SBJ/Nov. 8-14, 2010/This Week's Issue
For them, leadership began in armed forces
Published November 8, 2010
Veterans Day is Thursday, and to recognize the many military veterans working in sports, SportsBusiness Journal’s Don Muret spoke with eight of them, from longtime executive and Air Force veteran HARVEY SCHILLER to NFL EVP and Navy vet ERIC GRUBMAN. They talked about ties between their years in the armed forces and their sports jobs, as well as some of their military experiences. Special thanks to facility operations consultant Bill Squires, a retired Navy commander and former manager of old Yankee Stadium, Giants Stadium and Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Harvey Schiller has a plaque on his office wall as a reminder he survived 700 combat flight hours during his 1966-67 tour of Vietnam.
The sign mentions the particular day 30-caliber bullets hit his plane, a Fairchild C-123 Provider. “When you got shot at, you got a certificate because you were then a ‘Punctured Provider,’” Schiller said. “I got shot up quite a bit, but no injuries. Luckily, they hit behind the cockpit, not in front.”
Schiller spent 24 years as an Air Force pilot and retired as a brigadier general in 1986. He graduated in 1960 from The Citadel and attended graduate school at the University of Michigan before entering the Air Force as a second lieutenant.
Every day in Vietnam was a different mission in the air, whether it was dropping troop supplies or providing special forces support, Schiller said. He earned a trunk full of medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross and Legion of Merit.
After returning from Vietnam, Schiller went back to school, earning a doctorate in chemistry from Michigan, and in 1980 he was named a permanent professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy by the president of the United States.
His civilian career is just as impressive, with stops as president of Turner Sports, executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee, CEO of YankeeNets and commissioner of the Southeastern Conference.
Schiller points to his job as executive director of the USOC from 1990 to 1994 as the one position with the strongest ties to his military service.
“In both cases, you’re putting forward the interests of your country,” he said. “Lots of military people have been involved in the Olympic movement and it’s been supported strongly by the armed forces throughout its history.”
He still remembers the rattlesnake let loose during a survival training exercise in an Air Force Academy building that later became part of the USOC’s headquarters.“I hope he’s dead by now,” Schiller joked.When the SEC had individual schools hit with NCAA infractions, conference and university officials turned to Schiller and his deep military background to right the course in 1986.
“The presidents were clearly looking for someone to return integrity to the conference as well as [push] the advancements in minority recruiting and a bunch of other things at the time,” Schiller said. “I think the commitment married up very well with someone who came out of the military.”
Mike Hill sees a daily connection between his Air Force tenure and his ESPN duties.
“The timeliness of what we have to do, it’s one of the principles I apply every day,” he said. “The camaraderie and teamwork it takes to put a show together, I got all that from the military. As an anchor, I’m one of the leaders and you have to take charge in certain situations when things go wrong.”
Hill was searching for a way out of Bessemer, Ala., when he decided to join the Air Force, following the same steps as some family members.
Seeing what they did, making a successful transition from high school to the military and a secondary education, made sense to Hill, especially growing up in what he described as a downtrodden community best known for producing Heisman Trophy winner Bo Jackson.
“I saw so many people leave my neighborhood and come back after a year of college and ended up working in a factory or local business and that’s just not the route I wanted to take,” Hill said.
“I wasn’t ready for college, to be quite honest, and needed that discipline in my life.”
His Air Force experience from 1988 to 1995 took him to the Philippines and Hawaii. Until that period in his life, Hill had never been anywhere beyond the East Coast. It was in Hawaii that Hill became a radio communications analyst during Desert Storm.
Hill never set foot in Iraq but he did provide radio support for American spy planes flying missions over the Mideast. Over the years, Hill moved from airman to airman first class and buck sergeant before leaving the military to pursue a career in sports television.
During his final year in the Air Force, Hill landed a television internship in Baltimore and was fortunate enough to participate in a new broadcasting program launched by the National Security Agency. Hill became an anchor on a new show with a format similar to the 6 p.m. national news.
“What the agency wanted to do instead of having those boring briefings was to make it a ‘World News Tonight’ format, all confidential and secure, of course,” Hill said.
The same day Hill received his discharge papers, Feb. 5, 1995, he also got his first real broadcasting job as a weekend sportscaster in Hagerstown, Md.
“Market 196,” he said, referring to Hagerstown’s rank as a designated market area. “I had already auditioned and interviewed for the job. “
Later came sports anchor stops in Fresno, Nashville, New York and Dallas before Hill reached the Worldwide Leader, getting a job with ESPN 6 1/2 years ago.
