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Gloria Nevarez is more than just the first Latino commissioner in Division I

The West Coast Conference commish discusses her career path and challenges

West Coast Conference commissioner Gloria Nevarez values the importance of her position as a woman of color. She didn’t have a similar role model when she grew up playing sports in the Bay Area.

“I have been starting to get noticed,” Nevarez told The Undefeated. “One of the fathers at the [WCC women’s basketball] tournament recently came up to me — his last name was Gonzalez — and it was so sweet, he said, ‘I’m just really proud of you.’ Not a lot of people say that. But I knew what he was saying. There are not a lot of people of Mexican-American descent representing [in college athletics]. That was a warm, fuzzy moment.”

The WCC hired Nevarez on March 19, 2018, after she had spent eight years at the Pac-12 Conference as the senior associate commissioner and senior woman administrator overseeing all conference championships except football. The Berkeley Law graduate also served as senior associate athletic director at Oklahoma and on the senior administrator level for the WCC, Cal and San Jose State.

Shortly after her WCC appointment, Nevarez played a pivotal role in giving Gonzaga and its powerhouse men’s basketball program the final push to stay in the WCC instead of departing to the Mountain West Conference.

The former University of Massachusetts basketball player is now one of 10 female conference commissioners currently in Division I. The daughter of a Mexican father, Nevarez is also the first Latino commissioner of a Division I conference. But she is not one to forget her Filipino and Irish heritage from her mother.

“When we were doing the release and I was asked about the race aspect, what do you say?” Nevarez said. “Technically, I’m half Mexican, a fourth Filipino and a fourth Irish, so what do you call that? The first Mexican-American … the first Latino, because I’m first in either gender. The first Latina, because I am the first female. Or Latinx. Or am I offending my Irish and Filipino background by not mentioning either? It’s a lot to figure out how to say it. …

“Honestly, I didn’t earn that. I just am that. … How do I get publicity or credit for something I just am, as opposed to, ‘Oh, she has a law degree. … She’s worked really hard and did this.’ ”

The following is a Q&A with Nevarez, who discusses lessons learned from her experience in sports, advice for women who dream of working in college sports, overcoming sexual harassment in the workplace, Gonzaga basketball and more.

When did you first fall in love with sports?

Youth soccer when [I was] like 9 or 10. My cousin Naomi said, ‘Come play soccer with me.’ I was like, ‘No!’ She convinced me to play with the big white shorts and the blue shirt. And I just never looked back. I loved it. I played soccer and then went to softball because all those girls played softball. And I didn’t really get into basketball until junior high. …

I loved playing basketball because you needed more skill. I would drive my dad’s van up I-880 north to Alameda to play for a team called North Coast Express because there weren’t many girls teams around. And I remember saying, ‘Oh, wow, these girls are good.’

When did you start dreaming about being a high-level college administrator?

I don’t think I did. I played basketball in college. I didn’t know what I was going to do afterwards. I took the LSAT just because, and I was going to take the GMAT. I did freakishly well on the LSAT. I just standardize-test well. … And then I thought, Why don’t I go to law school? And then in law school I thought, I want to do sport. …

So I joined the Cal athletic department and their single compliance person for 900 athletes, 27 sports, was working by himself. He was a lawyer who was supervising me for externship credit. And then I thought, Wow, I can make a job out of college athletics.

Did you think you being a conference commissioner was possible growing up?

Never even considered it. … Later around mid-30s, I thought maybe I will be on the athletic director track. But it just seemed so far away. I always took jobs that attracted me to working with good people that can make an impact. It was when I worked at Oklahoma for Joe Castiglione, then search firms started calling and I became a legitimate candidate.

What were your biggest challenges getting to this point?

Getting the experience that will help you advance. In college athletics, you have to touch external fundraising. You have to touch football. You have to touch men’s basketball. Those are hard fields to cut into. You see a lot of women and minorities coming in through student services and compliance, heavy operations roles. And it’s hard to break out or across some of those things.

How much does being a former athlete help you?

I am comfortable with the people I work with. But most importantly, when you play, you learn really quickly, win or lose, that it is nothing personal. It stays on the floor. Your teammates are people you might not be friends with, but you learn to work with them. You lose on the battlefield, but you don’t hate that person. You look for the next time you can go up against them again.

That really helped in the boardroom, not taking it personal. ‘We disagree, so they don’t like me.’ No. They just disagree with me. You can still respect each other.

