NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When people learn that Beth DeBauche is just one of nine female commissioners among 32 NCAA Division I conferences, she gets a few double takes.
To paraphrase a line from James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, that domain has traditionally been a man’s world. Then again, six of the last eight Division I league commissioners hired have been females.
When DeBauche (pronounced du-bush) was hired in 2009 to lead the Ohio Valley Conference, the eighth-oldest Division I league in the country founded in 1948, it also turned heads. And that coming despite extensive experience working in prominent roles for both the NCAA and Southeastern Conference.
"The perception is that it still is in a lot of places," said DeBauche of league commissioners mostly being males for decades. "I went out to a (OVC) football game last year, and I was talking to some older gentlemen, and they asked me why I was at the game.
"And I explained what I was doing, and they looked at me and said, ‘Well, darling, I thought you could be a lot of things, but I didn’t guess you were that.’ So, that will probably tell you what the experience is like."
Experience is what landed DeBauche the OVC leadership role in the first place. From 2002-09, she was NCAA Director of Division I and worked directly for the 18-member NCAA Board of Directors. She also oversaw the entire Division I governance structure, working directly with the Legislative Council and its six cabinets.
In essence, DeBauche coordinated all NCAA Division I initiatives and assisted in managing the entire NCAA agenda along with current NCAA vice president David Berst. No male or female carried those credentials, not to mention her Notre Dame law degree and membership in three different state bar associations (Wisconsin, Illinois and Georgia).
Before that, she was the SEC’s associate commissioner in charge of NCAA compliance from 1996-2002. DeBauche’s first job in collegiate athletics was Vanderbilt’s director of compliance from 1992-96.
"I don’t think of myself, though, as a female in this role," said DeBauche, 52. "I really think of myself as a professional where the gender does play some role in all of this. Certainly, I feel the responsibility to be a good role model to our female student-athletes — obviously, all our student-athletes, but especially our female students — to know that is an option in this world of intercollegiate athletics."
DeBauche got her love for sports and desire to be involved with athletics at an early age while growing up just two blocks from fabled Lambeau Field and a huge Packers fan in Green Bay, Wiscsonsin. As a kid, she parked cars in the family yard for those attending games and got to keep the money.
Her father was a school administrator and successful high school golf coach, while her mother taught at an area junior college. Through fatherly connections, she started working for the Packers while still in high school and continued through undergraduate college at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Indiana, before graduating from Notre Dame School of Law.
"Having a legal background is really helpful in this line of work," said DeBauche. "When you get a legal degree, it really focuses you on being able to solve problems, whether you’re working in compliance or whether you’re a commissioner or whether you’re doing policy at the NCAA. It’s really a matter of being creative and trying ways to solve problems."
She’s putting that to good use as member of the Collegiate Commissioners Association that includes the 32 NCAA Division I league leaders. The group wrapped up meetings last week in Dana Point, California. Five conferences — Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pacific-12 — seek autonomy from the other 27 leagues when it comes to develop their own legislation, especially in regard to increased benefits to student-athletes.
SEC commissioner Mike Slive and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delaney, a former OVC commissioner, have even suggested the 64 teams in the five leagues plus Notre Dame consider forming another division completely, should the NCAA Board of Directors decline in August to allow that autonomy.
"We understand — the 27 other conferences â that the five conferences need some level of autonomy," said DeBauche. "When you look at the financial spread within Division I, it’s absolutely huge. Because of the football TV contracts, the five (conferences) just have so much more money than everyone else within this Division I structure.
"They need some level of relief. They need more ability to give more benefits to the student-athletes and spend on the behalf of student-athletes."
How that might impact the 12-member OVC is difficult to initially figure. The league has nine members playing at the Football Championship Series level, including defending champion Eastern Illinois, Tennessee State, Jacksonville State, UT-Martin, Eastern Kentucky, Murray State, Tennessee Tech, Southeast Missouri and Austin Peay. Three other members — Belmont, Morehead State and SIU-Edwardsville — compete in all other sports.
For the first time, the OVC last season had three teams â Eastern Illinois, Tennessee State and Jacksonville State — earn FCS playoff berths and win at least one game. And with teams like Belmont and Murray State, the OVC is considered one of the better men’s basketball mid-major leagues.
"It was such a phenomenal year for OVC football," said DeBauche. "All three teams scored a win in the playoffs for the first time, and it was huge for us. And we are so excited for this upcoming football season."
Like the OVC, based in suburban Nashville in nearby Brentwood, Belmont is also in Nashville. The school’s addition to the league two years ago has been a huge success for developing rivalries and garnering regional and national interest for the league
"It feels like Belmont has been part of the league forever," said DeBauche. "It’s just such a natural fit. The fact that it brings attention to this league locally is important to us. It’s really important we build rivalries in this league. Men’s basketball is certainly a focus for this league and being a catalyst to help drive success in other sports."
This past spring, DeBauche served as Chair of the Nashville Local Organizing Committee (NLOC) for the Women’s Basketball Final Four. The semifinal games and title game sold out, and the weekly Women’s Final Four festival anchored by Bridgestone Arena and the new Music City Center convention complex had a local economic impact of $20 million.
"It really was a home run and it was just a tribute to everyone in Nashville," said DeBauche of the Women’s Final Four. "We said from the beginning that we were going to make this the best Women’s Final Four ever. And when we concluded, the NCAA staff, the NCAA vice president assigned to women’s basketball, Anucha Browne, got up and said, ‘By gosh, this is the best Women’s Final Four ever.’ So, that really was quite a tribute to hear."