The man behind the Madness: Dan Gavitt, NCAA attempt to do what’s never been done

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Bouncing between games and regions and production meetings, those three weeks when college basketball owns the national landscape are a blur for Dan Gavitt.

As Senior Vice President of Basketball for the NCAA since August 2012, Gavitt is basically the keeper of the tournament. When the national championship game ends, Gavitt takes one week to catch his breath before heading back to NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis to begin preparations for the next one. Often awake by 6 a.m., Gavitt starts thinking tournament thoughts between snooze alarms. It’s more than a labor of love. For Gavitt, it’s a way of life.

This year is different than any other for Gavitt as the NCAA attempts to do what’s never been done — host the tournament from one central location at six Indiana sites. Officially, games start March 18 with First Four doubleheaders at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall in Bloomington and Mackey Arena in West Lafayette. In reality, the tournament started for Gavitt last April. After the coronavirus pandemic canceled the 2020 tournament, planning for this year’s event commenced.

One way or another, Gavitt and his group would get this done. They’d steer the NCAA ship into tournament port after the organization reportedly lost more than $600 million in revenue last spring. It’s a massive job, a stressful job, a demanding job, but if anyone can do it, it’s the 54-year-old Gavitt.

Five years ago, near the conclusion of another three-week tournament sprint that kept him on the go to and from arenas and hotels and games, Gavitt realized what it all meant. He realized that for all the hassles and headaches, across the possible pitfalls, he never can take it for granted.

It was in 2016, when the tournament was heading toward a classic conclusion in Houston. It was when Kris Jenkins buried a buzzer beater for the shot heard ‘round the college basketball world to give Villanova a second championship in three seasons.

At some point during that weekend, Gavitt looked around NRG Stadium and breathed it all in. The air. The energy. The excitement. Then he smiled the smile of a man lucky to be doing what he loved.

“I remember thinking, ‘Man, this is so cool to be a part of,’” Gavitt said in early February by phone from his NCAA office. “It holds such a big responsibility, but as long as I have that enthusiasm and excitement around the game, that’s what’s really important.”

For Gavitt, it’s always been about basketball. College basketball.

Finding his way

When your father coaches a small, private school from nowhere to the 1973 Final Four, when he’s charged with coaching the 1980 United States Olympic team and when he becomes the driving force of arguably the greatest college basketball conference created, you have no choice but to be around the game. A lot.

Gavitt was, first serving as a ball boy for Providence College, where his father, Dave, was the head coach. Gavitt didn’t immediately fall hard for hoops. He explored other interests and other sports, but everything led back to basketball. He’d swing by campus and help out at practice. Sweep the floors, get the players water, rebound when someone needed extra shots. He played the game, but was just OK. Basketball wasn’t going to lead to a college scholarship or a professional future, and that was fine.

Being around basketball was good.

“It would be hard to live in the Gavitt house and not love the game," said former Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese, whose best friend was Gavitt’s dad. “I know how much Dave loved the game, talked about the game and lived and breathed it.

“The whole trail is about basketball.”

Gavitt would follow a different path, but it always led back to the same place. The gym. The games. The people. The passion.

“It,” he said, “was always in my heart.”

Coaching wasn’t. Following graduation from Dartmouth in 1988, the history major worked as a graduate assistant for Rick Barnes at Providence. It wasn’t what he envisioned, but it kept him around the game. It allowed him to understand that relationships with people were paramount.

“That experience kind of reaffirmed my passion and love for college basketball, being able to be lucky enough to be in a gym every day,” he said.

Gavitt left coaching, but remained associated with sports. He started his own sports marketing and event management firm. He spent six years as director of athletics and recreation at Bryant College in Smithfield, R.I.

Tranghese, who considers Gavitt a younger brother, then called with an offer that couldn’t be refused. He created a new position in the Big East, where he served as commissioner for 20 years (1990-2009). It was Associate Commissioner for Men’s Basketball. Tranghese drafted the job description with one person in mind — Gavitt.

“I didn’t even interview anybody else,” Tranghese said. “I just went and tried to hire Danny.”

So in 2005, it was back to Providence. Back to the Big East. Back to college basketball.

A tireless worker

Working in the Big East wasn’t easy. It didn’t matter that Gavitt and the league had grown up together. It didn’t matter that he remembered watching some of his first basketball heroes — Patrick Ewing at Georgetown, Chris Mullin at St. John’s and Villanova’s Ed Pinckney — as the league climbed to national prominence. Those were the salad days of the league, when it sent three teams to the 1985 Final Four. When Gavitt joined the Big East, it was a behemoth of 16 teams. It expanded way beyond its East Coast borders. It became a whole lot of schools from a whole lot of different places all wanting what was best for them.

