One of the association’s longest-serving leaders—he just celebrated his 40th anniversary on the job—Renfro helped start the NCAA’s public-relations department and steer the association through various crises.
Ten years ago, he stepped aside following the departure of Cedric Dempsey, then the NCAA’s leader. Six months later, Myles Brand, the next president, persuaded him to come back.
“I asked Myles what he wanted to accomplish, and he said, ‘I want to change the way people think about intercollegiate athletics, as a co-curricular activity embedded into the institution,’” Renfro recalls. “That’s what I had always wanted to do, and I didn’t know how to say no to that.”
Brand, who served as president for seven years before he died, in 2009, became one of his closest friends. Renfro stayed on as chief policy adviser to Mark Emmert, the current president, becoming one of his trusted allies.
Renfro, who plans to consult for colleges and universities following his departure, spoke with The Chronicle about the NCAA’s biggest challenges and where he sees college sports headed.
Q. How has your role evolved in managing perceptions about the NCAA?
A. You can directly relate the public awareness and the public interest in the NCAA and intercollegiate athletics to the rise of the media contracts. The exposure of college sports—the saturation through the media—has been great in terms of generating much-needed revenue for higher education. But it has radically increased the scrutiny—not in terms of its standing within the college community, but in terms of its entertainment factor. My job has been to try to cause people to look at the big picture in the midst of having to dealing with the details.
Q. Where do you see the NCAA in 10 years?
A. We’re going to have to answer the question of whether it can continue to be a one-tent organization. The diversity and disparity within a membership of almost 1,100 institutions is phenomenal. Is it possible for one organization to meet the needs of 1,100 different institutions with such vastly different resource bases?
Q. What’s your answer?
A. I suspect it may look more like a small village of tents. There will still be a lot of proximity, but I think it’s possible you’ll see a seeking of greater hegemony within sets of institutions. I’m not sure it will happen as much in Division II and III. But it seems likely to grow in volume in Division I.
Q. What about predictions of the NCAA’s demise—that the top programs will secede?
A. Remember that the role of the NCAA is nothing more than the aggregation of voices from its members. The question is, Do member institutions want to aggregate their voice? The answer is—because their activity happens to be about sports competition—they have no choice. Whether it’s called the NCAA or whatever it’s called, you will still have the need for that kind of aggregation.
Q. Looking at other big issues the NCAA faces, how do you see the concussion problem, for example, being resolved?
A. I think it’s a real concern, a genuine concern. Thirty years ago we set new standards with helmets, and that made some improvements. But whether you have or don’t have a helmet, there is something with the sudden impact and what that does to the body. I hope medicine in general starts taking a really hard look at what happens when bodies collide. I hope we have a lot more study done, and good research with regard to brain movement.
Q. What about pay-for-play? Will we see it?
A. I hope we find a way to take the revenue coming in and make sure that student-athletes with needs have those needs met. But I will remain, I believe, opposed to the notion that there is a sort of halfway area between being an employee and not being an employee, between being paid and not being paid, where you either are or you aren’t. For intercollegiate athletics to say it’s going to compensate some student-athletes because there is enough money being made to pay them, I think, is wrong. I don’t think most institutions are willing to pay some student-athletes in some sports.
Q. What was the most challenging circumstance you dealt with?
A. It’s the ongoing one: trying to ensure that athletics is conducted with integrity, that its behavior comports with what you’d expect of higher education. It’s done wonderfully most places. But it’s done bad enough in some places that it tends to drive the reputation of the whole. It’s not fair, but it is the case.
Q. Have you succeeded in getting that message across?
A. No. No, we’ve not. It’s a Sisyphean effort, because every time you have a conference realignment, or a new media contract, or some sort of announcement about coach’s compensation, or a big scandal—all these things are overpowering in terms of their impact on that primary message. I believe our institutions need to get much better engaged in telling this story, get better at doing that for the good of the whole and not just for their institution and their community.
Q. So you’ve got some work left then?
A. An old horse who’s plowed for 40 years has a hard time getting out of the harness completely. There are many things I still enjoy doing, and I am certainly planning to do consulting work in the area of sport—with message development, crisis communication, media prep, message management—things I’ve been doing the last 20 to 25 years pretty rigorously.
But I told someone today: My wife and I feel like we’re at that moment in the airline commercial where the bell rings and a voice says, “You’re now free to move about the country.” We want to learn more about the American experience and take a look at America in the way that only time will give you the opportunity to do. We’ve committed ourselves to traveling about the country in a motor home that we think will be a lot of fun.
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