Tom Jernstedt, who helped transform the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament into the major annual sports attraction known as March Madness, died Saturday outside his home in Tequesta, Fla. He was 75.
His wife, Kristine Kellam Jernstedt, said he had finished exercising and died in his car while reading a newspaper.
Mr. Jernstedt joined the NCAA in 1972 and over the next 38 years worked behind the scenes to turn the Division I basketball tournament into a much bigger event, attracting many more fans and generating more revenue.
In a succession of jobs, ultimately as executive vice president, he oversaw the day-to-day operations of the event, the expansion of participating teams from 25 to 65 and the selection of larger sites, including domed stadiums, for the Final Four games.
“Tom was a brilliant administrator and diplomat,” Bill Hancock, a former NCAA official who is now executive director of the College Football Playoff, said in a phone interview. “He had a great ability to say no, without cramming his decision down your throat.”
Mr. Jernstedt also worked with the local committees that hosted the Final Four, which consists of the semifinals and the championship game; helped create the policies governing the selection and seeding of the teams in the tournament; and was the lead staff member during negotiations with television networks that generated millions, and then billions, of dollars from CBS.
“He understood our business exceptionally well, especially for someone who hadn’t been in television,” Neal Pilson, a former president of CBS Sports, said by phone. One weekend during the tournament, he said, a glitch at its broadcast center in Manhattan caused the network to lose the technical ability to air commercials that were worth more than $1 million.
“I told Tom, ‘It’s our fault we lost the commercials, can we add them the next weekend?’ ” Pilson recalled. “He said, ‘Go ahead, but don’t do it again.’ Some people we deal with might have said, ‘No, you’re out of luck,’ but Tom said, ‘Just get it done.’ ”
Mr. Jernstedt became known as the “father of the Final Four,” but he was not working alone. He worked closely with top NCAA leaders Walter Byers, David Cawood, another NCAA executive, and the organization’s powerful men’s basketball committee. The committee’s rotating membership meant that Mr. Jernstedt had the organization’s deepest institutional knowledge.
In 1981, after the attempted assassination of President Reagan, Mr. Jernstedt was part of the NCAA group that had to decide whether the tournament’s title game in Philadelphia that night, between Indiana and North Carolina, should go on as scheduled.
The game proceeded only after it was made clear — by a committee member who had a contact in the White House — that Reagan would survive the surgery he underwent after the shooting.
“And when he told us that the president had even used that old W.C. Fields line, ‘All in all, I’d rather be in Philadelphia,’ ” Mr. Jernstedt told The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2016, “we thought that was a good sign and very appropriate for this occasion.”
Thomas Walter Jernstedt was born on Nov. 24, 1944, in McMinnville, Ore., and raised in nearby Carlton. His mother, Catherine (Anderson) Jernstedt, was a librarian; his father, Donald, owned and operated a school bus company.
He had a mild case of polio when he was 5 years old, which left him unable to rock back on the heel of his right foot.
Nevertheless, he grew up an athlete.
In high school he was a star quarterback, basketball guard, and pitcher. He was a reserve quarterback and tight end on the University of Oregon’s varsity football team; by his senior year, no longer playing much, he began helping the athletic department recruit high school players when they visited the campus in Eugene.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in political science in 1967, he worked selling electrical equipment and spices. But he returned to Oregon two years later to run events at the request of Len Casanova, his football coach, who had become the athletic director.
After becoming the athletic department’s business manager — where he helped run the 1972 track and field championships at Oregon’s Hayward Field — he was hired by the NCAA later that year as events director. (He also earned his master’s in curriculum and instruction from Oregon in 1973.)
Even after he began running the men’s basketball tournament, Mr. Jernstedt oversaw other NCAA championships and helped develop the women’s basketball tournament.
“Because he had not done it full time, he knew that the NCAA had not invested enough time in all the details and knew he needed a nerd like me to do that,” said Hancock, who succeeded Mr. Jernstedt as the basketball tournament’s director in 1989.
Mr. Jernstedt continued to oversee March Madness even while he served as the president of USA Basketball, the governing body of the sport, from 2001-04.
He remained with the NCAA until 2010, when his job was eliminated by Mark Emmert, the association’s new president, in a restructuring. In 2017, Mr. Jernstedt was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which cited the tournament’s growth “into the phenomenon that makes March a college basketball fan’s favorite time of the year.”
He was named to the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame last month.
In recent years, Mr. Jernstedt consulted with various college conferences, including the Big East and the Pac-12.
In addition to his wife, he leaves a son, Cole, from his marriage to Kellam Jernstedt; a daughter, Jaci Jernstedt, and a son, Derek, from his marriage to Dorothy Dornsife; two grandchildren; his sisters, Missy Abrahamson and Susie Baty, and his brother, Rich.