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New DI Council chair brings strong experience, vision

Blake James seeks better public understanding of student-athletes’ story

Blake James, Chair of the Division I Council

Blake James has always been intrigued by college sports. The athletics director at Miami (Florida) knew when he was a student himself that he wanted to work in the field.

Watching young people grow into adults and having a hand in their development through their participation in sports keep him coming to the office every day. And that office is about to get busier.

James is the new chair of the Division I Council, the day-to-day decision-making body for the division. He is the second athletics director to chair the group, following Jim Phillips, vice president for athletics and recreation at Northwestern. The transition has been seamless, and James will chair his first Council meeting later this month.

He views national involvement as a responsibility he shares with others in similar positions — and wants them to think holistically to solve some of the big-picture issues facing college sports. One of those issues, he said, is that the public doesn’t understand the real value and benefit of college athletics.

“We need to tell the student-athlete story a lot better,” James said. “I really think one of the most important things for people to understand is what student-athletes have access to while they’re on campus and even after they graduate.”

James, not alone in his belief that intercollegiate athletics is broadly misunderstood, plans to make that issue one of his priorities during his tenure as chair. He sees multiple issues Division I will need to address over the next five years, a period that extends beyond his time as Council chair. Modernization of the rules for today’s realities will be important for the future of the NCAA, he said, as will continued work on the student-athlete experience.

The Council, created by the 2014 reorganization of Division I governance, began discussing how to improve the student-athlete experience at its first meeting in January 2015, when Phillips was named chair. Phillips said James will be a great leader for the group as it faces new challenges.

“It has been a privilege to work alongside Blake James and the entire NCAA Division I Council over these last 2 1/2 years. He is a tremendous fit to lead the group moving forward,” Phillips said. “The accomplishments of the Council since its creation are a source of tremendous pride for all involved, but there will always be challenges ahead requiring strong leadership in service of our student-athletes. My sincere hope is that the successes of these last 2 1/2 years are surpassed by those over the next two with Blake at the helm.”

James will bring experience at several Division I campuses into his new role as chair. He has been the athletics director at Miami since 2013, overseeing a period of success both on and off the field: The Hurricanes won their first bowl game in 10 years, and eight teams scored at least a 990 in the most recent Academic Progress Rate announcement. He’s also spearheading both new facility construction and renovations of existing buildings, and attendance at football and basketball games is showing steep increases.

His accomplishments did not go unnoticed by his peers. Earlier this year, he was named one of four recipients of the Under Armour Athletics Director of the Year award.

He came to the athletics director’s chair after time as both interim athletics director and as a senior associate athletics director at Miami. Before that, he spent seven years at Maine, including five as athletics director. He also was an administrator at both Nebraska and Providence. He had two earlier stints at Miami — from 1995 to 1997 in ticket sales and again from 1998 to 2002 in development and major gifts.

The Minnesota native was drawn to sports as a career when he was a student at Minnesota State Mankato. After earning his undergraduate degree in marketing, he pursued a master’s degree in sports administration at St. Thomas (Florida).

Every stop along the way shaped him into the administrator he is today, James said, and his commitment to the students he serves is noticed by his colleagues.

“Blake is a person of great character and integrity who strives to provide the best possible experience for our student-athletes,” said Jennifer Strawley, Miami’s deputy director of athletics and senior woman administrator. “His dedication to student-athletes and his commitment to the integrity of college athletics will prove invaluable to the Council. Above all, Blake is an authentic leader who is thoughtful in his consideration of issues and genuinely cares about people.”

All those qualities will be tapped as he guides the Council through the next two years.