Often, it was 16 teams with 16 agendas. It was Gavitt’s job to get everyone from the old guard (Georgetown) to the newbies (Notre Dame) on the same page. Tranghese simply turned Gavitt loose to do what he does. Connect with people. Solve problems. Dissolve differences. Mediate and manage and keep everyone believing that they were one team. Much like his dad did in the 1980s, Gavitt did in the 2000s.

“He just handled everything,” Tranghese said. “I put a lot of responsibility on him. I gave Danny enormous latitude because he was that good. I never worried. I knew it would get done.”

Keeping those college basketball coaches and athletic directors happy was hard, but Gavitt made it look easy. He’d address problems and offer solutions, but never made it seem heavy-handed. Former Big East senior associate commissioner Tom Odjakian had the office next to Gavitt’s at the league’s headquarters in downtown Providence. He never heard a raised voice during a phone call or a meeting, or even the slamming of Gavitt’s door.

“I can’t remember anyone saying the slightest negative thing about him,” said Odjakian, now senior associate commissioner (broadcasting) at the American Athletic Conference. “I felt relieved to have someone like him join our staff. He made a seamless transition.”

The Big East eventually was gutted by conference realignment and the chase for more college football dollars. But it was Gavitt, particularly in those league meetings every spring in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., who kept basketball front and center.

When disagreements caused division in the old Big East days, Gavitt’s father would pair coaches with conflict on the golf course. Make them play 18 and become friends. Many did. Gavitt never did that during his time. He didn’t need to.

“Just a finger-on-the-pulse guy,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. “He was a voice of reason. He always was able to bring it down a level and cooler heads would prevail.

“It was, ‘In Dan We Trust.’”

A massive move

Sitting in his office at NCAA headquarters, Gavitt looks out his window and drinks in the view of White River State Park. It’s fitting, for it was at White River where Gavitt decided to make the biggest move of his professional — and personal — life.

It was a hard decision, made during the hardest time.

It was the summer of 2012. The previous fall, his father had died at age 73 of congestive heart failure. At the same time, his father’s league was falling apart.

Pittsburgh and Syracuse announced plans to jump from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Notre Dame soon followed. Then Louisville. The Big East as Gavitt had long known it, was done. Losing his father hurt. Losing the Big East hurt.

Still, there was a job to do that 2011-12 season. Gavitt knew only one way to push forward.

“I kind of poured myself into my work,” he said. “The game was my salvation that year. I was looking forward to the offseason to settle my mind and my life.”

Instead, both were again flipped upside down. The NCAA targeted Gavitt to replace Greg Shaheen as Senior Vice President for Basketball. The first time Gavitt was contacted, he wasn’t interested.

“The timing wasn’t right,” he said. “I was tired and run down from the season and personal things.”

Given time to rest and recover and map his future, Gavitt thought about the possibility of a new direction. A new challenge. Maybe the timing was right for him.

Gavitt interviewed with former NCAA executive vice president Mark Lewis. The job wasn’t immediately offered, but there was no question that Gavitt was the top choice. Following his interview with Lewis, Gavitt walked out of the NCAA offices and over to White River. The sun was setting. The evening was peaceful. Gavitt walked the park, and remembers asking himself, ‘Am I really going to take this job and move to Indianapolis?’

For 25 years, Gavitt’s life had been in Rhode Island. He worked there. He lived there. He and his wife, Susan, raised their sons (Andrew and Sean) there. Gavitt figured there’d be a time somewhere along the line where he’d have to move for work reasons. But five years turned into 10. Then 15 and 20 and he still was in Rhode Island. Those roots were deep. Then the NCAA called.

“It was a pivotal point in my life and my career,” Gavitt said. “It was a big leap professionally.”

It was a leap that Tranghese helped Gavitt take.

“I had my hand right in his back,” Tranghese said. “I said, ‘Danny, you’ve got to go. It’s just too good an opportunity.’ I knew he’d be good.”

How good?

“He may be as important an asset that the NCAA has,” Tranghese said. “I can’t imagine what that organization would look like if Danny wasn’t there.”

Odjakian was sad to see his colleague go, but his reasons were more personal than professional. The two lived around the corner from one another in Rhode Island. When the Gavitts moved, Odjakian’s daughter was crushed. She often baby-sat the Gavitt boys. Nobody in town paid as well as the Gavitts. Then, they were gone.

“That,” Odjakian said, was the end of her babysitting days.”

So in the summer of 2012, a guy who loved basketball was off to a state where basketball really is religion. For the first year-plus, Gavitt and his family rented a house before they decided where to settle. When they bought a home in Carmel, Gavitt’s first order of business was, naturally, about basketball.

He put up a hoop in his driveway. He was a Hoosier.