Have you dealt with any disrespectful things?

Absolutely. I don’t know if that’s being a woman, a minority or being a compliance officer. That’s how I started. You have a lot of stressful conversations situations. But I don’t think more than anyone would in college athletics when dealing with big personalities and big egos and a lot on the line.

Can you talk about the incident you had at Cal when someone sexually assaulted you?

We were at a Christmas party at [Cal] and taking a picture with my boyfriend on one side and the senior administrator on the other. You’re doing the side hug for the photographer and the senior administrator grabs my butt. Awful. So I stewed on it all night. The next Monday I went in to complain about it. I was told, ‘You certainly can file a complaint. Is that what you want to do?’ So I started thinking, Is that what I want to do?

So instead I called him in my office, and it was a tiny little office. I was in my mid- to late 20s. I was the assistant athletic director for compliance, one of my first jobs. And I called him in, and in a shaky voice, ‘This is what happened. You shouldn’t do that. I deserve to be respected. I am a professional. I don’t want to talk about this again. But you have to know this can’t happen again.’ And he apologized and said all the right things and I was able to walk the halls and not feel weird about him. In fact, I felt like I had an edge on him after that.

As an adult looking back, wow. Had that been a different personality on the other side of the table, that could have gone really bad. I had a lot of support from the other senior administrators. And it’s Cal. Had I gotten loud about something like that, I felt I would’ve been supported. Cal has a high success rate in dealing with things like that.

How did you convince Gonzaga to stay in the West Coast Conference?

The fortunate thing was I already knew their administrators. I already knew [Gonzaga athletic director] Mike Roth when I first worked in the league, so I was able to have candid conversations with him. I was really the last leg of that relay. A lot of conversations had previously been done by the [Gonzaga] president and athletic director. What was really interesting about that is I feel like Gonzaga fits. They fit in our league wholeheartedly, culturally and geographically. I haven’t heard a negative word since they stayed. They belong with us.

I was really concerned that there weren’t any media inquiries through the conference during that time or for myself as a new commissioner. What that told me was the league office had not been a voice. So in addition to keeping Gonzaga in the league and all that flows from that, it was really an ‘aha’ moment that we need to establish ourselves as a voice, an authority and a representation of being in the WCC when stuff happens.

What would it mean for the WCC for Gonzaga’s men’s basketball team to win a national title?

The fact that Gonzaga could do it from the WCC platform is a very special statement. They came into league play with a double-digit NET [NCAA evaluation tool] ranking and established a No. 1 ranking during conference play and maintained it throughout conference. That’s how strong our league was. Their numbers were not pulled down and bolstered everyone up. For them to vie for a national title from our league, you can’t ask for a healthier state for our conference.

You were at UMass during the John Calipari days with the men’s program?

My first year was John Calipari’s first year, so the program was pretty flat. But to watch it grow in four years was amazing. Those guys were so dynamic. National stage. Sweet 16. It was really a cool family between the programs. I see those guys all the time now. John Calipari was definitely what the town needed. He was so charismatic. There was a calzone named after him at my favorite grinder shop.

Did you ever meet former UMass star and NBA legend Julius “Dr. J” Erving?

I met him a couple years ago at the Pac-12 tournament. It was probably the first time I went fangirl on a hoopster. He was the only jersey hanging in our gym at UMass. I told him, ‘I am really thrilled to meet you. I played under your jersey for four years.’ And he was so amazing. He sat and talked to me. I saw him two years later at the Hall of Fame induction and he remembered me. He’s a genuine dude.

What do you think about the multicultural background you come from?

What I really enjoy is that my parents came from a really traditional background. My mom is Filipino and Irish out of New York. My dad is Mexican from right over the border. But they really embraced the California lifestyle. I grew up water skiing, snow skiing. My husband and I really like to scuba dive and like how [my parents] embraced their traditional family culture but liked exploring. We went camping, to rodeos and flea markets and just really just took advantage of where we were at the time despite the low resources. We were car camping, and that type of thing.

What advice would you give to young women who want to follow in your footsteps?

You have to tackle things head-on. Tough conversations. One-on-one disagreements. You’ve got to step in. You’ve got to step forward and embrace … and I don’t mean going guns blazing. Say, ‘Hey, I noticed in the meeting we didn’t have an agreement and I’d like to talk to you about it.’ You might not come to an agreement, but you have to step into it. You have to be there for the tough moments. That has really helped me step into relationships.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.