Meet the commanders-in-chief

In the constantly shifting power structure of college athletics, conference commissioners have become almost presidential.

They have commander-in-chief accessories: private jets, police escorts, a team of publicists, big salaries, power suits. (In fact, Barack Obama is probably seen more often in public sans coat and tie than Southeastern Conference commish Mike Slive.)

They have commander-in-chief responsibilities: setting agendas, pushing policy, building consensus, maintaining diplomatic relations with other commissioners, delivering State of the Union addresses.

And they have commander-in-chief headaches: disputes to mediate, scandals to navigate, disciplinary action to dole out, public and media criticism to endure.

But they don't have term limits, which means they have open-ended eras of influence. And in general, they've never been more influential than they are today.

"Commissioners have become so much more high-profile," said Mike Tranghese, who led the Big East conference from 1990 to 2009. "Twenty years ago, nobody knew who the heck you were. Now, everybody knows them."

Said Big Ten boss Jim Delany, who has held that job since 1989: "It's changed a lot. They're different jobs. In the Big Ten, I feel like I've had three or four different jobs in my 22 years."

The current job for Delany and his fellow big-six commissioners -- the heads of the SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast and Big East -- is multifaceted.

They are media-rights moguls, negotiating humongous deals to broadcast their league's games. They are the keepers of the Bowl Championship Series, for better or worse. They are the ones most likely to decide if we ever have a playoff in college football. They are policy drivers, working closely with NCAA president Mark Emmert to identify potential rules changes. They are conduits to campus, communicating with university presidents who don't necessarily have the time or expertise to obsess about sports the way their fan bases do.

"These are hard jobs," said BCS executive director Bill Hancock, who probably works more than anyone in college sports with the commissioners. "They're vilified, loved and respected, sometimes all in the matter of a half an hour."

Now more than ever, they are the faces of their leagues. And if that's going to change going forward, it will probably only increase, not decrease.

"Commissioners are becoming spokesmen on all the issues on behalf of the conference," Tranghese said. "I think their profiles will continue to ratchet up more and more and more."

Nothing is more emblematic of the changing role of commissioners than the makeover of the Pac-12. Tom Hansen ran something of a mom-and-pop operation that did not embrace change and left power in the hands of the league's athletic directors. In two high-voltage years on the job, Larry Scott has changed that dynamic.

"They wanted me to come in and lead," Scott said, "and lead aggressively. They wanted more involvement from the commissioner as the ultimate governance of the conference, someone who brings major policy, strategic and financial decisions to the board of directors."

There was a time when commissioners sprang from the playing fields they now oversee. Former SEC head Roy Kramer, creator of the 12-member divisional format and conference championship game and also the godfather of the BCS, was a college football coach. Former ACC leader Gene Corrigan coached lacrosse in the league. The first Big East commissioner, Dave Gavitt, was a basketball coach.

Not so anymore. While almost all the current commissioners played college sports, none of the big six coached them. They have backgrounds in law (Slive and Delany), NCAA enforcement (Delany and the Big 12's Dan Beebe) and marketing (Pac-12's Scott). Only the ACC's John Swofford and Big East's John Marinatto ascended to the league office from athletic administration within their conferences.

By most accounts, the broadened power of the commissioners dates to the deregulation of college football TV contracts in the 1980s. When control of TV was wrested from the NCAA it was eventually bestowed upon the individual leagues to cut their own deals.

"The commissioner became the marketer, the TV guru," Kramer said.

As media-rights deals have exploded in value, the importance of the marketer/TV guru has grown with them. They are the rainmakers who help make possible the huge salaries and dazzling facilities that populate big-time football programs. And with a more savvy public dissecting every element of college sports, those business transactions are under the microscope like never before.

"As the conferences have taken a more prominent role, it is pretty logical for the conference commissioners to either be lauded or criticized if the deals are good or not good," Delany said.

The second element that increased the prominence of the conference office is the advent of strong presidential involvement in college sports. Coming out of a spate of scandals and academic upheaval in the 1980s, university presidents were called on to exert stronger oversight of their athletic departments. But since most presidents spend no more than a fraction of their time on sports -- Emmert estimates it was 2 percent of his workload as president at LSU and Washington -- they have come to lean heavily on league commissioners to be their eyes and ears on the big issues.

Then you have to get those presidents and their athletic directors and coaches to find some common ground.

"It's important as commissioner to be in sync with your presidents," Swofford said. "You've got to bring the representatives of programs into one room and get them at a conference table, and that's a group of people that compete with each other in a very, very public way. Then you've got to get them to agree on something that's in the best interest of the whole. That's a challenge."

When those agreements are hard to come by and infighting goes public, guess who gets the blame? Ask Beebe, who had to navigate the choppiest of conference waters in the Big 12 in 2010.

He was widely ridiculed as ineffective when Nebraska and Colorado were leaving and it appeared Texas would take much of the southern portion of the league elsewhere, as well. Then he was roundly hailed as the league's hero when it somehow survived the upheaval.

"One of the things I'm uncomfortable with is being the so-called savior of the Big 12 when so many people worked to keep it together," Beebe said. "But I know if it had gone the other way, I'd be considered the one who took it down. Everything seems to play out in a much more dramatic fashion than it ever has before."

That extends to even the more mundane elements of the job -- like blown officiating calls. Errors that once were dealt with off-radar are now often major news stories that unfold in real time. From multi-angle instant replays to Twitter explosions to coverage on ESPN, officials' calls are a much bigger deal than ever.

And with that comes allegations of league favoritism for schools positioned to make a BCS bowl or compete for a national title. When Big East officials blew a call in favor of West Virginia in 2009 at undefeated Cincinnati, I joked in the press box that commissioner Marinatto would be on the phone to the replay booth demanding a reversal.

Marinatto happened to be sitting right behind me. And he never picked up the phone.

"For the record, I would never call the replay booth to reverse a call," Marinatto said last week with a laugh. "But I can't speak for all my colleagues.

"It goes with the territory. We've become the face of the conference for what goes on on the field, for good or bad, better or ill. As Dave Gavitt used to say, 'If you're good, you get exposure. If you're bad, you get exposed.'"

Now, the exposure is national and the job involves much more than building intraconference consensus. It's an interconference agenda now. The current trend is for commissioners to help fashion the future in college sports nationwide.

At SEC media days in 2010, Slive opined that it was time to discuss whether college athletes should have agents -- that spawned a nationwide debate. In the spring of 2011, Delany, Slive and others championed the idea of scholarships that covered full cost of attendance. And then last month, Slive opened SEC media days with a broad policy statement on what he believed were the key issues to address in college sports.

That quickly set the agenda for other commissioners at their media days, and it will frame the discussion for the NCAA presidential retreat scheduled Tuesday and Wednesday in Indianapolis.

"Mark Emmert believes that if he's going to accomplish anything, it's with the support of the major conferences," Marinatto said.

Slive said that before SEC media days he began preparing his usual laundry list of league superlatives to recite, then junked it.

"It didn't feel right," he said. "I thought it was appropriate to address some national issues. I had a chance to say some things to move the ball forward.

"It was an agenda of change. My hope is it becomes a national agenda of change, fortified by many of my colleagues being ready to add to the dialog. We do so many big things, none of us could feel comfortable sitting back and thinking about our parochial interests."

That's because they're not parochial jobs anymore. Being a commissioner in modern college sports has become national -- and downright presidential.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.