Canzano: Father of March Madness finally gets his due
A statue of Tom Jernstedt is unveiled.
Tom Jernstedt was born in McMinnville. He was a three-sport star at Yamhill Carlton High School. Later, he went to the University of Oregon to play quarterback.
Jernstedt got hurt after a couple of seasons playing for Len Casanova at Oregon. He turned to student government and became president of his graduating class. And a few years later found himself in the business world — selling coffee — bored and missing sports.
They unveiled a statue in Jernstedt’s likeness on Saturday in downtown Indianapolis. If you’re ever there, go to Georgia Street to see it. It’s not far from one the NCAA commissioned to honor the legendary John Wooden.
Jernstedt went to work for the NCAA in 1972 as “Director of Events.” It was his vision and sweat equity that gave birth to what is now known as March Madness. He’s the father of the NCAA Tournament. He died two years ago at the age of 75, but his $10 billion baby delivered again this March.
He built the tournament from 25 teams to 68. Under his watch it became the world’s most magnificent championship event.
I saw Jernstedt often over the years at the Final Four, quietly observing and shaking hands. It was never about him. This statue, is though. And there’s something about the whole thing that feels justified.
“The man you probably do not recognize, but who has spent an entire month in your home for decades, had overseen what has become known as March Madness since 1973,” the statement announcing Jernstedt's statue unveiling read.
Years ago when I introduced myself at an NCAA event, Jernstedt talked for 20 minutes about his deep connection with Oregon. I left the conversation thinking that every kid in every small town in our state ought to know the guy’s story.
Jernstedt’s mother was a librarian. His father owned and operated a school bus company. He grew up picking berries and beans as a kid in Carlton and made $3 a day. As a young boy he beat a mild case of polio that affected his gait for life. As a student in college, he earned a political science degree and a Master’s in education.
If you could crack open the heart of “sport” you’d find ample amounts of hope and ambition in there. Tom Jernstedt exemplified that. His college football career was cut short. But the kid from Carlton simply regrouped and found an even bigger purpose.
T.D. Jakes, the bishop and author, once said: “If you can't figure out your purpose, figure out your passion. For your passion will lead you right into your purpose.”
That’s Tom Jernstedt, folks.
He died in September 2020 outside his home in Florida. His widow, Kris, told reporters that her husband had just finished working out and was sitting in his car, reading a newspaper. His family established a scholarship at UO in his name. On Saturday, they organized a celebration of life that took place in a building across the street from where the statue was unveiled.
Alabama Athletic Director Greg Byrne spoke at Saturday’s event. He met Jernstedt when he was just a seventh grader and his father, Bill, was the athletic director at Oregon. When Greg Byrne later became a college administrator himself he’d ask Jernstedt to lunch on his annual visits to Indianapolis. They’d sit in the restaurant at the downtown Marriott and talk.
Said Byrne: “They would often be three-hour lunches where I felt like I was talking to ‘The Godfather’.”
For years after that, Byrne confessed, “I didn’t make a major decision without seeking Tom’s counsel.”
Jernstedt spent 38 years working for the NCAA. Anyone who worked closely with him will tell you that he advocated for women’s athletics and never forgot the non-revenue producing sports such as baseball, softball and gymnastics. He may have given birth to the “Final Four” but he did so much more.
Retiring Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby tells anyone who will listen: “His fingerprints are everywhere.”
Jernstedt was “let go” in 2011 when Mark Emmert took over as president of the NCAA. Decide for yourself when the governing body of college athletics lost its way, but that pivot point isn’t a bad suspect. The NCAA filled his job, but hasn’t ever really replaced him.
I’m happy so many people remembered Tom Jernstedt this week. I’m glad he got a statue in his honor. He followed his passion. He found his purpose.
That statue stands tall.
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