July 18, 2024
The Hotline ranks the sport's movers and shakers behind the scenes, from media executives to conference commissioners, data analysts and crisis communication specialists.

Welcome to the inaugural Hot 25 ranking — the Hotline’s look at the 25 most influential people in college football, with a twist.

These are the key movers and shakers behind the scenes. Athletic directors, coaches, players and front-facing media members were excluded from consideration (with one exception).

Did we miss someone? Probably.

Will readers take exception to the order? Assuredly.

The intent of this exercise is not to forge unanimity but to lift the curtain on the sport’s complicated, layered machinery and identify the people and issues that shape the terrain.

Comments? Suggestions? Searing criticism? Hit me via email at [email protected].

Also considered: Jennifer Abruzzo, NLRB general counsel; Trace Armstrong, agent for Athletes First; Eddy Cue, Apple senior vice president of services; Jim Cavale, founder of Athletes.org; Brian Davis, founder of California Power Athletes; Bill Hancock, CFP executive director; Mark and Kym Hilinski, Hilinski’s Hope; Phil Knight, Nike co-founder; Dan Margulis, ESPN senior director for programming (college sports); Chris Murphy, U.S. senator (Conn.); Brenda Tracy, sexual assault prevention educator; Claudia Wilken, U.S. District Court Judge (Northern California); Mit Winter, NIL attorney (Kennyhertz Perry)

1. Greg Sankey
Title: SEC commissioner
Impact: In addition to his deft oversight of the powerhouse football conference — given the personalities and passion involved, it could be a weekly circus in lesser hands — Sankey has immense sway in the College Football Playoff discussion and just co-chaired the NCAA transformation committee. Not everyone in college sports agrees with Sankey on all the issues, but we have yet to encounter anyone, anywhere who does not have immense respect for his strategic acumen, management style and interpersonal skills.

2. Mark Silverman
Title: Fox Sports president and COO
Impact: Silverman runs Fox Sports, which owns a majority stake in the Big Ten Network, which controls the Big Ten’s media rights. In other words, he’s responsible for the cash funding the Big Ten expansion decisions that have reshaped college sports. As the Sports Business Journal reported, Silverman “was in the room” during pitches from rival networks last year. If that’s not full control of the Big Ten behemoth at the most important level, we don’t know what is.

3. Burke Magnus
Title: ESPN president of content
Impact: In case there was any doubt, the two-year realignment wave has conclusively identified the two grandmasters of college football: Thy names are ESPN and Fox. (Or as Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told the Columbus Dispatch: “This is all about television partnerships. I can’t say they run things, but they’re a big partner. They’re a huge partner.”) Magnus has been a major player for eons and is well regarded for his understanding of the industry. Prior to ascending to his current title earlier this year, he led ESPN’s acquisitions and programming team.

4. Len Perna and Chad Chatlos
Titles: TurnkeyZRG executives
Impact: Perna is the CEO of the executive search juggernaut while Chatlos oversees the college operation after moving over from Ventura Partners a few years ago. Turnkey has dominated the placement process at the highest levels of the sport, running point on the searches for the NCAA president and commissioners of the Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12. The trend toward bringing outsiders into key roles in college sports (for better or worse)? It starts with Turnkey.

5. Mark Keenum
Title: Mississippi State president; chair of the College Football Playoff board of managers
Impact: When the commissioners couldn’t agree on playoff expansion, Keenum stepped in, rounded up support from his fellow presidents and rammed through the 12-team format last fall. Readers might view his ranking as a bit lofty, but the Hotline believes CFP expansion will have a greater impact on the sport than any event since the 1984 Supreme Court ruling that handed the conferences control of their media rights — a greater impact, in fact, than the implementation of the four-team playoff a decade ago. And Keenum, more than anyone, is responsible.

6. Tony Petitti
Title: Big Ten commissioner
Impact: Petitti has been on the job for just three months but oversaw the West Coast raid (Washington and Oregon) that devastated the Pac-12. (To that end, he needed Fox’s cash and the presidents’ approval.) We suspect his imprint on the sport will only increase in coming months — look for the Big Ten and SEC to reshape the playoff format to suit their needs — and his placement on next year’s Hot 25 list will rise.

7. Patti Phillips
Title: CEO of Women Leaders in College Sports
Impact: Phillips is perhaps the most important figure in college sports you’ve never heard of. During her 13 years in charge of WLCS, Phillips has pushed to create opportunities for women in key executive positions (i.e., athletic directors) around the country. The sport remains dominated by men; without Phillips and her organization, that tilt would be even more pronounced.

8. Jeffrey Kessler and Steve Berman
Title: Sports labor attorneys
Impact: Kessler has an antitrust background; Berman is a class-action specialist. They work for different firms but joined forces to torch the NCAA in the courtroom with the 2021 Alston ruling in which the Supreme Court laid the foundation to upend the amateur economic model. (Remember Brett Kavanaugh’s scathing concurrence?) That wasn’t their only victory over the NCAA, and the dynamic duo has another antitrust case in the pipeline that seeks millions in damages for former athletes.

9. Brett Yormark
Title: Big 12 commissioner
Impact: Yormark has been a dynamic force in his 13 months on the job, securing the Big 12’s media deal, orchestrating the early exits of Texas and Oklahoma, then fortifying the conference’s future with the Four Corners schools (Arizona, ASU, Colorado and Utah). We wonder just how long he’ll stick around — his background is in professional sports and entertainment — but even if he left college sports today, Yormark’s legacy would be secure. And impressive.

10. Jim Phillips
Title: ACC commissioner
Impact: Phillips has been forced to navigate a tumultuous situation in which the ACC’s long grant-of-rights agreement (until 2036) collided with the revenue demands of its top football schools — with the dirty laundry on display to the world, courtesy of Florida State. As of this writing, the ACC has not officially added Stanford, Cal and SMU, rendering any conclusions on Phillips’ impact a tad premature.

