Down a dimly lighted corridor at Staples Center and past the door with the “For NCAA use” sign warning off passersby, Mark Emmert relaxed in a black leather chair.
Muffled cheers drifted in from introductions for the first of two Sweet 16 games at the arena Thursday.
The NCAA president joked about having to wear a sport coat all the time, asked for a glass of water and looked every bit a man content to be in his element.
But Emmert’s ever-present grin belied the challenges the NCAA has faced in recent months. They include a federal investigation into bribery and corruption in college basketball that led to the indictment of four high-major assistant coaches — including former USC associate head coach Tony Bland — and created a scramble to reform the sport.
In a question-and-answer session with The Los Angeles Times, Emmert discussed bringing the Final Four to L.A., the bribery and corruption case, when the NCAA will start investigating allegations made by federal authorities, and how he handles frequent criticism.
One thing Emmert wouldn’t talk about: former USC assistant coach Todd McNair’s defamation lawsuit against the NCAA stemming from the Reggie Bush extra benefits scandal.
“I’d love to comment, but I really can’t,” he said. “We’re in the throes of a lawsuit and I just can’t comment.”
What’s the status of bringing the Final Four to the stadium under construction in Inglewood?
What stands out to you about the federal investigation?
To sit and read a transcript of a wiretap — this is all alleged and everybody’s innocent until proven guilty — but you read those wiretap transcripts and it’s just shocking to hear a conversation where someone’s allegedly just selling a student-athlete to a potential financial advisor who doesn’t have that student or family’s best interest at heart. You look at that and you have to be shocked by the callousness of it.
I think what it’s done is it’s created enough energy in the college sports world to make the kind of changes that are necessary, that a lot of people have been talking about for years. … There needs to be a professional pathway and a collegiate pathway. If somebody wants to go to college, if they want to get a college education, then they want to turn pro, great. We’ve got a wonderful deal for you. But if you want to be a professional ballplayer, go be a professional ballplayer. Great. Congratulations. … Trying to shoehorn some of that into the college space has created a lot of this problem.
When do you anticipate the NCAA investigating and issuing sanctions related to the case?
How does the sport move forward with this cloud over it?
We’ve been trying hard to deal with eligibility questions for the students themselves and manage those in a fair and appropriate way. But it’s frustrating to have this lingering and, of course, we’ve got to make a lot of changes. We’re going to do that in rapid succession once we get through the tournament and into April.
You take a lot of flack ...
How do you deal with having a target on your back?
Part of that just comes with the job and I knew that when I took it and anybody who is sitting in this chair is going to have that. But, look, I have worked for 40 years. I am incredibly proud of everything I’ve done at every stop in my career. The people that I’ve worked with directly know who I am, they know what I care about, they know my values. I’m a father. I’m a grandfather. I’ve got a wonderful family and set of friends around me. The people that I care about and that care about me, that’s the set of opinions I worry about. Some talking head has something to say, fine. Everybody’s got to make a living.
Follow Nathan Fenno on Twitter @nathanfenno