When Mike Bohn entered the room for his job interview with the University of Cincinnati president in 2014, he saw a familiar face.
Cincinnati hired Chuck Neinas, Bohn’s mentor and a prominent college athletics consultant, to guide the search for its next athletic director. Neinas previously assisted with searches at San Diego State and Colorado that placed Bohn as athletic director.
“I was there when he was interviewed,” Neinas told The Los Angeles Times in 2019. “By the end of the interview, the president was throwing him softball questions to make him look good.”
Cincinnati offered Bohn the job, and he accepted. Five years later, he parlayed success at Cincinnati into a more prestigious position at USC.
Bohn resigned from USC last Friday, one day after The Times asked him and USC questions about internal criticism of his management of the department and conduct as the Trojans’ athletic director. The news came as a surprise to Neinas, who served as a guiding hand and steadfast supporter to Bohn throughout his career.
“Well, I’d say, number one, it’s bull—, but then I’m not objective,” Neinas said in an interview with The Times Thursday morning.
“He brought in Lincoln Riley, which was one hell of a move, and turned the football program around, created much more interest in Trojan athletics. And then the opportunity to triple their income going to the Big Ten Conference, putting the institution at a very solid financial condition, and he’s voted athletic director of the year by his peers. You’d say the guy is on a roll, wouldn’t you?”
The concerns raised about Bohn included inappropriate comments that made staff members uncomfortable and Bohn being absent from key meetings and USC sporting events.
“First of all, he inherited a staff [at USC],” Neinas said. “He really didn’t get a chance to … I think he brought a couple of people from Cincinnati, so he inherited a staff. He didn’t handpick his staff. And Mike is a very outgoing person type of director. He’s not a closed-door office guy. He’s out there trying to do PR for Trojan athletics, trying to raise money. He’s not one who sits around the office. That’s not his MO. From what I understand he was successful in that. He seemed to get through to individuals who were more than happy to make donations to USC again.”
The Times found that concerns were also brought forward about Bohn at Cincinnati. Five women who worked with Bohn during his five years at Cincinnati told The Times he created a workplace that was hostile, anxious and toxic for women.
“I cannot believe that,” Neinas said. “You can talk to anybody in the college athletic business, and they will tell you that Mike Bohn is one of the friendliest people in the business. … He has a great sensitivity about him, which makes the accusations relative to his treatment of women suspect in my opinion.”
Across the industry, few have wielded more influence on which football coaches and athletic directors get their big break than Neinas, the former Big Eight Conference commissioner in the 1970s whose power only grew as the lead executive of the College Football Assn. in the 1980s and 1990s.
Neinas and the CFA are credited with encouraging the University of Oklahoma and the University of Georgia to sue the NCAA over the organization’s control of schools’ media rights, a landmark case which resulted in the 1984 Supreme Court ruling that gave conferences and schools the ability to sell their games to TV networks and reap the benefits. Neinas’ fingerprints are all over the evolution of college sports into big business.
In 1997, Neinas left the CFA and soon began to advise athletic departments on football coaching and athletic director hires. His search in 1999 at Oklahoma landed the school the legendary Bob Stoops, who led the Sooners to a national championship in just his second season.
Bohn’s three employers before USC — Cincinnati, Colorado and San Diego State — counted on Neinas’ advice to conduct searches that resulted in Bohn’s hiring.
For those who knew Neinas was part of Cincinnati’s search process and Bohn was a candidate, Bohn getting the job was a mere formality.
“When Chuck handled the searches and Bohn was involved, it was over,” said a former sitting college athletic director who asked not to be identified because discussing searches could adversely impact future job opportunities. “He was a father figure.”
“Chuck Neinas is extremely powerful,” said B. David Ridpath, a professor of sports business at Ohio University and a member of the Drake Group, a college athletics industry watchdog. “[He] has a lot of pull in college football circles and certainly if Chuck Neinas is lobbying for someone or pulling for someone, that person will potentially have a leg up.”
Neinas laughed at the assertion that Bohn got jobs because of their relationship. He noted he was not involved with the USC search. Turnkey Search — not Neinas, who is 91 years old — guided the search that led USC to hire Bohn in November 2019.
