A puzzling move from Indy's ivory tower

The NCAA removed Greg Shaheen Tuesday from his position of interim executive vice president for championships and alliances, replacing him with former Jet Set Sports president Mark Lewis.

Most people couldn’t pick Shaheen out of a lineup or begin to guess what that long and wordy title means. To the average fan, Shaheen is just another corporate wonk in an endless stream of them in Indianapolis.

But here’s why Shaheen matters:

  • He’s the man that negotiated the most recent 14-year/$10.8 billion television contract with CBS and Turner Sports, bringing all of the NCAA tournament games into living rooms across the country for the first time.

  • He’s the man who helped devise the First Four format, the solution to what looked like a horrifically bad 96-team concept.

  • He’s the man who allowed the media to have an inside look at the selection process, dreaming up the idea of a mock selection that allowed people to actually understand what the committee went through while filling out the NCAA field.

If the NCAA is Oz, Shaheen is one of the few guys in Indianapolis who not only had a heart, a brain and courage; he wasn’t afraid to pull down the curtain.

Well, so much for that.

Pete Thamel at The New York Times did an extensive piece on Shaheen during the Final Four, when Shaheen was technically still a candidate for his job but seen as merely a lame duck. He tried to find an explanation to what many considered a sudden and surprising turn against a man most considered the NCAA’s most affable and accessible foot soldier.

Thamel merely found people who complained that Shaheen failed to delegate his responsibilities, return email promptly, and what NCAA president Mark Emmert referred to as "organizational structure and senior leadership."

If Shaheen isn’t retained to at least run the NCAA tournament, as he’s done for more than a decade -- that's apparently still a remote possibility -- the NCAA tournament will go on without him and most people won’t even know he’s been there, let alone that he’s gone. That’s the reality of being a behind-the-scenes guy at a place where there is but one public figure -- Emmert.

But this is just further proof of how out of touch the people who work in the ivory towers in Indy are.

The NCAA runs more like the KGB than an organization of and for its membership. Information comes in dribs and drabs, embargoed or not at all. How things are done and why they are done are explained in such bureaucratic mumbo jumbo that it’s easy to give up rather than decipher meaning from the multi-syllable answers.

Shaheen was the polar opposite, a guy who tried to explain things as best he could. Who understood that people wanted answers, not corporate speak. Who believed that letting people into the NCAA selection process might actually help. (And it did. Since attending the first mock bracket, I’ve stood stalwart against the conspiracy theorists who insist maniacal minds create matchups a la Kentucky-Indiana in the Sweet 16. I know better now that I know how the process actually occurs).

“I think people felt like you were talking to a computer there for a while and there was nobody at the other end of the phone,’’ Michigan State coach Tom Izzo told The New York Times, explaining that Shaheen had helped "humanize" the organization.

On CBSSports.com, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski went even further in his praise: "Working with Myles Brand, Greg furthered the cause of men's college basketball as much as anyone in the last decade," he said. "It's a huge loss for our game."

Two years ago at the Final Four in Indianapolis, Shaheen sat at the dais to discuss changing the NCAA tournament format, laying out the argument for all models, including the 96-team format.

Let’s just say facing a firing squad would have been easier.

It was entertainingly antagonistic and agitated, but Shaheen never got angry or even nonplussed. He answered any and all questions, sometimes even with a deadpan twinkle in his eye.

Afterward I unloaded on him and the entire concept in a column, blasting the notion for what it appeared to be -- a cold, hard money grab. I even went so far as to count the words in Shaheen’s opening statement (2,505 in all).

Once I filed the column, I sent him a quick email, giving him fair warning that I was going in pretty hard on him. About five hours later, after the column had posted, he wrote back,"A little hard?"

I laughed. He laughed.

We moved on.

And that is the essence of Shaheen. He was one of the few people in Indianapolis who got it. Who understood that it’s OK to be human even inside the walls of a gigantic bureaucracy. Who realized that information is not a bad thing. Who wasn't afraid to pull down the curtain on Oz.

For that, he’ll likely soon be looking for a new job.