By David Pickle
Pat Schaefer has worked at the NCAA for 25 years. The last 12 as executive assistant in the general counsel’s office.
When Pat Schaefer leaves the national office for the final time Friday, she will have conclusively proven a couple of facts: To be a great NCAA staff member, you don’t have to be visible to the public and you don’t have to be a sports fan.
Schaefer is wrapping up a 25-year NCAA career, the last 12 as executive assistant in the general counsel’s office. Only five current staff members have more tenure.
It’s been a remarkable journey for Schaefer, who took the first step on her long NCAA career road in 1985.
“I had just made the move from Abingdon, Va., to Kansas, and the NCAA was my first and only job interview,” Schaefer said.
She must have said all the right things. NCAA Director of Research Ursula Walsh decided Schaefer was the person for her job, and Walsh quickly came to appreciate her good hire.
“As I recall, she did errorless work − and we had a lot of it in those early days setting up the drug testing and the first editions of the Academic Progress Reports,” said Walsh, now retired and living in Minneapolis. “The computer systems were far less friendly than they are now. I remember that there was one printer for all of us on the entire first floor, and sometimes your work would make it there and sometimes it wouldn’t. But Pat worked steadily and quietly and reliably.”
Over time, Schaefer took on many other duties, including committee oversight, postgraduate scholarship administration and the switchboard. But her interest was piqued in 1997 when the NCAA established the general counsel’s office.
“There was some karma involved,” Schaefer said. “While I was working as a switchboard operator, I was introduced to the new general counsel, Elsa Cole, and as I shook her hand, I sensed one day I would work for her.”
Besides the good vibes, Schaefer had experience on her side. In her previous life in Virginia, she had worked for a law firm and was eager to get back in the legal arena. When a position came open in the general counsel’s office in 1998, Schaefer applied for and won the job.
“The first few years were truly challenging,” Schaefer said, “and the first week was overwhelming.”
The general counsel’s office was working 15 cases at the time, including major eligibility and antitrust cases (Cureton v. NCAA and Law v. NCAA, respectively). On top of that, it was wrapping up the epochal case involving former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.
Schaefer’s first day was especially challenging, including a memorable hiccup when she dropped the United States Department of Justice from a conference call (“Not good,” she recalled).
But the good outweighed the bad.
“At the end of that first day, I said to myself, ‘I made it through this day. I can do anything!’ ” Schaefer said.
Early on, she provided paralegal assistance for outside counsel. She also became an expert at tracking litigation invoices, in addition to myriad other responsibilities.
“One of the things I enjoyed the most was getting to know our outside counsel and their staff – the two firms we work with on a regular basis,” she said. “They’re great people, professionally and personally.”
From her tenured vantage point, Schaefer has seen the national office change over her 25 years.
“It definitely isn’t the same atmosphere as when I started,” she said. “We were small, and I knew everyone’s name. But as the needs of the membership grew, so did the NCAA.”
Schaefer was never a sports fan, although she does acknowledge a slight interest in the Kansas City Chiefs. But she always did enjoy Final Fours − a little for the basketball but mainly for the opportunities they provided to get the family together.
She will miss good times like that, but other things will be happily forgotten.
“I won’t miss having to learn a new document-retention program,” she said emphatically. “And even though I’ve always appreciated our covered parking, I won’t miss the walk from the garage to the building in frigid weather.”
Schaefer may not miss that walk, but her co-workers will most definitely miss her.
“Pat’s 25 years with the Association brought an important perspective about the organization’s history and development as new employees joined the legal department,” said Scott Bearby, NCAA interim vice president of legal affairs/general counsel. “Her dedication to the NCAA is to be commended and her commitment to represent the NCAA in the best light is to be emulated.
“I am personally grateful to Pat for making me feel part of the family from my first day 12 years ago, and every day thereafter. Pat never forgot a birthday or an anniversary and for that reason, and countless others, we will miss Pat but never forget Pat.”