by Donal Ware
Three days after one of the most successfully attended CIAA Football Championship Games in history – where 10,127 people saw the Winston-Salem State Rams defeat the Elizabeth City State Vikings 38-18 – what appeared to be one of the most successful stints as a commissioner in collegiate athletics came to an abrupt end.
A statement released by the CIAA on Tuesday read: The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) and its Board of Directors announced today the retirement of Commissioner Leon G. Kerry for personal reasons effective immediately. Kerry, 63, had worked for the CIAA since 1988 and has been Commissioner of America’s oldest black college and university conference for the past twenty-two years.
“The CIAA Board of Directors would like to thank Leon for his years of service to this great conference. Our league has grown under his leadership and we are well-positioned to expand on that foundation”, stated Board President Dr. Mickey Burnim. Associate Commissioner and Senior Woman Administrator Monique Smith has been named interim commissioner.
If this was indeed Kerry’s decision, then why was it so abrupt? Why wasn’t there a statement from him in the release?
I spoke with Kerry on Thursday. There was no indication of him retiring. We spoke about many things including conference expansion. “If I had my wish, it would be Cheyney, Benedict and [UNC] Pembroke,” said Kerry referring to the schools he would like added to the conference.
He was as confident about the future of the CIAA under his leadership as ever. And why not? We are 96 days away from the CIAA celebrating its 100th anniversary. On Friday he announced an extension of the agreement between the CIAA and Nationwide Insurance worth in excess of $1 million.
He seemed beyond reproach, almost untouchable. 100th Anniversary. New deal with Nationwide. New deal with Bounce TV which has CIAA football in most major markets. The tone of Burnim during a teleconference late Tuesday afternoon suggested anything but.
During the conference when asked was there ever any discussion amongst the board about changing commissioners Burnim replied, “The board always looks at what is in the best interest of the conference. I don’t know that I can say much more than that. The board looks at leadership thinks about and assess where the conference is at a particular point and time and then tries to collectively decide what is in the best interest of the board.
“Sometimes it’s clear that a transition is needed to move the conference to a new level of excellence. I’m not saying that is exactly what happened in this instance.” Sounds like the commish didn’t retire on his own free will. But why?
In 1998, Kerry secured the largest sponsorship package in history among HBCU conferences and Division II when Coca Cola North America signed a five year, $2 million agreement with the CIAA. He surpassed the preceding record when Coke renewed the contract at $3 million for another five years in 2003.
Kerry’s marketing initiatives have contributed to the overwhelming popularity of the CIAA Tournament resulting in a financial windfall for the host city. The estimated economic impact for the 2011 tournament, in its sixth year in Charlotte, NC was approximately $44.3 million, up from $15.4 million in 2006.
Over the last 13 years, the CIAA has generated over $266 million in economic impact for the state of North Carolina and over $16.5 million in overall scholarship dollars for CIAA member institutions. All under the leadership of Kerry. Burnim spoke about Kerry’s legacy.
“Among the things that would be listed in his legacy would be the CIAA Tournament,” said Burnim. “Under his leadership we have also elevated the profile of football as well as other sports and I think that will be a part of his legacy.” No mention of expansion? No mention of finances brought into the conference? No mention of an independent syndicated television deal as well as deals with ESPN and TV One?
As much as acquiring sponsors is about numbers, return on investment, and the brand being attached to that sponsor, it is also about relationships. Kerry’s background is in banking. He is a straight-shooter. No flash. No great speeches. A common man in many respects. Sponsors like that about him. So what happens to the sponsors from here?
“We’ll be following up as board members and others to assure them that the conference they pledged their support to is the same conference and as strong as it ever was,” said Burnim. Why exactly Kerry is out is open to conjecture. What is clear is that without Kerry the CIAA’s future is very much cloudy.
Known as the Voice of Black College Sports, Donal Ware has covered historically black college and university sports and pro sports across the U.S. for years. He is the host of the nationally syndicated FROM THE PRESS BOX TO PRESS ROW which airs on radio stations around the country and on Saturdays from 1-2 p.m. ET at www.boxtorow.com. You can follow him on twitter @dware1 or @boxtorow