11. Jimmy Sexton
Title: Sports agent for Creative Artist Agency
Impact: Sexton would make our list even if Alabama’s Nick Saban and Georgia’s Kirby Smart were his only clients. Alas, he has many others, and his masterful manipulation of the system has fueled the escalation of coaching salaries that’s partly responsible for the momentum behind compensating the players. After all, if the coaches are making $8 million or more per year, shouldn’t the labor be entitled to something?

12. Karen Brodkin and Hillary Mandel
Brodkin’s title: Co-head of WME sports
Mandel’s title: Executive vice president of IMG Media
Impact: Brodkin and Mandel form a powerhouse media consulting partnership that has deeply influenced the sport recently. They advised the Big Ten on its $1 billion deal last summer, then helped the Big 12 secure the renewal of its agreement with ESPN and Fox in the fall. (Note: IMG and WME are owned by Endeavor.)

13. Ramogi Huma
Title: Executive director of National College Players Association
Impact: The former UCLA linebacker is a leading advocate for player rights and helped turn name, image and likeness into law in California. He’s also deeply involved in the National Labor Relations Board complaint against USC, the Pac-12 and the NCAA.

14. Alan Gold
Title: Head of sports media at Evolution Media Capital
Impact: Gold and his former partner, Nick Khan (now CEO of the WWE), provided the strategic advice that led the SEC to move its ‘Game of the Week’ package off CBS and over to ESPN, effectively binding the conference and the network together into the 2030s. Sankey could have hired anyone. He chose Gold.

15. Charlie Baker
Title: NCAA president
Impact: It speaks to the NCAA’s limited role in college football that the organization’s head honcho is merely 15th on the Hot 25 list. (It controls the calendar and the playing rules and not much else.) That said, Baker’s work with Congress will be essential to the process of formulating a viable economic model for the sport (NIL, revenue sharing, employment status for players, etc.).

16. Mike Aresco
Title: American Athletic Conference commissioner
Impact: Aresco’s role leading the 14-team (for now) conference is secondary, in our view, to his position as the unofficial voice (and soul) of the little guys in a sport dominated by blue bloods and behemoths. Nobody has fought the good fight for the Group of Five as often, or as effectively, as Aresco.

17. Brett Goetz
Title: Founder of the South Florida Express
Impact: Unfamiliar with the Express? It was the first true (i.e., traveling) 7-on-7 program in the country and remains one of the most powerful with an alumni list that includes Amari Cooper, Geno Smith, Ryan Shazier, Asante Samuel Jr., Teddy Bridgewater and Devin Bush. And Goetz has run the operation for nearly two decades, making him a major player in shaping the recruiting world.

18. Richard McCullough
Title: Florida State president
Impact: McCullough’s role in shaping the sport has been substantial in recent months. If not for Florida State’s public expressions of frustration and internal applications of pressure, the ACC might not have seriously considered expanding to the West Coast. Perhaps McCullough’s role will diminish moving forward if calm returns to the Atlantic Seaboard. But for the moment, his impact on the sport is undeniable.

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19. Gloria Nevarez
Title: Mountain West commissioner
Impact: On the job for just eight months, Nevarez has been presented with a major opportunity to shape the structure of the sport in the western third of the country following the collapse of the Pac-12. In the event of a merger between her league and the so-called ‘Pac-2’, Nevarez likely would preside over 11 percent of the FBS schools.

20. Mike Locksley
Title: Maryland head coach
Impact: The only coach or athletic director to crack the Hot 25 list, Locksley warrants inclusion as the founder of the National Association of Minority Football Coaches, which is “dedicated to preparing, promoting, and producing minority coaches at all levels of football.” (Here’s the website.) Few issues are more important than increasing diversity within the coaching ranks, from high school to the NFL.

21. Carrie Cecil
Impact: Cecil specializes in crisis communications. Needless to say, there are opportunities galore for that expertise in college football. Her client list over the years has included the Big 12 and Pac-12, as well as former Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, who hired Cecil following his bungled handling of the conference’s COVID shutdown in the summer of 2020.

22. Mike Caspino
Title: NIL attorney
Impact: No single person or entity dominates the amorphous world of name, image and likeness — each school has at least one collective dispensing cash and offering opportunities. So consider Caspino a proxy for the independent attorneys and advisors who help arrange the deals. After all, he reportedly was involved in two of the most famous NIL cases: quarterbacks Jaden Rashada (Florida, then Arizona State) and Nico Iamaleava (Tennessee).

23. AJ Maestas
Title: CEO of Navigate
Impact: College football has never been bigger business than it is these days, and the business decisions are often based on the audience, engagement and sponsorship data that Maestas’ firm provides. His client list over the years has included ESPN, the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and MAC. (Disclosure: Navigate researchers partnered with the Hotline on several content projects, mostly in the late 2010s and one in 2022.)

24. George Kliavkoff
Title: Pac-12 commissioner
Impact: Kliavkoff presided over the collapse of a 108-year-old college sports institution — a collapse due, in large part, to his misread of internal dynamics and the broader media landscape. That said, he remains in charge of the day-to-day operation of a Power Five conference as the football season unfolds. And that counts for something.

25. Matt Holt
Title: CEO of U.S. Integrity
Impact: Holt’s company uses advanced algorithms to spot betting irregularities and thus serves as the first line of defense against game fixing by athletes, coaches and officials/referees. U.S. Integrity works on behalf of the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12 and others, and its importance will grow exponentially as wagering — in particular, mobile wagering — becomes more prevalent.

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