference is that none of its members have major football programs, he says. "We have no interest in football." An odd stance when some conferences command billion-dollar television contracts? "But we also won't have football's costs," says Ms. Ackerman.
Television income from men's basketball will leave the new Big East far from broke. The league kicks off with a 12-year contract with Fox Sports, and inherits the first Big East's men's-basketball-championship arrangements at high-profile Madison Square Garden.
It was the Big East members' presidents, most of them priests, who selected Ms. Ackerman. They praise her as "a hard-charging and innovative leader" who is "exactly what the Big East needs."
The league did not call attention to Ms. Ackerman's groundbreaking status: a woman leading one of the top conferences. Nor does she. "I don't think about that at all."
Her rise reflects the extraordinary growth of women's sports that the 1972 federal antidiscrimination known as Title IX ushered in. At the time, Ms. Ackerman was an eighth grader near Trenton, N.J. Her junior high school offered nothing closer to a sport than cheerleading (in whose tryouts she flopped). She began in club field hockey, but her father, a physical-education teacher, had no time for notions about girls' limitations; she took up several sports.
Even when she enrolled at the University of Virginia and suited up for the Cavaliers, she shared the one full scholarship on the women's basketball team with another player. She captained for three seasons and was Academic All-American twice.
She knows the higher-education world from her playing days and such roles as serving since 2005 on the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. Since 2010 she has taught in Columbia University's master's program in sports management. She recently completed a six-month study for the National Collegiate Athletic Association into how women's college basketball is played, regulated, and marketed.
So, she says, "I wasn't an insider like other candidates. I haven't worked at a conference office or a college athletics program. But my experiences were relevant."