- Tom Yeager has been the CAA commission since its inception 25 years ago
- He'll turn 60 in October, but isn't looking toward retirement
- The high point was George Mason's run to the 2006 Final Four
RICHMOND — Tom Yeager is rarely at a loss for words, but when the Colonial Athletic Association's gregarious commissioner ponders his tenure, his legacy, his future, he pauses frequently. His thoughts emerge in fragments, because there is so much to consider, because he is uncomfortable talking about himself.
Yet that's what he must do, since the story of the CAA cannot be told without Yeager. The only commissioner the CAA has ever had winds down his 25th year with a conference that didn't exist before he arrived.
The CAA's Silver Anniversary, the retirement of several colleagues and his upcoming 60th birthday in October have caused him to reflect and project a bit more than usual. Not that he's any more comfortable doing so.
"It's more a matter of getting up every day and it's what you do," Yeager said recently. "The next thing you know, you're 25 years into it."
Yeager oversees a conference that evolved from a small, collegial, Virginia-based bus basketball league, officially born on June 6, 1985, to a 12-member outfit whose geographic footprint stretches from New England to Atlanta. Along the way, he has become one of the most recognized and respected figures within college athletics and is presently the longest-tenured commissioner in Division I.
"He is a national leader in policy and governance," said Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin, a longtime friend of Yeager's who's been in his position for 22 years. "His voice is heard loud and clear. He may not wield the same kind of financial clout as some of his brethren in the FBS and BCS levels, but he is clearly one of the brightest and most articulate voices in the (Collegiate Commissioners Association). That's not just talk, that's the truth."
Athletically, the CAA has registered some of the most notable upsets in the history of the NCAA men's basketball tournament: Richmond over defending national champ Indiana in 1988; UR over Syracuse in 1991; Old Dominion's triple-overtime win against Villanova in '95; George Mason's 2006 run to the Final Four.
Conference football teams — the league began administering the sport in 2007 — have won the past four Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA) national championships that weren't won by Appalachian State.
"We're still a mid-major (conference)," William and Mary athletic director Terry Driscoll said, "but the reputation for the conference, in terms of its competitiveness and how it's run in a very professional manner, I think you can attribute a lot of that to Tom and the people that he's hired and the staffs that he's had."
Yeager has endured for 25 years in a position with the shelf life of vinegar, during one of the most turbulent periods in college athletic history. He has outlasted 39 men's basketball coaches and 24 athletic directors.
How has he remained so long in one conference? "Turnover at my schools," Yeager joked. "As long as you have a 7-5 vote, you're employed."
More seriously, he posited: "You try to be fair. Different folks may not like the outcome or a decision, but they have a certain amount of respect for the people and the process, and they know that everything was done above board, with the best interests of everyone in mind. If you start making backroom deals and trying to finesse your way around, you won't last."
As Driscoll said, "He's someone who you can pick up the phone with and get the truth, which is the best thing that can happen in our business."
Yeager's ability to put people at ease was evident after the CAA's leveraged takeover of football from the Atlantic 10 Conference. For years he sought to have football, both to appease CAA schools that wanted all of their sports under one conference umbrella, and to expand the conference brand into the fall's marquee sport.
When Northeastern joined the CAA as a full member in 2005, it provided a tipping point for the number of league schools that played football and permitted the conference to take over the sport. The New England football schools not affiliated with the CAA were understandably apprehensive about joining a southern-based league that had never administered the sport.
After the first season under the CAA banner, New Hampshire coach Sean McDonnell made a point at league meetings to publically praise Yeager and the league for its efforts.
"Our meetings with CAA football are very fruitful, very respectful," said New Hampshire athletic director Marty Scarano, whose athletic programs are spread among five different leagues. "There's a lot of integrity there. I think everyone trusts one another, and that isn't always the case in any given league. Tom is a great moderator of that."
Why has Yeager chosen to remain with one conference for so long?
"There were some opportunities that might have made professional sense," he said, "but there were personal and family considerations. I've known people who have taken jobs that looked good, but wound up sacrificing their personal lives."