“He earned the Cincinnati job,” Neinas said Thursday. “Under his watch there, they redid the basketball facility, they hired Luke Fickell [as football coach], and he took Cincinnati to the [College Football Playoff]. That’s not bad.”
Neinas and Bohn first crossed paths in 1992, when Bohn was an associate athletic director at the Air Force Academy. Neinas was looking to expand his staff at the CFA to include someone to handle promotions and sponsorships, and John Clune, the Air Force athletic director, brought Bohn’s name to Neinas. With the CFA based in Boulder, Colo., and Bohn a Boulder native, the pairing felt natural to both sides.
In 2003, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported Neinas served as Bohn’s key reference when San Diego State hired Bohn away from the University of Idaho, his first athletic director position.
On April 19, 2004, the Union-Tribune reported that Bohn sent a letter to San Diego State president Stephen Weber that requested a department-wide evaluation and recommended Neinas Sports Services.
“It is essential,” Bohn wrote, “to have an independent third party review all aspects of the Department of Athletics. … Mr. Neinas is a former executive whom I worked for nine years ago. His candid, hard-nosed and head-on style will not be compromised by our previous endeavors.”
San Diego State paid Neinas nearly $11,000 for an 11-page report that is “double- and sometimes triple-spaced and includes little in the way of criticism or concrete administrative suggestions,” according to the Union-Tribune.
“It is a tribute to Mike Bohn that he recognized the need to be proactive and develop a TEAM concept,” wrote Neinas. “I have considerable confidence that Mike Bohn and other members of his staff will develop imaginative and successful marketing and fundraising programs.”
Two months after San Diego State made Neinas’ evaluation public, Colorado hired Neinas to lead its search for an athletic director. The winning candidate would be charged with cleaning up a department reeling from sexual misconduct allegations against football players.
According to the Union-Tribune, Neinas was asked by Colorado to provide three candidates to a selection committee. But when asked for information about all the finalists, Colorado officials said that only Bohn’s name was forwarded by Neinas to interim chancellor Phil DiStefano.
Colorado paid Neinas $39,000 to run its search.
San Diego State hired Neinas to find Bohn’s replacement and paid him more than $30,000.
Under Bohn’s leadership, Colorado hired Neinas to consult on the selection of two football coaches: Dan Hawkins in 2005 and Jon Embree in 2010. Hawkins went 21-39 in five seasons before Bohn fired him while Embree went 4-21 in two seasons before Bohn let him go.
In May 2013, after eight years at Colorado, Bohn led an emotional news conference during which he defended his record and insisted he was forced to resign.
“I want to ensure you know,” Bohn wrote in an email to Colorado staff obtained by the Boulder Daily Camera, “as my official separation agreement states, that I have not engaged in any impropriety, NCAA rule violations, university policy violation or any immoral, dishonest, or other sort of misconduct.”
Thursday morning, when asked by The Times about Bohn’s departure from Colorado, Neinas laughed and said, “He was more popular than the president.”
Bohn told The Times in 2019 that he was blindsided by his Colorado exit and worked with Neinas as he considered his next steps.
Eight months passed before Cincinnati tabbed Neinas to advise on its search. Cincinnati hired Bohn as athletic director in February 2014.
Bohn made his way to USC and on June 30, 2022, about three years after the Trojans hired him, USC and UCLA shook the college sports landscape by announcing they were leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten.
That day, Neinas told The Times he was supposed to play golf with Bohn the next day. Instead, Neinas said Bohn called him earlier that morning to tell him the Big Ten presidents had approved USC’s big move.
Neinas gushed with pride over what Bohn had accomplished at USC.
“For the first time in years, USC has an honest-to-God athletic director rather than a former football player,” Neinas told The Times in 2022. “I think he’s proved his merit.”
Thursday, Neinas doubled down on that stance.
“Just remember,” Neinas said, “I learned early on in life, envy is an awful thing. You think some people are envious of Mike? [Of] what he’s accomplished?”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.