- 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."