West Coast Commissioner (WCC), Gloria Nevarez, visits AthleticDirectorU in this edition of Commissioner’s Corner. With stops at the Pac-12 Conference, Oklahoma, and other well established institutions, Nevarez joined the WCC with a wealth of experience. In this article, she discusses leadership, challenges throughout her career, and how she will define success in the future.
You’ve been involved with conference leadership for a number of years & observed different commissioners do the job. What pitfalls were you cognizant of avoiding in the first few months of taking over the WCC?
Conference leadership is servant leadership. Commissioners work at the pleasure and direction of the athletic directors and university presidents within their league, and so it’s important for them to remain cognizant of where the boundaries are and whether they’re overstepping. When I took the job, the first thing I did was study our handbook and understand the authority granted to me there-in. Having an awareness of what I could and couldn’t do, especially when it comes conduct issues of our student-athletes and coaches, has saved me a great deal of headache.
I learned a great deal about this from my time working with Larry Scott at the PAC 12. When Larry started, the grant of authority of the commissioner was not very well defined, and so the first thing he did was overhaul the handbook. It allowed him a great deal more flexibility to structure the league differently then what we traditionally have seen, and as a result, gave us much more autonomy to make decisions quickly. In the rapidly changing landscape that college athletics operate in, having the ability to take advantage of the moment can mean everything.
Case in point, the West Coast Conference has a digital network that when built was very forward thinking for the time. The conference mandated minimum production standards for each campus, and while some school’s have exceeded those standards, some have not updated them in a long time. How does the league tell a member institution to change the standard if it’s not in the handbook? If the WCC wants to remain a leader in the space of innovation, we have to be able to make those types of decisions before someone else passes us by.
What leadership mantras do you subscribe to that are constantly top of mind?
In this day and age, when information moves faster than ever, you have to address issues head on and as soon as you hear about them. That’s why I’m a proponent of picking up the phone, talking things through, and coming to a decision as quickly as possible. If you hesitate and debate for too long, it’s likely that you’ve lost any chance of controlling the situation and narrative, and now it controls you.
Conference leadership is really about building compromise amongst different institutions and constituents. While I’m fortunate in that there is consistency of culture in the WCC, it still requires me to lead from the top and ensure that the conversations are happening and the important issues are being addressed, even though some members would rather avoid dealing with them.
It’s unlikely that we’re ever going to have consensus when making a difficult or controversial decision, but it’s my job to make sure that regardless of the decision we do make, everyone walks away knowing that they had an opportunity to be heard and that their opinion mattered.
10 years from now, if we were to look back on your tenure as commissioner, what tangible & intangible accomplishments would you be most proud of?
The most important thing that I can accomplish for the WCC over the next decade is helping solidify its brand and create a long-term strategy for the league to remain nationally relevant among all sports. While we currently have strong regional awareness, the majority of collegiate sports fans don’t know the depth of the league and what the WCC is all about.
During the fall semester, we had 13 teams in 8 different sports ranked in the Top 25 nationally. Pound for pound, we are one of the most competitive leagues in the country with one of the smallest enrollments. Being able to tell that story and continue to help elevate the reputation of our league and its member institutions falls on my shoulders.
One of the key challenges for me on this front is effectively navigating the competitive separation between Gonzaga and the rest of the league when it comes to basketball. We’re fortunate in that the culture of the league goes a long way to helping manage any tension, and everyone agrees that that a rising tide raises all ships. But we also have to ensure that we’re more than just “the conference that Gonzaga plays in” and that requires all of our institutions to continue to make a strong commitment to men’s basketball and other sports. Our recent success on the hardwood and elsewhere is clear sign that we’re moving in the right direction on this front.
What are the biggest challenges in intercollegiate athletics for you and other women in your position?
Collegiate athletic administration is a very close-knit community, especially among sitting athletics directors. Unfortunately, when it comes to senior female leadership, it’s very disparate. The networks among females at the top are not nearly as expansive in terms of size, and the relationships not nearly as strong.
I always wondered why I wasn’t part of those communities, why I had trouble developing those strong ties with both men and women in the industry. It wasn’t until I became a commissioner that I began to understand that you don’t necessarily have the same opportunity to network as much with the right cohorts while working in the female dominated roles we see within the industry. I came up through the business through operational type positions, and you often see women like myself get stuck and labeled as a sport administrator, an SWA, or some other role that usually doesn’t merit consideration of a higher office.
That being said, it’s as much our fault that happens as it is anyone’s. We have to do a better job of building relationships and forcing ourselves to go outside our comfort zone and take roles that have traditionally been filled by men. I don’t think that most of the barriers that existed for women in the past are still there, but it doesn’t mean that these coveted opportunities are just going to be handed to us. We have to go out there and prove to campus and conference leaders that we deserve as much consideration as anyone else.
How did you overcome any gender-related roadblocks in your career?
While I may not have realized it at the time, there are a number of instances that I can now look back on during my career and see were a direct result of my gender and an atmosphere of masculinity that has existed in college athletics for a long time.
One instance that comes to mind was my first big job in compliance at Berkeley. On my first day, the then athletic director had a full staff meeting which he started off with “I’d like to introduce our new compliance person… she’s a lot better looking than the last guy.” While I know what he said was in jest, it’s clear that his perception of me was of a female first, rather than the qualifications or experience that I brought to the table.
I probably should have stood up and mentioned my law degree and why I was fit for the job, but instead I decided to swallow my pride and play along. I now wonder if that administrator gave any thought to what type of example his statement would set for the culture of the department and all the young women working within it.
The other incident that comes to mind came much further along in my career. During a Christmas party, while I was taking a picture with another senior administrator, he proceeded to grab my behind. It was an incredibly disconcerting experience, and when I spoke to others about what I should do – including many males – they all had the same reply, “you can report him, but do your really want to do that?”. I struggled with the decision for a long time, and finally mustered the courage to call the guy into my office, tell him how inappropriate his behavior was, that it should never happen and again that he should treat me and all of his other female colleagues with the respect we deserve.
While some may argue that I probably should have immediately reported the individual and avoided addressing the matter with him one on one, at the end of the day what matters is that I finally stood up for myself. If women are going to be treated with real equality in this business, they have to be more assertive and make it clear that there is zero tolerance for that type of behavior.