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Tom Jernstedt, NCAA icon and March Madness transformer, dies at 75

College basketball doesn’t look like it does today without Tom Jernstedt. The thrill of March Madness and the fervor of the Final Four have Jernstedt’s fingerprints all over them. 

Jernstedt, an NCAA executive from 1972-2010 who played a pivotal role in the growth of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, died Sunday. He was 75.

“He was the guiding hand, the steady hand and the unflappable leader of that transformation of the event,” NCAA Senior Vice President of Basketball Dan Gavitt told IndyStar. “He was just an unflappable, principled leader that people trusted. That trust went a long way to being able to grow something like the NCAA tournament. Even though he’ll be recognized because of March Madness and the men’s Final Four, he had a huge hand in the development and the growth of the women’s championship and the College World Series and in all NCAA championships.”

Jernstedt was born in a small town in Oregon, where he played football, basketball and baseball. He went to the University of Oregon to play football, which eventually led to a job with the athletic department. In 1972, he became the NCAA’s director of events.

He ran his first NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 1973. 

In the nearly four decades that followed, Jernstedt played a role in the transformation of college sports. In 1973, the television rights for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament exceeded $1 million for the first time. Two years later, the field expanded to 32 teams and the team “Final Four” was officially adopted by the NCAA.

By 1982, the field was expanded to 48 teams and the selection show was nationally televised for the first time. Three years later, the bracket was expanded to include 64 teams.

In 1997, the NCAA headquarters moved from Kansas City to Indianapolis.

“I think that was transformative not just for the city of Indianapolis but also for the NCAA as well,” Gavitt said. “And clearly, in the modern era of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball championship, no one has had a greater impact on the development of that event as a national treasure and global event as Tom did.”

In 1999, the NCAA and CBS agreed to an 11-year deal worth more than $6 billion that included sweeping rights to tournament coverage. By the time Jernstedt’s position was eliminated in 2010, the NCAA signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner Sports. More than 140,000 fans attended the Final Four in Indianapolis.

“I’m saddened to learn of the passing of Tom Jernstedt,” Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted Sunday afternoon. “Tom was with the NCAA for nearly 40 years and was a key figure in helping Indy build its sports legacy. He was a gentleman who cared deeply for our community. Rest In Peace.”

Pacers Sports & Entertainment also offered condolences on Twitter.

“We are saddened by the loss of Tom Jernstedt, a pioneering entrepreneur at the NCAA. College sports owes a lot to Tom’s impact,” the organization said. “We offer our deepest condolences to Tom’s family and friends.”

Jernstedt also played a key role in the evolution of college football — he served on the first College Football Playoff selection committee in 2013.

“I am devastated by the loss of my ex-boss and forever-friend Tom Jernstedt,” College Football Playoff Executive Director Bill Hancock tweeted Sunday .”He was (the) architect and conscience of the NCAA tournament. And a terrific member of the CFP selection committee. He will be greatly missed.”

Jernstedt was a 2017 Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. He received the Sagamore of Wabash, Indiana’s highest civilian honor, from Gov. Eric Holcomb in 2017. 

“So many people in the business of college athletics, athletic directors, coaches, administrators and NCAA commissioners, broadcast and media partners, he was very much a mentor to so many people, and a wise counselor for others,” Gavitt said. “That assuring phone call and the good counsel that he always provided to so many of us, myself included, will be truly missed. That will be a void that won’t easily be replaced.”

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Matthew VanTryon on Twitter @MVanTryon.

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