A people person

There often aren’t enough hours in a day for Gavitt to get through his tournament to-do list. Everybody seemingly wants something from him. Member schools, coaches, media, television people. But Gavitt finds a way to make it work. Every meeting, every phone call, every interview gets his undivided attention.

“He’s got a genuineness about him,” said Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “He is really just as stand-up a guy as you’re going to find.”

In March 2014, McCaffery and his family were living a nightmare. His middle son, Patrick, was scheduled to undergo surgery for thyroid cancer only hours before Iowa was to play Tennessee in the NCAA First Four. McCaffery’s mind was moving in a million directions. He tried to concentrate on coaching his team while also taking care of his family. Gavitt was there for him. Anything McCaffery needed, he told him. Anything.

“He just respected everything that was going on,” McCaffery said. “The way he handled it was incredibly professional.”

Everybody seemingly has a similar story about Gavitt being a Grade-A people person. They all say the same about Gavitt. He’s humble, bright, disciplined, respected, smart and flexible. Choose an adjective. They all fit.

“It’s genuine,” said Paul Brazeau, the ACC’s senior associate commissioner for men’s basketball. “It’s not phony.”

When Gavitt left for the NCAA, Brazeau filled his position in the Big East. Those were big shoes. But anything Brazeau needed, any question he had, he could call his long-time friend and Gavitt would be there. To help. To listen. To be a friend.

“I could pick up the phone anytime and we did,” Brazeau said. “You just appreciate him as a person.”

A lot of that traces back to Gavitt’s father. He learned from one of the best in the business. Back when the younger Gavitt was in coaching, everything revolved around winning and losing. Gavitt eventually realized that there was more to life, even in this business.

It was about building trust and relationships. That’s what most mattered.

“I went from really caring about who won and who lost when I was coaching and playing to not caring at all, as long as contests were fair and equitable and all those things,” Gavitt said. “That’s where my passion is because that’s what makes college basketball so great.

“Long after we’re done, those relationships will be there.”

They’re there.

“Everybody wants to say that they were able to talk to Dan Gavitt,” Odjakian said. “They feel like they’re talking to the guy, and he is THE guy.”

Get to the finish

For three weeks last spring, Gavitt wandered his home in a fog. He shouldn’t be quarantined with his family on this date. He should be at this Sweet 16 site or that Elite Eight matchup. Or at the Final Four that was scheduled for Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.

March 12, 2020 and the days that followed were darkest. It was beyond hard. It was heartbreaking.

“Devastating,” Gavitt said of the day NCAA president Mark Emmert announced that the tournament would be canceled because of the pandemic. “It was very tough to be in charge of something that after 80 years, wasn’t going to happen.”

Gavitt took it personally because he felt that he let down the coaches and the players, some of whom were going to experience the tournament for the first time, some of whom were going to experience it for the last time.

“You can’t get that back,” Gavitt said. “It will always be painful.”

That fog cleared for Gavitt on what would’ve been the morning after the national championship game. It offered him and his staff a chance to start fresh, to start building and thinking and working toward the 2021 tournament, even though nobody knew what it might look like.

Now they know. Selection Sunday is March 14. The first games go off March 18. The national championship game is Monday, April 5. There will be a field of 68 teams. There will be seedings and brackets. In the end, there will be a national champion and “One Shining Moment.”

Hopefully.

“He’s given us some poise outwardly,” Brey said. “I’m not sure it’s there all the time privately, but he’s given us some poise where us as coaches are like, ‘All right, Dan’s got this thing. I think we’re going to figure it out.’”

Gavitt and the NCAA can plan all they want. They can make sure every detail is addressed and anticipated. But there’s one aspect of the tournament nobody can plan for or predict.

“The virus,” Gavitt said. “We’ve been incredibly respectful of the virus in our planning every step of the way and understanding that the virus controls us. We don’t control the virus.”

As Gavitt talked that February day, the start of the tournament was 43 days away. He allowed himself to look that far ahead. But for the actual playing of games, he refused to look ahead to what emotions he might feel watching the first of the First Four.

Gavitt’s anxiety level likely still will be through the roof that first weekend. It will remain there until everything ends and the tournament crosses that finish line.

“That’s not to project that I’m not confident about this or optimistic,” he said. “I certainly am. The challenges around this and the unpredictability of the virus means you can’t ever rest or let your guard down. I don’t anticipate doing that until it’s over.”

When it ends that first Monday night in April and confetti is fluttering to the raised court at Lucas Oil Stadium, only then will Gavitt look around and take a moment for himself. Like he did in 2016. Only this time, it will mean more.

“That’s an emotion I anticipate will be very deep,” he said. “And very real.”

Dan Gavitt, the senior president of basketball for the NCAA.
The lobby of NCAA headquarters, Feb. 25, 2021, in Indianapolis.
University logos cover a wall in the lobby of NCAA headquarters Thursday in Indianapolis.