Brand brings just the right touch

DETROIT -- During the men's basketball Detroit Regional in March 2008, I looked up at a food court at our hotel to see NCAA president Myles Brand eating a sandwich and reading the newspaper, alone and unbothered in a crowd.

The normalcy of it struck me because nothing in sports seems to strip a person of his/her humanity more than working for the NCAA.

The NCAA's first executive director, Walter Byers, spent decades walling off himself and his organization from the public. The testament to his isolationist masonry is the fact some of those walls are still standing, despite efforts from inside and out to tear them down over the past 20 years. Even those of us who cover college sports for a living find the place mysterious and removed from everyday reality.

The latest news only reinforces Brand's humanity, albeit in a sad way. He has stage 4 pancreatic cancer, which means surgery is not an option and his life expectancy has been narrowed dramatically. He's still working and still fighting the disease, but nobody knows how long he will be able to do either or both.

At a news conference Thursday at Ford Field, Brand -- pale and visibly thinner than last year -- acknowledged that he's facing "serious and difficult health challenges." He said he has slowed down his work schedule and not traveled much at all, but that his "work has made all of this a lot more bearable."

That made me wonder: How much do we know about Brand and the job he has done leading the NCAA?

The fact we don't have a firm grip on his legacy says two things: The NCAA remains on its own island to a large degree; and too many of us (media and fans alike) pay attention only to the wins and losses and not the overall state of college sports.

For most people, the single most memorable action Brand has taken was before he assumed the NCAA presidency in January 2003. It was his move, as president of Indiana University, to fire basketball icon Bob Knight in 2000. But that's just a couple of paragraphs in the bio at this point. It's time to examine the bespectacled former philosophy professor's time since then.

To find out how he's viewed at "The Association," I asked three people within different departments to share their thoughts on the Myles Brand experience. In an effort to promote candor, anonymity was assured. Praise him, rip him -- just give me the truth.

Two of the three were hired at the NCAA before Brand was, so they had something and someone to compare his leadership to.

All three gave fond, respectful and largely glowing reviews. They portray a thoughtful man who writes out every speech longhand. A shy man who has gradually grown less aloof and more personable. A health fanatic who has distributed yoga mats, workout clothes and juicers as staff gifts, instead of the predictable polar fleece.

Among the comments from NCAA sources:

• "I wasn't a big fan when he came in, but I'm totally on the Myles bandwagon now. … At the beginning, the staff was very resistant and cautious, but I think his long-term vision has been dead-on. Everything's so much better."

• "I think people have been fascinated and impressed by how normal he is. He's hard not to like when you get to know him. He's not pretentious. … He's a much funnier person than most people know, and much more like you and I than most people know. He can sit in a session with any subsection of our staff and get something out of it, no matter what the subject."

• "I never really thought Ced [Dempsey, Brand's predecessor] had the structure in place for dramatic changes to occur. But Myles has done a heck of a job getting some pretty good teeth into the academic side of things. I never thought that would be possible with the structure the way it was."

That appears to be the bottom-line description of the Brand era to date at the NCAA: It is an organization still trying to break an age-old mold, and under Brand's leadership, it is making significant progress in doing so.

The very decision to hire Brand was a charge in a different direction -- he was the first true academic to lead the NCAA. Byers was a former conference administrator, and Brand's two predecessors (Dick Schultz and Dempsey) were former athletic directors. In hiring a university president, it opened the organization to an entirely new leadership perspective.

"To say it was a surprising choice internally would be an understatement," one NCAA staffer said. "But once the shock wore off, it made a lot of sense. We're set up to be run by presidents."

(Look for that trend to continue after Brand. In fact, many people within the NCAA think his successor not only will be another university head, but the organization's first female leader.)

The sources I spoke with described Brand's biggest initiatives as championing the student-athlete and reaching out more to the schools -- their presidents, athletic directors, coaches and athletes.

"He had two main goals: be more efficient, and be more responsive to the membership," said a source. "He established a more student-athlete-friendly process. The work on academic reform -- that's unbelievable what they've done with that. He shook some things up."

Toughening of academic standards stands as Brand's cornerstone achievement.

Many Division I football and men's basketball programs might be making a mockery of amateur playing status, but that's not the biggest problem in college sports. The most serious threat is a widespread subversion of universities' academic mission.

Brand has taken a stand on the side of real student-athletes. He's pushed for meaningful standards in progress toward a degree, and he's helped concoct a series of punishments for schools that continually fall short in that area. Scholarships have been reduced and available practice time has been curtailed for transgressors, and next year the measures really grow teeth with potential postseason bans.

As a result, graduation rates have risen appreciably. Basically, Brand challenged the academic underachievers of the NCAA block -- football and men's basketball -- and they're starting to respond.

"Everything people said he would shy away from, he's taken on head-on," said a source. "He took on academic reform. He took on fiscal responsibilities of athletic departments -- not regulating, but raising awareness. He's been interested in making intercollegiate athletics part of campus, not a separate entity.

"These are things others might not have taken on, and he's taken them all on. And anything he takes on, he commands immediate action. He's not patient, he's not reticent. Getting something done next month is not appropriate."

It's unclear how many more months the NCAA will be guided by Myles Brand. But it's clear from talking to his employees that his tenure has made a major positive impact on a mysterious organization.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com.