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David Berst to retire

Long-time NCAA executive to step down after 43 years at national office

David Berst, vice president of Division I governance, will retire this summer. In 2013, Berst received the National Association of Basketball Coaches Clifford Wells Appreciation Award for contributions to the game. His family helped him celebrate.

When former NCAA enforcement investigator Ron Stratten discovered he would have to testify before the U.S. House of Representatives Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee in 1978, he was terrified.

It was the late 1970s, and Congress was interested in the NCAA’s enforcement program after complaints from several schools on NCAA probation about investigative tactics and excessive penalties.

“I got called before Congress for a case I had done, a highly-publicized matter. They identified me and brought me up there,” Stratten said. “It was Dave Berst who said, ‘Stratten, don’t worry about it. You are on the right side of this, and we got you.’ It was so comforting at that time.”

Stratten, who went on to become the NCAA’s vice president for leadership development, said Berst was a reassuring boss whose high expectations inspired him to be better, and that experience with Berst’s quiet support is not isolated. While conference commissioners and NCAA presidents may hold more name recognition in the public today, Berst developed into an honest and reliable behind-the-scenes leader as Division I’s vice president, capable of navigating the political pressure points of a steadily evolving division while working through numerous scandals and reorganizations – not to mention an explosion in the popularity of college sports and all the entanglements that came with it.

But the Berst era is nearing its sunset at the NCAA. He will retire this summer after 43 years serving the Association in enforcement and Division I governance. And the staggering number of people he’s hired, promoted, worked alongside or simply encouraged over the years  believe he’s earned it. They’ve now ascended to equally impressive heights: Multiple Division I conference commissioners and successful college athletics administrators are listed among his former protégés. They all point to Berst as their career’s North Star.

“David was our leader. He was the guy who crunched our words and made us think more clearly and write more clearly,” said Stratten, who served with Berst when he worked in the NCAA’s enforcement division as Berst worked his way up from investigator to leading the department. “He was a quiet leader, thoughtful. He was serious. We had a very serious job, and he was very conscientious about that job and wanted to get it right, and he put that on the rest of us. This wasn’t just a casual job.”

For Berst, his management style is straightforward: He prepares the people who work for him to do his job.

“I wanted to make them better than me,” he said.  “I wanted the people who worked with me to grow to believe they were prepared to sit in my seat, or any other seat to their liking.”

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Berst, the eldest of Samuel D. and Opal Berst’s five children, grew up in Carbondale, Illinois. His dad was a railway postal clerk on the Illinois Central Railroad between Carbondale and Chicago for more than 30 years. His mom raised their three boys and two girls at home for two decades before becoming the business and office manager at the local high school for another 20 years.

Berst grew up playing all kinds of sports, but he had the most affection for basketball and the most talent for baseball. He attended MacMurray College on a financial need scholarship and became a member of the college’s athletics Hall of Fame.

He’ll tell you he owes most of his success to his experiences playing basketball at MacMurray – from the lessons it taught him to the doors it opened for him. It introduced him to the NCAA and a network of people, through the mentorship of his college coach and mentor, Bill Wall, throughout the National Association of Basketball Coaches and through experiences recruiting prospective college athletes.

After graduating from MacMurray with a degree in economics (the school later granted him an honorary doctorate), the school kept Berst on as an assistant admissions director, physical education instructor and an assistant basketball coach. He later became the head baseball coach and gave up the admissions work. He was a passionate coach, but not exactly a winner. In the two years he coached, he had just one winning season – one that included a conference championship – and a career 35-44 record. But he believes it nurtured his method of attacking problems and his poise under pressure.

Then, a high-profile college athletics scandal involving extra benefits to basketball players – plus encouragement from his mentor – piqued his interest in joining the NCAA’s fledgling enforcement division. When he arrived in 1972 at the national office in Kansas City, he was one of only 19 NCAA administrators and about a dozen support staff working on two floors of a downtown office building.

He was nervous.

“I didn’t know anyone, and I’d never done what they’d hired me to do,” he said. “But my advantage was that I think like a coach. And I’m naturally curious.”

Within a couple years, MacMurray tried to lure him back with a tempting offer to be director of admissions. Berst considered the proposal but decided he was too engrossed in his work with the NCAA. He hated leaving projects undone.

“That seemed to be a continuing story for me,” Berst said. “Every time I had the inclination to leave, there were too many things that hadn’t been completed. All of a sudden, it’s 43 years later. That’s a good run for anyone.”

As one of the first enforcement staffers, Berst seeded the department’s investigative ranks with people of diverse backgrounds: coaches, federal investigators, athletics administrators, attorneys and, soon, women in key investigative and eligibility services roles. He instilled in his recruits a commitment to gathering facts rather than proving theories. His enforcement department often spent as much time trying to prove what it believed to be false as it did gathering evidence to support what it thought really happened.

“We spent a lot of time trying to tear down each other’s (cases),” Berst said. “The whole idea was to talk to each other about the shortcomings of the case.”

That priority still stands out to those who worked with Berst at the time, who remember his fairness and integrity as second-to-none.

“He taught us to be analytical and to look at both sides,” said Tom Yeager, commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association, who worked in enforcement as Berst rose from his peer to his supervisor in the 1970s and 1980s. “He told us not to reach on things.”

Over the years, Berst was involved with some momentous enforcement cases. Many remember him for delivering the death penalty – a complete shutdown of their football program – to  Southern Methodist University after the school was found to have violated multiple rules, including paying players over more than a decade . He was also the principal investigator in multiple cases that resulted in court cases against the Association. And there was the congressional investigation of the enforcement department, for which Stratten testified, which Berst remembers as a tough time for the enforcement staff as it watched politicians and the public tear apart some of the NCAA’s most difficult work. The investigations were prompted by concerns about investigative tactics and penalties meted out to rules violators at high-profile member schools.