“Even though I did not go to Iraq I served during wartime and it was a very tense situation, so if I was able to handle all those situations, it prepared me for life in the corporate world as well,” Hill said. “Without my military experience, I would not be where I am right now.”
Ron Johnson was set to ease into a second career with global security and technology firm Lockheed Martin until the NBA came calling in 2008 to help restore integrity to its game.
About a year after former NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to charges linked to allegations he supplied gamblers with inside information, league officials created a new position and hired Johnson to supervise all referees.
NBA Commissioner David Stern turned to Johnson to fill that critical role two years after first meeting the major general before he addressed the rookie class of 2006. Johnson was the guy the Army picked after Stern put in a request to the Army chief of staff for a speaker.
“I spoke to the rookies about values, responsibility and being a role model,” Johnson said “I spent the day with them, had lunch with them. I left and thought that was surely a lot of fun and never thought about it again.”
But then the Donaghy scandal broke in July 2007. The following summer, Stern asked Johnson whether he would be interested in becoming the NBA’s new senior vice president of referee operations.
Stern put his trust in a military veteran who played a key role in the second Gulf War, serving as America’s commanding general responsible for managing the reconstruction of Iraq from December 2003 through July 2004.
“I’m the guy they sent over with the $18.4 billion supplemental budget,” he said. “I wasn’t drawing a weapon or anything, but it was not a friendly environment over there, with multiple attacks on soldiers and civilians as you’re trying to move around and do your job.”
Johnson got shot at a few times in Iraq but was never hit by gunfire, and he wasn’t in a vehicle that hit an improvised explosive device and killed his security guard.
After 32 years in the military, Johnson was set to retire July 1, 2008, and go to work as Lockheed Martin’s vice president of performance excellence. “That job would have fit me fine based upon the skills I brought to the table,” Johnson said.
The timing of the Donaghy situation and Johnson’s pending retirement from the Army prompted Stern to make the job offer, Johnson said.“The first thing I knew that was No. 1 in importance from talking to Commissioner Stern was the integrity of our game and men and young women that possessed and demonstrated a high level of excellence,” he said. “That appealed to me because I had been doing that all my life.
“I didn’t know for certain what I was getting into,” Johnson said. “I had no credentials to be doing any of this other than my analytical skills. There is a lot of data analysis involved in this job, a lot of moving pieces that require you to figure out ‘why is that?’ That was also very appealing to me.”
Johnson also discovered an appreciation for the physical fitness tied to NBA officiating, the fact that referees have to be in great shape to run up and down the court several times a week. Johnson was an athlete himself, competing in gymnastics at Lane Tech high school in Chicago.
At the U.S. Military Academy, he ran the quarter mile in track, and played intramural basketball, soccer and handball, swam and boxed. Johnson graduated from West Point in 1976 and began leading groups of up to 131 soldiers at the platoon and company level during his Army career.
It’s those people skills that Johnson honed during his three decades in the Army that he sees as most applicable to his work in the NBA.
“If you treat people right, they will accomplish anything you ask them to do,” he said. “For me as a leader it has always meant giving people what they need, which is not always necessarily what they want. Sometimes you have to establish pretty tough goals and standards that require guys to want to reach for that goal. The more you do that, the more people reach and the better they get. It is no different in the Army than it is with these NBA referees. They really stretch themselves to do the very best.”
Skip Kruger had wanted to be a Marine since the age of 12. It was a decision he made early in life after his father, Earl G. Kruger, told him how much he regretted never serving his country.
“He was on the bus to go to World War II in 1942 and they had changed the age for enlistment,” Kruger said. “My parents had just adopted me and the recruiter jumped on the bus and said if you were [such an age], you don’t have to go, so he didn’t go.
“He always felt bad about that and told me if it was my will, he would love for me to go in the service. I always felt that sounded like a good thing when I was too little to really know what it was all about.”
Skip, whose birth name is Earl, didn’t change his mind as he got older. He graduated from Indiana University in 1966, went directly to officers candidate school and did two tours of Vietnam in 1967-68 and 1972-73. He fought plenty of battles, was wounded twice in ’67 and sent home to Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Chicago.
Kruger served his second stint in Vietnam as an adviser to the South Vietnamese Marine Corps.
“If you were a psycho, it was a great time,” Kruger joked. “I think I had been there two days when the Easter Offensive of ’72 hit and I never stopped running until ’73. It was crazy … you were just another Vietnamese private unless you had air and naval gunfire” support.
