Internal affairs

NCAA compliance officer may be the toughest job in college sports

Updated: August 17, 2010, 5:59 PM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesRodriguez and his staff ignored more than 25 requests for critical NCAA paperwork.

The irony is lost.

Nobody acknowledges it as the woman bounds onto the stage, an ovation at her back, to receive her industry's highest honor. It's a late-June morning, in a half-full Anaheim hotel ballroom. This is the presentation of the Frank Kara Leadership Award at the National Association for Athletics Compliance convention, bestowed annually on the member who best demonstrates "leadership" and "vision." The winner is Michigan's Judy Van Horn.

Behind the podium, Van Horn -- early 50s, with fashionable purple glasses, a broad smile and shiny hair the color of wheat -- raises the diamond-shape trophy. But only for a moment, as if an award she's waited her entire 21-year career to receive suddenly felt empty. A month earlier Michigan released an internal investigation of its football program. It revealed four major violations, including illegally long practices and impermissible staffer-player contact. The university doled out seven letters of reprimand, including ones to head coach Rich Rodriguez and Van Horn, the Wolverines' compliance officer, for failing to "adequately monitor" the football program. For Van Horn, that meant failing to do her job.

Now, on this day, she's being recognized for doing it better than anyone else. As she leans into the mic, her voice cracks, as if she were about to talk about how tough the tarring of her previously unblemished reputation has been. But she doesn't. Instead she says, "At the end of the day, when I look at this award, I think, This isn't about me. It's about our profession. I love this profession. I love the people in it. I know it's challenging, and there are times we wonder why we do it, because it's thankless." Then she pauses.

Those in the audience nod their heads.