Charlie Baker gives it the old college try

When Charlie Baker was a student at Needham High School, he was a member of the student council and basketball team. Looking back, it makes a lot of sense.

On March 1, the 72nd governor of Massachusetts (2015-23) and former Swampscott selectman (2004-07) took over as president of the NCAA.

“I was originally approached by Sam Kennedy,” Baker said, recalling that when an NCAA recruiter reached out to Kennedy, the president of the Red Sox, he recommended Baker take over the organization with 1,800 voting members representing 1,100 schools and 520,000 athletes.

“I laughed and said, ‘I can’t even imagine why you would think I’d be a fit in that job,’” Baker said.

Then, he was sent the job description and thought, “It operates sort of like a legislature.”

“The way the committees are set up, they have board chairs and vice chairs, and I’m sure that’s what made Sam think of me because I’ve obviously spent a lot of my time with government,” Baker said. “I don’t look at that thing and say to myself, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before’ because I’ve spent the last eight years working in a model like that.”

The NCAA was also looking for someone who played college sports. Baker checked that box as well.

“I was a basketball player at Harvard (Class of 1979), my brother played baseball at Princeton, two of our kids (Charlie and A.J.) played D3 football, and my wife (Lauren) was a gymnast at Northwestern,” Baker said. “I mean, we know a lot of people who played college sports and who know college sports a lot.”

The NCAA is also at a pivotal time, which interested Baker.

“So, I agreed to be interviewed for the job,” Baker said. “It was either late October or early November, and they made the decision to hire me.”

Baker is on record saying there were easier things he could have done with his post-gubernatorial life, but said it felt right because college sports did a lot for him and his family.

“This is a chance to serve,” Baker said. “It’s just a different way than I was serving before.”

Word travels fast. From the time he accepted to when he started in March, Baker got call after call from people wondering what his plans were.

“To use a sports analogy, it kind of came out of left field,” he said.

Just like that, he was off to work.

“I went out and talked to a bunch of college athletes. I visited a bunch of schools around New England and talked to student-athletes there, just to get their sense of how things were going,” Baker said. “I tried to hit schools across all three divisions – D1, D2, and D3 – and that was very helpful, actually, in sort of bringing me up to speed on what life is like for a student-athlete these days.”

Baker now splits his time between Swampscott and Indianapolis, where the NCAA office is located.

“I have an apartment in Indianapolis,” Baker said. “I’m probably there two or three days a week and I’m usually traveling the other two or three days between visits to conferences, campuses, championships, and all the rest.”

As governor, Baker – who has lived in Swampscott for almost 30 years – said he would wake up and go to bed in the same place. Now, it’s a little different.

“Last week, I was in Massachusetts on Monday, I was in Indianapolis on Tuesday, I was in New York City on Wednesday, I was in Washington, D.C. on Thursday, and then I was back in Massachusetts on Friday,” Baker said.

His travel has been put to good use, however. Baker made a commitment to meet with all 96 NCAA conferences in his first 120 days.

“I’m at number 87 now, so I’ve got nine more to go,” said Baker, who found it similar to meeting with municipal leaders in Massachusetts. “I’m going to try and talk to every conference every year. That’s going to be my goal.”

Including the women’s basketball Final Four, which Baker called “an offensive display of just monumental proportion,” he has attended championship games in all three divisions.

“There is tremendous value in getting a chance to watch student-athletes compete, but also, I think it’s important for me to show up at those places and sort of share in the enthusiasm,” Baker said.

Taking it one step further, he worked with the Biden administration to put together something special.

“One of the things we were able to do – that I’m very proud of – was we managed to get all of the D1, D2, and D3 championship winners who were interested to come to a luncheon on the White House front lawn, which was great,” Baker said. “I think it’s the first time they ever had all three divisions at the White House, which I really appreciate the Biden administration helping make that happen.”

As far as big-picture items, in 2020, the NCAA lifted its ban on athletes earning money from sponsorship deals and endorsements.

“I certainly would like us to create some order and some transparency out of the sort of chaos that is name, image, and likeness (NIL) right now, which I think has been a huge challenge for families and student-athletes,” Baker said.

Baker calls the NIL situation the “Wild West with no rules and no visibility and no accountability.”

“That one, in particular, we really have to figure out,” Baker said.

Also, with sports betting becoming more popular across the country, Baker wants to make sure student-athletes don’t do anything that’s going to hurt them academically or athletically.

“I also would like to make sure we put in place some sort of tools and some techniques to help student-athletes deal with the significant amount of sports betting that will be going on around them,” Baker said. “A lot of their classmates and schoolmates are probably going to be betting on college sports and probably on the teams they play on.”

From NIL to sports betting to a myriad of other issues, Baker approaches each with a leadership style he learned from, well, sports.

“I would probably say playing basketball,” Baker said. “It teaches you how to be a good teammate, which means being accountable to your teammates. It means figuring out a way to create a strategy to compete and to compete effectively. It teaches you a lot about how to communicate and how to put your interests aside for the betterment of the team.”

Baker may be dealing with college sports now, but having lived in Swampscott for decades, he still keeps an eye on high school sports.

“When our own kids were playing, I followed it more, but I still pay a lot of attention to it,” Baker said. “I manage to make it to a few sporting events every year. I wish I could make it to more to tell you the truth. I love going. I think it’s a blast.”

Baker said he can still recite names of star players in the Northeastern Conference.

“I think having such awesome rivalries between, you know, Salem, Peabody, Lynn, depending on the sport, Beverly, Gloucester, Saugus, I mean, those rivalries – in our house, anyway – started when our kids were in elementary school,” Baker said. “That stuff, to me, was a huge part of the last 20 years. I loved it.”