Kruger retired in 1987 after 21 years as a Marine and jumped right into advertising sales. He got a taste for the profession serving as the liaison between the Marine Corps advertising department and J. Walter Thompson, its civilian agency.
“I retired on a Friday and went to work for an advertising agency here in the Washington area on a Monday,” Kruger said. “I did that for 10 years and then joined D.C. United in February 1997. Been here ever since, 14 seasons roughly.”
Kruger sees dedication and hard work — “grit, grind, what the Marine Corps is all about” — as the chief correlation between the military and sales.
“It’s a lot of hours,” Kruger said. “Back in those days we were selling the Marine Corps, and right now I’m selling D.C. United. It’s not always fun and nobody likes to cold call. Recruiting in those days [stunk] but you’re not going to talk to anybody if you can’t find them on the phone.
“My job here forced me to do that again and I still hate it. When you finally ink somebody, it’s great, but there’s a lot of stuff that goes into that. Kind of like the Marine Corps, so much ground work and preparation before you get any kind of a payoff whatsoever.”
Kruger’s crusty demeanor and no-nonsense approach working with his much-younger MLS colleagues can be a generational clash, but it reflects the core values he learned as a Marine. “You can’t go through 21 years of the Marine Corps and not have a whole bunch of idiosyncrasies,” he said.
“People think I’m nuts but that’s fine. I’m kind of a dyed-in-the-wool ‘this has to be done right now, there’s no excuses’ kind of guy. I may be a little too rigid at times. People here know me now, that you either do it or take a left when I take a right, if you will.”
Daryl Niles’ expertise at spotting suspicious activities during his Army days is a natural tie-in for his duties at Qwest Field, and he says he leads by example. The old foot soldier doesn’t camp out inside the stadium’s command center; he’s walking the beat to find that potential bad guy.
“I was not the type of leader who sat back, observed and barked orders,” he said. “I have got to get in the foxhole with the soldiers because that is where you learn the best. They fight better for you and learn from you, and that’s the same principle I use here.
“I am out in the trenches, looking at gate security, walking around the stadium inside and out with the part-time staff. I think they appreciate that when they see somebody from management side getting down there and doing the same thing they are doing.”
Niles, like many soldiers, joined the Army fresh out of high school to see the world. He was 17.
Twenty-four years later, he retired from the service and put his military skills to good use protecting patrons at Seahawks and Sounders games.
Niles was an Army Ranger in Special Operations and rose through the ranks to become a command sergeant major, the highest rank for an enlisted solder. At the time he retired in 2001, Niles was in charge of a 550-person infantry battalion.
He was part of Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s, carrying a 100-pound backpack in 120-degree weather in the blistering sands of the Mideast.
“I went with the 101st Airborne Division from start to finish,” Niles said. “Living conditions were obviously horrific. You pretty much sleep under the ground during the day, literally underneath the sand. In the nighttime, that’s when you maneuver around because it’s a lot cooler.”
In the first Iraq conflict, Niles was part of a 10-man operation that would split up into three teams several miles apart and report enemy activity back to the front lines. “We were shot at a few times,” he said. “I never got injured, thank God. Came back the same way I went over.”
After retirement, Niles became a police officer in Kent, Wash., a Seattle suburb, and eventually transitioned to sports security, working part time at the Tacoma Dome and Safeco Field for StaffPro, a crowd management firm.
Two days before Qwest Field opened in 2002, stadium operator First and Goal, the firm owned by Seahawks and Sounders owner Paul Allen, hired Niles as assistant guest services manager. He switched over to security manager and was recently promoted to his present position.
“The 70,000 fans that come here for NFL games — it was the same thing with my job in the Army, protecting U.S. interests stateside and overseas, ” Niles said.
Tony Odierno said it was no slam dunk he would follow his father’s lead to West Point and a military career.
The junior Odierno, son of Gen. Ray Odierno, grew up an Army brat. He lived in 13 different places and attended four high schools. It was not until early in his senior year in high school that Tony made the decision to go down the same path as Dad and applied to the U.S. Military Academy.
“Part of that was seeing how much my dad enjoyed being in the military and the sense of pride he had from that,” Odierno said.
He graduated from West Point in 2001 with a civil engineering degree and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry. His first post was at Fort Hood, Texas, as a scout platoon leader in charge of 30 enlisted men, training that squad to go to Iraq.
In early 2004, Odierno was sent to Iraq, where he conducted more than 100 combat missions in the form of raids, searches and checkpoints. Halfway through his time there, Odierno was transferred to a different platoon where he was responsible for 50 soldiers.
