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How Red Sox CEO Sam Kennedy helped Charlie Baker become the next NCAA president

Charlie Baker presents an acknowledgement to the Boston College women's lacrosse team after it won the NCAA championship in 2021. The team was honored at the State House that June.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

On Wednesday night, Charlie Baker told Sam Kennedy with a laugh, “This is all on you.”

“This” is Baker’s new job, incoming president of the NCAA.

It is a role Kennedy, the Red Sox president and CEO, helped fill after being reached by Len Perna, an NCAA-affiliated headhunter who is the founder, chairman and CEO of TurnkeyZRG, back in September.

“[Perna] was describing what college sports needed and he started to walk me through the qualifications that they were looking for, and Charlie just immediately popped into my head, so I suggested that they have a conversation,” Kennedy told the Globe on Thursday.


“It’s so great that it came together. I’m so excited for Charlie and [Baker’s wife] Lauren and the family, and honestly, college sports, which needs this — badly.”

The NCAA is facing a number of legal challenges as it navigates a new landscape of NIL — name, image, likeness — which allows athletes to market their personas on an individual basis. Then, there’s the growing amount of money in broadcasting sports, particularly football, as conferences negotiate high-priced television and streaming deals.

But why is Baker a good fit? Kennedy explained his reasoning.

“First of all, he’s a former student-athlete, he’s always been passionate about sports, especially college sports, he’s got experience as a CEO, he’s had experience in private equity, but he’s very empathetic and has tons of compassion,” said Kennedy. “And, perhaps most importantly, he is politically wired into the White House and Congress and the Senate. He understands how to get things done, and the NCAA has a ton of challenges right now and a ton of opportunities. He just seems to be the perfect leader at the perfect time.”

Baker and Kennedy at an event at Fenway in 2020.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Kennedy said it took little effort to pique Perna’s interest in Baker.

“I don’t think Len was thinking necessarily about a sitting politician, but he immediately got it when I started to describe Charlie,” said Kennedy. “He asked me in what context I knew him, and I told them that I’ve been watching and had known Charlie back to his days as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim a little bit. But I really got to know him as governor, watching him lead the state for two terms, and especially through COVID and how he handled a crisis of epic proportions. You know, the whole world was disrupted, and Massachusetts was disrupted.


“Len immediately got it that this is a guy who can lead with vision and strength, but also with kindness and empathy.”

As the recruitment commenced, Kennedy said he stayed in touch with both Baker and Perna.

“My only worry was that somehow Lauren might be upset with me for suggesting he take on something like this because it’s a massive challenge,” said Kennedy. “But anyone who knows the Bakers knows that Lauren is the strength and brains of the operation. They’re a team and it was incredibly important to Charlie that Lauren was fully on board, and Len understood that.”

Kennedy sees Baker as a viable candidate for virtually any position.

“I’m a registered Democrat, but if I could handpick a president of the United States, it would be Charlie Baker, without question,” said Kennedy. “He’s just one of the most impressive leaders — he’s bipartisan, he gets people, he understands business, he cares about not-for-profits, he’s just extraordinary. He doesn’t engage in all the BS out there. So, it was an honor to play a very small part in this whole thing.”


Michael Silverman can be reached at michael.silverman@globe.com.