Last June, The Associated Press reported on the increasingly big money being paid to the major-conference commissioners. Many of them were making at least a million dollars annually.
Less than 11 months later, one-third of those six men have been pushed out of their jobs.
Dan Beebe was whacked last year in the Big 12. Now John Marinatto has been dispatched in the Big East.
Further down the food chain, longtime Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson jumped before he was pushed from that splintering league, landing as the new boss of the Sun Belt. Wright Waters is stepping down from that commissionership.
And in 2008, many Pac-10 members quietly celebrated the retirement of longtime commish Tom Hansen. That meant the league could modernize its mom-and-pop operation, which it has done under now-a-go-go successor Larry Scott.
Here's what's happening: As the prestige and profile of conference commissioners has grown, so has the pressure. If your league was a loser in the recent spasms of realignment and/or TV negotiations that have altered the shape of college sports, chances are your commissioner has paid for it.
Compensation isn't what it once was for those jobs; that's the good thing for an aspiring commissioner. Neither is job security; that's the bad thing.
Beebe became the fall guy when the Big 12 was destabilized by the loss of Nebraska to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pac-12, plus the flirting of nearly every other league member with rival conferences. His full-time replacement, former Stanford athletic director Bob Bowlsby, was announced last week.
Now Marinatto is out as the Big East continues to convulse. No major conference has been through more contraction and expansion than that league, dating to the latter years of Mike Tranghese's tenure.
The Big East survived the poaching of Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech better than many expected – in part because it promptly turned around and poached Louisville, Cincinnati, USF, Marquette and DePaul from Conference USA. The league got better in basketball in that trade and was not completely gutted in football, thanks to the instant impact made by Bobby Petrino at Louisville and Brian Kelly at Cincinnati (both have since departed from the league).
But the latest blows wounded the Big East to its core. Founding members Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia have fled – the Panthers and Orange to the ACC and the Mountaineers to the Big 12. Filling gaps with a mishmash of geographically nonsensical partners has given the Big East needed inventory but further diluted its identity.
Whatever the Big East is now, it doesn't resemble the league Dave Gavitt built and Tranghese shepherded.
In modern college athletics, a commissioner must have a wide skill set. He or she must be a forceful media-rights negotiator; a skillful intra-conference consensus builder; an alignment visionary; an unabashed money hound (or "revenue-enhancer") for its members; a legal expert; and a P.R. smoothie.
It's also necessary to be fully invested in football, the driving force in all big-picture decisions at the conference level.
It doesn't seem like much of a job for an up-from-the-ranks insider.
Beebe was promoted from within to replace Kevin Weiberg in the Big 12, and didn't have the chops to keep competing interests on the same page. Marinatto was a Big East lifer who never left Providence, R.I., working first for a school that has always been a minor player in the conference, then as a behind-the-scenes assistant commissioner in the league office.
In both instances, the step up into the big chair became more than the promoted men could adequately handle.
Leagues that covet a loyal lieutenant who can be manipulated often are asking for trouble. Especially when there already is significant in-fighting.
Beebe couldn't make squabbling kingpins Texas, Oklahoma and Nebraska play nice, so one left, the other two threatened to leave and he was undercut. Marinatto hasn't been able to successfully tend to the Big East's football needs while simultaneously satisfying the league's old guard. Now he's unemployed.
Contrast those two with the three commissioners who are currently swinging the biggest sticks in college athletics.
In 2002, the SEC brought in an Ivy League-educated northeastern lawyer in Mike Slive and has enjoyed a golden era of achievement and enrichment. In 1989, the Big Ten took a chance on former Ohio Valley Conference commissioner Jim Delany – a guy from back east who played basketball on Tobacco Road, then busted bad guys for the NCAA – and hit a home run. The Pac-12 has gotten great early run from Scott, a complete outsider who worked previously in professional tennis.
The astonishing amount of money being made in big-time college athletics flows through the conference office. So do all the high-profile decisions, from affiliation to postseason football.
Commissioners must have a firm grasp on those crucial decisions. Or at least look like they do.
At the annual BCS meetings in Florida last month, the guys doing almost all the talking were Slive, Delany and Scott. I'm not sure anyone even saw Marinatto, much less talked to him. He lived down to his reputation as the invisible, low-impact face of the Big East.
John Marinatto is a good man who has worked hard for a conference he cares about deeply. But in today's college sports landscape, that's not enough to keep a high-profile, high-pressure commissioner's job.
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