“I was in charge of logistics for a squadron of about 800 people, [coordinating] ammunition and fuel for all the tanks, Bradley vehicles and Kiowa Warrior helicopters,” Odierno said.
He was also in charge of a sniper section ambushed in the streets of southwest Baghdad in August 2004. Odierno was in the passenger seat of a Humvee when a rocket-propelled grenade hit the vehicle, killing his driver and badly injuring Odierno’s left arm.
Odierno was evacuated to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington and spent the next three months undergoing 15 surgeries. Purple Heart in hand, he spent the rest of 2004 undergoing occupational and physical therapy learning how to use his new prosthesis.
After that, he spent the next 18 months as an aide to Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before earning an MBA at NYU’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business.
It was during a dinner in New York in 2008 when Yankees Chief Operating Officer Lonn Trost offered Odierno a paid internship. Odierno, still at NYU, was there to present a community service award to Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon, himself the son of an Army staff sergeant. The award was given on behalf of the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit formed to help injured soldiers. Odierno sits on its board of directors.
As an intern, Odierno helped the Yankees organize activities tied to the 2008 MLB All-Star Game at old Yankee Stadium. He was later hired full time to book special events at the new park, non-baseball dates that have included boxing, a concert, the Army-Notre Dame football game Nov. 20 and the New Era Pinstripe Bowl Dec. 30.
Odierno sees a parallel between his Iraq missions and large-scale events he has to coordinate now. Both require a tremendous amount of communication and teamwork among several departments.
“Just like in the military, there is a lot of planning for those events and the execution of those events,” he said. “In the Army, it’s between the different units you’re working. Here, it’s with the football teams, conferences, Live Nation and Top Rank.
“It’s obviously attention to detail and leadership. I believe all those skills that I received in the military have transferred over to what I’m doing now.”
Jaime Rojas had his military bubble burst early by an Army recruiter.
Born in Chicago and raised in Miami, Rojas had two cousins who joined the military, and he decided to do the same because his parents did not have the money to pay for his college education. Joining the military and taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to pay for school offered a nice solution.
“I went to see a recruiter and initially thought I was going to be an Army Ranger; I was all gung-ho,” he said. “Thankfully, he let me realize there is more to the military than [being a Ranger] and asked me to consider something I would enjoy doing.”
Rojas had studied architecture in high school and thought about being a draftsman specialist in the Army. Then the recruiter showed him a video of a soldier jumping out of a plane with a parachute, holding a piece of wood with paper taped to it, drawing a bridge while looking down at a ravine.
“I was like, no, no, no, office, nice desk and all that,” Rojas said. Not in the Army, the recruiter said.
Rojas eventually found his niche as a helicopter mechanic repairing and maintaining Hueys and Chinooks, and in August 1990, he was shipped to Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield and saw action during Desert Storm in Iraq.
When the war started, his helicopter unit was responsible for transferring equipment for infantry and artillery divisions in addition to flying Rangers in closer to Baghdad.
“We were shot at one time, a little gun battle that lasted two to three minutes but felt like an hour,” Rojas said. “It was over pretty quick. The Iraqis would come out of their bunkers like ants out of an anthill. They gave up as soon as they realized we were going to completely destroy them.”
In May 2001, after his four-year term ended, Rojas left the Army and went to school, first at Florida and then Florida International University in Miami, where he got an athletic trainer internship with the Florida Marlins. His job interest had veered down another path during his time in Iraq.
“I wanted to be an architect initially, but after I joined the Army I knew I couldn’t do an office job after that,” he said. “I enjoyed being outside and loved sports. One of the guys in my unit was an exercise physiologist and had weights brought over from the States. I wanted to go into that.”
Rojas earned a degree in sports medicine from FIU, and through his ties with the Marlins he landed the job as trainer for Major League Soccer’s old Miami Fusion. Rojas worked there for four years before the league eliminated the Fusion and the Tampa Bay Mutiny in 2001.
He moved back to Chicago and worked for a physical therapy clinic for seven years until getting back into MLS in 2009 as the Rapids’ trainer.
“The biggest thing I learned in the military that I do now is time management and multitasking,” Rojas said. “In the Army, it was working on my helicopter, making sure that everything was ready for its mission. Now I work on athletes making sure they’re ready for the game.
“Instead of working on a mechanical instrument I’m working on the human body,” he said. “I use a lot of analogies with our players, when I’m trying to think of what’s wrong with an athlete, why they have this injury and mechanically, what’s going on. I sort of blend the two toget