Berst led the staff through that period with another innovative approach to enforcement. The group fashioned a program that had investigators focus on prospects regarded as the top 50 to 100 in football and men’s basketball. The investigators built relationships with those athletes after they had committed to a college and probed them on their recruitment by all schools.

The visible and successful effort of rebuilding a reservoir of information, coined by a Kansas City writer as Operation Intercept, got the enforcement staff recognized for their positive work after a period of heavy scrutiny from outside college sports.

“In many respects, we redoubled our own review of the program and policies as we were building our credibility as a group, trying to help provide a service for the schools who were trying to do it correctly,” Berst said. “You’ll always have critics. But the people we respected thought we were giving it a good shot. They knew this work was worthwhile and important.”

Enforcement taught him that most people in college sports are good people – by his estimation, only 10 percent of people are really trying to cut corners or cheat in some way.  And NCAA members knew he felt that way. Because he operated with that manner of integrity and earned trust and respect throughout the Division I membership, he was able to pull off a career transition that many people would have struggled to execute.

When the NCAA announced its plans to move its national office from Overland Park, Kan. to Indianapolis, the person heading up Division I at that time decided not to make the move. Berst, then chief enforcement officer, got the job. Robin Harris, the Ivy League’s executive director, remembers the conference commissioners playing an instrumental role in making that transition happen.

“He really reinvented himself from being the face of NCAA enforcement,” Harris said. “The membership put him forward as a good candidate for that job. He had their utmost confidence that he was going to help them and tell them the truth, his opinion. … He has a really good sense of the membership at all levels and a good sense of people. He also is very straightforward and will tell you what he thinks. He is objective. He’s not influenced by anyone’s agenda. He’s going to say what he thinks is right.”

Ohio Valley Conference Commissioner Beth DeBauche, who served as director of Division I under Berst for nearly eight years in the early 2000s, said he is the only person who could have pulled off the transition so seamlessly, mainly because of his approach to enforcement work.

“He’s truly been a leader,” DeBauche said. “He’s someone who served as the vice president of enforcement, a job which people are intimidated by and suspect of. And he was such a trusted ally and confidant that he provided a sense of stability in Division I, a sense of confidence within the membership. … David’s reputation was such that his integrity was beyond reproach. He’d been so fair in dealing with people through the process that they trusted his judgment and valued the person he was.”

He found the shift to policy work fascinating. The job gave him a chance to wake up every day and try to figure out how to improve the inner workings of college sports on a broader scale. He says it allowed him to be creative, albeit at a slow pace.

His background in enforcement became an asset in the new job. He never approached the old job as an adversary. Instead, the curiosity and interest in complex, potentially unsolvable problems that drove Berst in his previous role benefitted his new position.

“Every day I’m trying to figure out how to do something a little bit better and measuring successes in little bitty steps,” he said. “That’s mostly enough for me.”

His embrace of patient progress showed in the last two years, when Berst became a key player in a substantial success. Popular opinion predicted a Division I breakup, with the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12 and Southeastern conferences leaving the NCAA entirely.

Instead of that scenario, Berst helped the membership create a redesigned Division I governance structure that was implemented at the 2015 NCAA Convention. The structure is built on the foundational belief that fairness is more important than treating everyone exactly the same. That shift in thinking paved the way for the division to move forward as a whole. Autonomy in some areas for the division’s five highest-resourced conferences made sense; but the division would still govern itself as a whole on the majority of core issues.

A huge project was completed. Division I was saved, whole and intact. For, Berst, it was time to step away.

“I’m very pleased, and truly, one of the reasons why I’m ready to step away is that I think I had a hand in helping everybody get to the first autonomy Convention,” Berst said. “It should develop in a manner that’s more integrated into other NCAA Convention meetings and be transparent in addressing issues that confront them first, but also help lead the broader division. I think there’s some freedom for the five conferences to create their own agendas and to move forward. At the same time there’s plenty to do on a division-wide level working with the Council process as well. I think all of that is extremely important.”

He saw it all coming together. But Berst didn’t see himself in the picture anymore.

Even after 43 years of intimate involvement, it’s easy for Berst to step away now because, he says, he was never a big sports fan. He enjoyed participating more than spectating. He is much more likely to go see a play or attend the symphony than a sporting event of any kind. He’s always been able to compartmentalize his life like that, never taking his work home with him.

“I can put this away,” he said. “I didn’t talk about my work at home or away from the office. I took calls and did work, but I didn’t treat (my job) as a reason for intimacy socially … I believe I shouldn’t take advantage of the things I learned under circumstances that were confidential in nature and when others were often in a compromised position.”

Berst’s ability to balance work and home life – and to really focus on his family (he counts his mother and his wife, Nancy, among his mentors) – is remarkable to co-worker Kevin Lennon, vice president for Academic and Membership Affairs who will transition into David’s current role in April.

“Just to see the deep affection all of his family members have for each other, how much they really enjoy each other, that’s really an accomplishment,” Lennon said.

Berst plans to make family a priority in retirement, though he doesn’t promise to step away from thinking about unsolvable problems.

He has big hopes for college sports. He wants to see the number of student-athletes continue to grow, and their experiences continue to be meaningful and worthwhile.

And he holds big dreams for the NCAA, too. In a time when the Association again is beset with legal issues and renewed interest from the federal government, Berst is optimistic.

“What’s unique about the NCAA is that it’s like an amoeba,” he said. “It finds a way to adjust itself to complete its tasks. … Ultimately, I think the NCAA is here to serve its membership, and it will be able to adjust to the world around it as necessary to get that accomplished.”

The Association and its members will adjust to their new world, just as they will to life without Berst’s steady, unflappable hand guiding its most high-profile division.