Beth DeBauche always had a passion for sports.
Growing up in Green Bay, Wis., she sought opportunities that ranged from a spot on the high school golf team to summer jobs with the city’s beloved NFL team, the Packers.
“Growing up in a small town you get such a sense of what sports can do for a community, and it shaped my perception of the value of sports,” she said.
These days, as the first female commissioner in the Ohio Valley Conference’s 65-year history, she has the opportunity to reshape perceptions in an industry overwhelmingly populated by men — perceptions of a regional collection of universities that’s often overlooked on the national scene.
Since DeBauche was named commissioner in 2009, the OVC has undergone changes — including the addition of Belmont University this year — and her vision is to continue to get the conference the attention she believes it deserves.
“One of the biggest struggles for this league is trying to — in this world of so much sports media — trying to make sure our message and our voice are heard,” DeBauche said. “We are one of 31 [Division I] conferences, and having us be heard is really important.”
That visibility includes the OVC Basketball Tournament this week at Municipal Auditorium, followed by continued preparations for the 2014 NCAA Women’s Final Four in Nashville, for which the OVC will serve as host.
Before DeBauche spent her days worrying about branding, maintaining a budget, working with university presidents and traveling across the region for various sporting events, she was buried in books at the University of Notre Dame. She earned a master’s degree in communications then decided to stay in South Bend and get her JD from the Notre Dame School of Law.
From there she headed south to Atlanta, where she practiced law in domestic relations and property before becoming a judicial clerk.
But she never gave up on her love for sports. When a fellow participant in a leadership program suggested she take her law degree into the sports world, her future took on a new shape.
From August 1994 to November 1996, DeBauche worked with coaches and student-athletes as the assistant athletic director for compliance at Vanderbilt.
It was then that Roy Kramer, the Southeastern Conference commissioner at the time, noticed her and was impressed by her knowledge and inquisitive nature.
“She has a great ability to listen and to get all sides of a particular question and analyze it,” Kramer said.
DeBauche left Vanderbilt and worked at the SEC office until Kramer retired in 2002. As an assistant and later associate commissioner, she managed all aspects of the SEC’s rules compliance program.
She then served as the NCAA’s director of Division I, where she developed agendas, coordinated initiatives and oversaw legislative activities. Working with a variety of groups on Division I policy, DeBauche said she acquired a global view on college athletics that she believes has served her well in her current position.
DeBauche is the eighth woman all time, and fifth currently, to lead a Division I conference. She said her gender has never held her back, though she’s had to make minor adjustments. She laughed as she recalled that at her first football game as commissioner, she didn’t know she’d be going out on the field to toss the coin — and her high heels got caught in the turf.
“I think the challenges you face are the challenges you put on yourself,” DeBauche said. “It’s all about making sure you don’t limit yourself and making sure you’re open to applying for the job.
“[Gender] is such a non-factor, but I do have an additional responsibility as a female to be a role model for female athletes and those who want to serve in this type of job. I have a responsibility to not be bashful to say I have a different perspective, and there’s a sense of a gender balance perspective I carry with me every day, and I have to be sure I’m not afraid to articulate it.”
When she first took over as commissioner, DeBauche said she immediately sat down with the league’s presidents to identify priorities. While it was important to stay financially solid, it was also apparent they needed to market the OVC brand better.
She said adding Belmont and now having two schools in Nashville (along with Tennessee State) has helped the conference’s visibility and brought people back to paying attention to the OVC.
“It was just one of those things where it was just a natural fit. … [Belmont’s] location in this city, their vision and mission, and their commitment to athletics were a fit for the OVC,” she said. “This is their first year competing with us, but it feels like they have always been here.”
The OVC now has 12 schools, the largest it has been. DeBauche thinks that number will remain stable for the foreseeable future.
This year’s OVC Basketball Championship marks the 50th time the men’s event has been held, and it will be Belmont’s first appearance in the tournament.
The Bruins must adjust to a new format, which DeBauche put into affect her first year. It is a merit-based system where the No. 3 and 4 seeds receive a bye to the quarterfinals and the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds will receive double byes to the semifinals.
“It’s the most important week of the year for anyone at our level,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said. “I hope that our team maintains the enthusiasm that I think they’ve shown consistently all year long.”
While the tournament will bring attention to the OVC, DeBauche is also focused on hosting the 2014 Women’s Final Four. She said it is a privilege to host the NCAA, and it has already become a citywide
DeBauche is chair of the Nashville Local Organizing Committee’s board of directors, and her staff is involved in the legacy component and actual running of the event.
“I don’t think the NCAA will have ever seen an event like this, where the city and locals are so involved,” DeBauche said.
In the meantime, DeBauche’s ideas for the future of the OVC in this volatile time of rapid conference movement include not losing sight of educating student-athletes and giving them good college experiences.
As she works to make the conference more visible on a national level, she hopes to inspire the athletes and staff she serves.
“If you are true to yourself and true to who you are, you can be a successful leader in a whole variety of ways,” DeBauche said. “Don’t get caught up in appearance and style, be genuine and true to yourself, and people will trust you. You can lead if you can articulate your vision.”