Dr. James Frank – Greater New Orleans Sports Hall of Fame
Southwestern Athletic Conference
In a career that spanned more than 40 years, Dr. James Frank was both a player and a pioneering administrator. He ranks among the rare individuals whose careers successfully span the entire collegiate experience, starting as a student-athlete and then becoming a coach, educator, college president and then crowning their professional careers as a revered conference commissioner. His efforts and leadership influenced the lives of countless people who he touched as teacher, colleague, counselor and friend, and in 2001 the NFF presented him its Distinguished American Award, recognizing his numerous contributions to college athletics.
Frank’s longest job was his last. He served as commissioner of the New Orleans-based Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) for 15 years from 1983 until his retirement in 1998. He also held the post on an interim basis from May of 2001 until Dec. 2002 when SWAC officials asked him to help with a transition, which he did. The SWAC leadership had no doubt he would step in when they asked. They knew their man and what he had done. By the time he retired, Frank had made SWAC a viable, respected athletic conference comprised of historically black colleges.
It had not always been so. In 1983, officials of the schools that made up the conference asked Frank to study and assess the problems the conference faced and to come up with ideas that would benefit them all. Frank, at the time, had been president of Lincoln University (Mo.) for ten years, the first of that school’s graduates to hold the top job at their alma mater. When Frank delivered the requested report to SWAC members, the member schools studied and conferred and came up with a unanimous conclusion: Frank was the one man who could solve the problems he had identified with the ideas and programs he had recommended. Frank was offered the position as SWAC Commissioner and he accepted the new challenge.
While at Lincoln and prior to his role with the SWAC, Frank served a two-year term as president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association from 1981 to 1983, becoming both the first African-American and the first college president to serve as NCAA president. Frank also served on many NCAA committees and held the secretary-treasurer positions. He was closely involved in several issues that changed NCAA history. In the 1970s, Frank led the NCAA Long-Range Planning Committee and discussions of enhanced presidential partnership that eventually led to a demographic change in Association leadership. He was a key force in bringing women’s championships under the NCAA umbrella and pushing for the advancement of women’s intercollegiate athletics within the NCAA structure asserting that “‘separate but equal’ does not lead to equality.” Former NCAA Executive Director Walter Byers and Frank began discussions in the late 1980s that led to the Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee, a group devoted to give diversity a greater voice in Association policy-making.
Playing basketball and baseball as a two-sport athlete in high school, Frank began his college career at Lincoln, which had awarded him a four-year basketball scholarship after he led his undefeated high school team to the Pennsylvania State Championship. In college, he was captain of the Lincoln five his junior and senior years. In his senior year, Frank also ran the mile for the track team. He got his BS in education from Lincoln, then went into the Army. He had completed four years of college ROTC so was commissioned a second lieutenant for active duty in the Army Corps of Engineers.
Following his Army days, Frank wanted to expand his education, attending Springfield College and earning his master of science (1956). Then, it was back to Lincoln. He had two jobs there. He was assistant basketball coach. But that was just part of the full title he earned in two years: assistant professor of health, physical education and head basketball coach. He coached his way to four NCAA regional tournaments. While coaching at Lincoln, Frank assumed a heavier load, concurrently working toward his Doctoral degree in Physical Education, with emphasis in college administration. He received his degree from Springfield in 1962.
From then on, Frank’s career combined coaching and teaching. He moved to New York and Woodlands High School in suburban Hartsdale, teaching health and physical education while coaching the freshman basketballers, and he served as assistant athletic director and director of intramural sports. In 1964, he switched to the city and Manhattan’s Hunter College. He split his teaching responsibilities with coaching the track, cross country and golf teams.
The City University of New York was the next stop; first in the Bronx at the Herbert Lehman College, then at the creation of NYU’s Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. At Lehman, Frank was supervisor of student teachers, assistant to the dean of summer school and directed the summer tutorial program and summer youth sports program. He also directed the physical education majors program.
In 1970, the City University established Medgar Evers College and named Frank dean of students. He supervised the Office of Admissions, The Registrar’s Office, College Discover Program and financial aid and counseling, among other things. A year later, Frank was promoted to vice-president, serving as deputy to the president and supervising the entire academic program.
Frank was then invited to become the 12th president of Lincoln. His smile was as wide as if he’d just scored the winning basket when he accepted. His outstanding administrative abilities became even more recognized than his sports achievements.
He devoted a remarkable decade guiding the destinies and success of Lincoln. And concurrently, he served as NCAA secretary-treasurer and then president. It all led to SWAC. Frank accepted the challenge and stepped into a conference that was without staff and without a reputation. There was no national presence even though there were national caliber athletes playing in the conference.
Frank changed it all. He increased corporate sponsorships, and he led the effort to expand African-American membership on NCAA committees. The league expanded from three members to ten, laying the foundation for the conference to become the top draw for football attendance in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division 1-AA). He gained national respect, and SWAC players found themselves on the national stage.
Frank received numerous awards recognizing his devotion to college sports. In 2007, he claimed the NCAA President’s Gerald R. Ford Award, honoring individuals who have provided significant leadership as an advocate for higher education and intercollegiate athletics. Other honors include: the James Corbett Award, which is the highest award given by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA); the Distinguished Alumni Award from Springfield College; and a listing as one of the “100 Most Influential Athletes” during the NCAA’s Centennial Celebration.
Born Oct. 6, 1930, Frank passed away Jan. 26, 2019. He was 88.
[Bio from the National Football Foundation]