Yeager and his wife of 32 years, Dorcas, established roots and raised a family in the Richmond area. Nine years ago they bought a house on Lake Chesdin, near Petersburg, where he can indulge the nautical fix he cultivated during boyhood summers at his grandparents' home on the Delaware River, near Easton, Pa.
Usually one evening a week, he and Dor take one of their boats out to the middle of the lake, drop anchor and have dinner. He often attends the Sunday evening kayak group of lakefront dwellers that meets at a predetermined spot and paddles around for an hour or so.
Yeager has become such a fixture in the community that he was recently the object of a charity "roast" for a longtime Richmond homeless advocacy support group whose previous "roastees" included former governors Tim Kaine and Jim Gilmore and Sen. John Warner.
"They must be running out of people," Yeager cracked, "or they needed somebody who's an easy target."
Yeager's spotty golf game is an easy target. His six-year stint on the NCAA's powerful Committee on Infractions — he served as chairman from 2001-04 — made him a different kind of target. He received threats and hate mail and was named in a multi-million-dollar lawsuit after the committee placed Alabama football on probation and took away scholarships following an investigation that concluded in 2002. He has kept much of the Alabama casework, and some of the more colorful hate mail, because some litigation is still pending.
Yeager's work with the infractions committee made him further appreciate the schools for which he works.
The CAA, he said, "is very much in sync with my own core beliefs about what colleges and college athletics should be about. That's not to say that there aren't incredible frustrations that exist in any job, but I enjoy representing the schools."
Yeager, a native of Allentown, Pa., was a gymnast at Springfield (Mass.) College. He got a foot in the door at the NCAA following a recommendation from Springfield athletic director Ed Steitz, widely known as the man who implemented the 3-point shot in college hoops.
Yeager spent nine years with the NCAA – five as an investigator, four in legislative services – where he drafted the original Proposition 48 and satisfactory progress legislation for eligibility. He helped author, tweak and interpret some of the landmark legislation and rules that came out of the late 1970s and early '80s.
His expertise in NCAA matters, along with his personality and ability to connect with people, appealed to the athletic directors seeking the first commissioner for their new league. Once they met with Yeager, they pretty much stopped looking.
"We were so impressed with him, we hired him," said former Richmond athletic director Chuck Boone, who now works with the conference as a football administrator. "He was really what we were looking for."
Neither have looked elsewhere.
The high-water mark for Yeager? That's easy. The Patriots' run to the 2006 Final Four.
"Top of the hill," he said. "Amazing."
The most difficult period? Easy, as well. When charter member Richmond announced its intention to bolt for the Atlantic 10 in the spring of 2000, just weeks before the CAA intended to expand.
UR's departure, along with American and East Carolina, left the CAA at just six schools and in danger of folding, its various athletic departments scattered to the conference winds.
"Tom kept working straight on through that," Driscoll said. "He never talked about what was going to happen to him. I know that was very, very difficult for him, because we talked about it afterward. He had some down days, but he kept his eye on the ball. He was more concerned about what was happening with us and doing his job than what his future might be. I think that showed a lot."
Yeager eventually lured Delaware, Towson, Drexel and Hofstra on board, solidifying the league's membership and launching the eventual push toward further expansion and the inclusion of football.
"There was a time when it was kind of every man for himself, to a degree," Yeager recalled. "I don't want to sound like a martyr, but if I took that attitude — what's best for the Yeager family? — the whole thing could have come unglued. But I was determined to see it through."
Though Yeager has much to be proud of and guides the kind of league he envisioned, there's still work to be done. TV contracts and methods for increasing exposure. New football programs at Old Dominion and Georgia State to assimilate.
One gnawing frustration, he said, is attempting to elevate the league's basketball profile and get more teams into the NCAA tournament on a regular basis. Issues large and small keep him engaged and happily coming to the office.
"If I get to the point where I don't feel like I'm representing the schools well and doing justice to the CAA," Yeager said, "then it'll be time to do something else."
"It crosses my mind," he said, "but I've got too many coupons in my mortgage book."
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