Jim Isch, a man accustomed to challenging meetings and tough questions, hurried into his fourth-floor office during one of his final weeks at the NCAA national office and prepared for a conversation he would rather not have.
The Association’s chief operating officer prefers to stay behind the scenes when possible. But in this meeting, Isch knew he’d be asked to talk about himself.
Playful reluctance aside, he settled into a chair and began reflecting on his long career. The wall behind him displayed an assortment of clocks, a collection Isch and his wife, Janie, began decades ago. Some had already been packed and moved from his office. That day, the clocks served as an oddly perfect metaphor.
“It’s just time,” Isch said. “It’s time for someone else with different ideas and different perspectives to try their hand.”
Isch recently announced his plans to retire from the NCAA in early 2015. His coming exit led to a reorganization of the NCAA’s top staff, and although the leadership changes took effect Oct. 1, Isch will continue to serve in an advisory role to President Mark Emmert until his 17-year tenure at the national office comes to an end.
Isch remembers the unexpected phone call that started it all. It was the fall of 1997, and he was the vice chancellor for finance and administration at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, a school and a state he thought he’d never leave. The NCAA was preparing to move its headquarters from Overland Park, Kansas, to Indianapolis and needed a senior vice president and chief financial officer, then-NCAA President Ced Dempsey explained to Isch in the phone conversation. Was he interested?
At first, the answer was no. Isch loved his role at Arkansas. But after learning more about the NCAA job responsibilities – readying Overland Park staff for the move, training new staff in Indianapolis, establishing local business relationships, serving as liaison to the Executive Committee – he was drawn to the offer.
“It was as challenging a time as I’ve seen in my career, and yet when I think back, it was also a very rewarding time,” Isch said. “We came as a family, those who were part of that move. And while I would like to say we didn’t miss a beat – I’m sure we did – for the most part it was a very smooth transition.”
In September 2009, Isch was appointed interim NCAA president after the death of Myles Brand. The role defied Isch’s preference to work hard behind the scenes, yet that stressful year remains one of his fondest at the NCAA. Again, Isch said, staff came together as a family after the president’s death and accomplished big tasks, including the planning and construction of the national office’s Brand Building and the negotiation of a $10.8 billion, 14-year television contract.
“I said I’d do it with a lot of help, and I was very fortunate,” Isch said.
Isch was named COO when Emmert became president in 2010 and went on to lead national efforts in strategic planning and fiscal responsibility.
It’s a career path Isch never imagined when he was growing up as a farm boy in Morrill, Kansas, a town with far fewer people than the 500 members of the NCAA national office staff. He was raised on all things agriculture, and his hard work started in his youth. At 7 years old, Isch was juggling two jobs: running a twice-a-day newspaper route and working alongside his father, Elmer, in the family grain business.
Isch was one of two people from his high school graduating class of 13 to attend college. His father, who was forced to quit school after eighth grade to help on the farm, placed an emphasis on higher education. Isch enrolled in Kansas State University and studied feed technology for one semester before deciding accounting was a better fit.
In 1973, as the Vietnam War was ending, Isch was commissioned into the U.S. Army and sent to an intelligence post in Turkey, then spent 3 1/2 years in Germany. When he returned stateside, he joined the family business, as expected. But after a few months, Isch traded in the agricultural life for a job in the budget office at Kansas State.
The move marked the start of a long career in higher education for Isch, who went on to earn his master’s degree and doctorate and also serve for eight years as the vice president for administration at Montana State University-Bozeman.
What’s in store for him in this next stage? Plenty of family time, Isch hopes. His career called for long hours, and he looks forward to more time with his two children and grandchildren.
“My challenge now is to relax a bit and do some reflecting – as opposed to my nature, which is to make a decision and move on,” he said. “I’m a man of action.”
Maybe, eventually, he’ll return to intercollegiate athletics or higher education to serve in some capacity. Maybe he won’t. The details will have to be worked out later. Now, Isch is working hard at taking his time.