Former USATF President Stephanie Hightower.
Former USATF President Stephanie Hightower. Image via iaaf.org

Stephanie Hightower signaled a greater push for election to a world track and field post with the surprise announcement Wednesday she has resigned as chairman of her sport’s national Board of Directors.

Only hours before the IAAF announced that Eugene, Oregon, would host the 2021 world outdoor championships, directors chose Vice Chairman Steve Miller to replace Hightower as chair of the USA Track & Field board. But one veteran USATF official expressed concern about Miller’s ties to tennis legend Andre Agassi, an admitted user of banned drugs. (See below.)

Reaction was tentative to Hightower’s decision to step down — despite her lightning rod status in the U.S. governing body.

Hightower, serving her final term as elected USATF president, will stay on the 15-member board as she stands for election to the IAAF Council.

A USA Track & Field statement quoted her as saying she “must devote significant time and effort to that endeavor.” Hence her decision to resign as board chair, USATF said.

A former world-class hurdler who is now board vice chair, Hightower said: “I wish to help provide continuity and stability in leadership change as we move into the next phase of the IAAF election process.”

Hightower’s resignation came during a regularly scheduled conference call. Miller was then nominated and the board unanimously voted to name him chair, according to USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer.

Carlsbad’s Willie Banks, the former world record holder in the triple jump who left the board last year after a six-year run, told Times of San Diego that her stepping down was “the proper action.”

“It seems to be consistent with the board policy over the years,” Banks said. “When Stephanie put her hat in the ring for the CEO position, she was asked to resign her post first and she chose not to. Max [Siegel] resigned as a board member before he sought [and won] the CEO position.”

Steve Miller, new USATF board chairman, leads the Agassi Foundation. Image via YouTube.com

Southern California’s David Greifinger, a leading critic of Hightower and the board, didn’t think widespread criticism of the board in rejecting Bob Hersh for the IAAF candidacy played a role in her stepping down.

“Stephanie’s overriding ambition for the last several years has been to replace Bob Hersh on the IAAF Council,” Greifinger said. “She must believe that this move helps to assure her election to the IAAF Council. … I do not expect to see any significant changes in how the USATF board conducts its business.”

Weldon Johnson, a founder of the popular letsrun.com website, said late Wednesday: “Nothing the Board or Stephanie does surprises me anymore.”

However, he said that if running for IAAF Council is a “truly demanding task … then one might think she should resign as chair and president. I assume being president of USATF is more of a demanding job than being chair.”

But he noted that the International Association of Athletics Federations — the world governing body of track and field — views the president as the head of USATF.

“If Stephanie steps down [as president], she doesn’t go to [the IAAF world championships this summer in Beijing], she loses all the perks, and her chances to network for the IAAF Council are gone.”

On Thursday, Johnson told Times of San Diego:

Stephanie is still president, she is still running for the IAAF Council, and her righthand man is now leading the board. So immediately it means almost no change. Long-term it opens up the possibility to less change as well if the new USATF president was head of the board.

Miller, a board member since 2009, will serve the remainder of Hightower’s term as board chair, through 2016.

Miller is CEO of Agassi Graf Holdings, the Andre Agassi Foundation for Education, and BILT by Agassi and Reyes.

He previously served as president and CEO of the Professional Bowlers Association, director of Global Sports Marketing for Nike, adjunct professor at the University of Oregon Warsaw School of Sports Marketing and Kansas State University athletic director.

USATF masters track publicist Bob Weiner (left) has concerns about new chairman Steve Miller. Photo by Ken Stone

Miller’s role in the Agassi camp concerned Bob Weiner, a Washington-based Democratic strategist who volunteers as a USATF masters track publicist.

He praised Hightower as “enthusiastic and organized, and she gave a lot to the field.”

A bigger concern, though, is that Miller comes from “Agassi groups on many fronts,” Weiner said.

“Agassi is a fun guy and a known tennis champion, but in his autobiography he admitted taking banned stimulant drugs during his Grand Slam tournaments and tennis knew and knows but did nothing about it,” Weiner said via email.

As the former spokesman for the White House Drug Policy Office, who helped create the drug-fighting bodies WADA and USADA, Weiner said, “I consider one of USATF’s shining achievements its zero-tolerance policy for drug cheating and our testing program as part of its drive for clean sport.”

Weiner hopes that Miller will make strong statements to maintain and even expand USATF’s “world leadership on drug-free sport and will press continuing to test and bust cheaters.”

On why Hightower may have resigned, Weiner said: “I agree that the will of the vast majority of the delegates as voted was ignored for the IAAF representative position.  That feeling by so many may well have played a role.”

Updated at 9:15 a.m. April 16, 2015

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