Robert Gates Ran the Pentagon. Can He Help Save the N.C.A.A.?

The Washington State home of Robert M. Gates — closer to Canada than to Seattle, adorned with a mounted elk head and occupied by one of America’s semiretired spymasters — would seem an improbable place to try to reshape college sports in less than six months.

But perhaps this was inevitable for Gates, the 77-year-old former defense secretary and director of central intelligence. He is, after all, still bristling over the strictures of college athletics 19 years after he became Texas A&M’s president, the post he left in 2006 for the Pentagon’s top job.

“You know, God figured out how to give the rules to all mankind in 10 declarative sentences,” Gates said this week. “You’d think that the N.C.A.A. could figure out how to do intercollegiate sports in something short of several hundred pages.”

Gates, the consummate insider with a rebel’s bent and bluntness, is now getting a chance to figure it out. Named this summer as chairman of a committee assigned to rewrite the N.C.A.A.’s constitution, Gates could help save or condemn an association with roughly 1,100 member colleges, about a half-million athletes and longstanding sway over how young people play sports and how universities pull in billions of dollars.

Gates’s 28-member committee is expected to make its recommendations by mid-November, and the full association could vote on them in January. The N.C.A.A.’s newfound sense of urgency is not exclusively of its own making. Bombarded by the courts, Congress, state legislatures and even conference commissioners about matters like gender equity and prohibitions on college athletes’ profiting from their fame, the association has been under enormous pressure to make changes that will stave off more legal and political battles that threaten its power.

In an industry that tends to measure progress in years, not months, many executives doubt that the effort will lead to substantive changes.

“We all in the membership are looking and wondering about the direction and how the issues that have been identified are going to be effectively resolved,” said Greg Sankey, the Southeastern Conference commissioner, who expressed misgivings about what he called “the lack of clear definition of the problem or the task” for the committee.

“Those issues can be overcome, but it causes you to take a step back and just wonder about the clarity of the purpose,” said Sankey, who attributed those difficulties to the N.C.A.A., not to Gates.

In an interview with The New York Times, his first with a news organization in his role as the committee’s chairman, Gates acknowledged the difficulty of determining how the N.C.A.A. should function. The constitution that spells out the association’s basic principles and structures runs 43 pages, followed by hundreds of pages of “operating bylaws.”

“There is absolutely nothing anybody can do to alleviate the skepticism toward this endeavor except to make it work, except basically to come forward with something that people recognize as meaningful and significant,” Gates said. “I mean, people’s skepticism is simply based on past history.”

Gates, who says he is spending several hours a day on N.C.A.A. matters and is not being paid for his work, is far from the first Washington figure whose career eventually intersected with college sports. He filled the board seat of Denis R. McDonough, now the secretary of veterans affairs.

Before his second stint as surgeon general, Vivek H. Murthy was the N.C.A.A. board member who pushed the association to cancel its national basketball tournaments in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Several years ago, Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state and one of Gates’s partners in a consulting firm, led a college basketball commission that led to a smattering of changes.

But since Theodore Roosevelt all but forced the N.C.A.A.’s creation in the early 1900s, perhaps no person from the world of Washington has been better positioned than Gates to reshape college sports.

“I think that if we do not succeed in this effort to bring significant change to the association, that it will spell real trouble for the organization because it would demonstrate what a lot of people think, which is that it is incapable of reforming and changing itself,” Gates said.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled against the N.C.A.A. in an antitrust case this summer, a signal event for many college sports officials, but Gates worried about the association’s future long before that decision. When he was president of Texas A&M, he considered the N.C.A.A. proficient at organizing championship events and maintaining national eligibility standards for athletes, but he also saw a rule book that he likened to the tax code, “a stultifying bureaucracy and an organization that found it very difficult to change.”

Asked which organizational chart he found more daunting — the Pentagon’s or the N.C.A.A.’s — he chuckled and replied: “Well, they’re comparable — and incomprehensible. They look like an AT&T wiring diagram.”

Gates’s subordinates at Texas A&M regarded him as attentive to athletics but not as a micromanager. He relied on athletic administrators for day-to-day decisions, but he also regularly dined with R.C. Slocum, the celebrated football coach whom he ultimately ousted. (Speaking to Time while he was atop the Defense Department, Gates said that he had often observed that “Texas A&M football caused me more stress than any job I’ve ever had.”)

Slocum, who spent 30 seasons as a coach at Texas A&M, nonetheless recalled Gates fondly.

“I liked him, I thought he was smart and he was not someone who was going to try to interfere with what we were doing,” Slocum said on Thursday.

Jeanne Sutherland, who led the women’s golf program at Texas A&M for 15 seasons, recalled that Gates and his wife, Becky Gates, would invite championship teams to their home for dinner. Like Slocum, Sutherland remembered Gates as a president who set explicit standards and then moved out of the way.

“He was very clear with us what his expectations were, and that was to, No. 1, run a clean program and, No. 2, to win,” Sutherland, now the associate head coach at Nebraska, said. “The clean program was at the top of the list.”

And while some university presidents deal with athletics in extremes — either no interest or virtual obsession — Kevin Weiberg, the Big 12 commissioner during Gates’s tenure at Texas A&M, remembered Gates occupying a middle ground.

“I did not hear from him on issues I would hear from some presidents on, like officiating,” he said.

Gates departed A&M, which would eventually move to the SEC, to lead the Pentagon for four and a half years, leaving government in 2011. He took over the ceremonial chancellorship at William & Mary, his undergraduate alma mater, in early 2012 and joined the N.C.A.A.’s board last year.

After the Supreme Court’s decision on June 21, Gates became insistent that the association could not stick with its usual strategies. The result was his committee, which some conference leaders have predicted will deliver narrowly drawn changes this winter, then possibly confront larger issues later.

The panel has spent weeks gathering feedback from various parts of college sports, and Gates has been somewhat cryptic about a blueprint for redesign.

In the interview, he raised concerns about how the N.C.A.A. enforces its rules, a process that often consumes years. He also signaled that he wanted policies to address certain types of scandals that went unpunished by the N.C.A.A., including one at Baylor involving sexual assault and another concerning academic fraud at North Carolina.

Those, though, might be the easy fixes. Divisions II and III, which draw less money and attention than Division I, appear broadly satisfied with the current system, Gates said, and determined to preserve their shares of N.C.A.A. revenues. And although those two divisions control enough votes to push a new constitution through, proceeding without significant backing from Division I could paralyze the N.C.A.A.

The Power 5 leagues — the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences — that dominate Division I have been increasingly assertive in recent years, and the industry is always rife with chatter about whether they might stage a breakaway.

Beyond a nimbler N.C.A.A., Gates said he saw “a need for change in structure,” including potentially more divisions.

“Let’s just suppose — and now I’m getting into a hypothetical, which I almost certainly should not — but let’s suppose you give each of the divisions the autonomy and authority to structure itself as it sees fit,” he said. “That’s how you might end up with more than three.”

He hoped that such an approach, in which “Division I has more freedom to reorganize itself,” might calm the wealthiest conferences.

One of the most significant threats to Gates’s efforts might be the quick timeline. The N.C.A.A. recently spent about two years considering how to let college athletes earn money off their fame, and it acted when it did largely because state laws challenging the association were scheduled to take effect hours later.

But Gates said he was unbothered by the committee’s schedule. He suggested he saw it as a way to bulldoze through complacency and to signal the gravity of the effort. When he led the intelligence agencies at the end of the Cold War, he noted, he had about two dozen task forces reorienting the country’s spy services.

None of them had a deadline beyond three months.