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SBJ/March 26-April 1, 2012/ChampionsPrint All
SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily honor the 2012 class of Champions, six industry veterans who have shaped the business of sports through their careers of distinguished success.
Television pioneer looks back at career highs, lows.
Collegiate licensing icon forges lifetime friendships.
Entrepreneurial spirit fuels Philadelphia’s empire builder.
Revved-up stories from racing’s master promoter.
Collegiate trailblazer inspires new generation of coaches.
NFL Films maestro directs artistic legacy for peers.
Classes of 2010 and 2011
Photo by:BYRON SMALL
This was the fall of 1981, long before Battle wore that distinguished head of white hair and was known as the Southern gentleman whose company built the $4.3 billion collegiate licensing industry.
Back then, in fact, Battle was known as a former football player for Bear Bryant at Alabama and a fired football coach at Tennessee who shocked his peers by walking away from the game to run a window company in Selma, Ala. His wins came in the form of deals like the $42 million project to install thermal windows in a Saudi Arabian building.
Collegiate licensing? Such a concept was so foreign in 1981 that Battle couldn’t find anyone at the University of Alabama who knew what licensing was. Battle, himself, wasn’t sure.
“I must have gone to six or seven offices that day asking where the licensing department was,” Battle said. “They said, ‘Licensing for what?’ Nobody knew what I was talking about.”
Battle’s concept for a collegiate licensing business became the basis for a company that redefined what it meant to make hats, T-shirts and other items with college marks. He didn’t just build a company; he forged an industry that has become an important revenue source for athletic departments across the country and made the licensing of marks easier for manufacturers.
Battle’s Collegiate Licensing Co. eventually represented more than 200 schools, bowl games, conferences and other college entities, creating a valuable revenue stream while cleaning up a rogue business that turned out unsavory products like condoms and beer with unofficial school marks.
For larger schools like Alabama, licensing now brings in $7 million to $8 million annually, more in years when the Crimson Tide wins championships, all from the model that Battle put in place with CLC. He sold the company to IMG in 2007 for more than $100 million.
But 30 years ago, Battle’s vision of consolidating school licensing rights into a model that resembled the NFL’s had not even come into focus. He certainly had no idea how the events of the next year would not only change his life, but also give shape to a fledgling industry.
No, on this day, he just wanted to find someone at Alabama who had a clue what he was talking about.
STARTS WITH THE BEAR
Every quarter, Battle delivered the financial report for the Decatur Iron and Steel Co. — otherwise known as DISCO — to the board of directors at its Selma headquarters. But on a particular January day in 1981, Battle, the company’s president, couldn’t stay focused. All he could think about was his old coach, Bear Bryant.
Bryant was a mostly ceremonial member of DISCO’s board and he attended (to most everyone’s surprise) just about all of the board meetings. Battle, who played for the legendary coach 20 years earlier, made it his routine to drive over to the Selma Holiday Inn, pick up Bryant, and take him to the office for the board meetings.
During the drive on this chilly morning, though, Bryant nonchalantly dropped some news on his former player that would forever alter the course of Battle’s life.
Bill Battle’s early college contacts came from his days as an Alabama football player.
“He said those guys up in New York just weren’t doing anything for him,” Battle said. “Shoot, I didn’t even know that he had an agent.”
As a distracted Battle delivered his quarterly report, he kept thinking about how he could represent Bryant, who was nine victories away from breaking the all-time wins record.
“I couldn’t get it out of my mind,” Battle said. “To me, he was the most well-known coach in the country, the greatest figure in college athletics. All I could think about was, ‘Holy cow, he’s about to change agents.’”
So after the meeting, Battle steadied himself and said, “Coach, I don’t know that much about licensing, and I don’t know that much about being an agent, but I know you and I’ll make sure we do it the way you want to do it.”
“In that old, gravely voice, Coach Bryant said, ‘Aw, I ain’t got nothing to sell. The best in the business has been trying to sell me for years. All I want is somebody to take all these requests for speaking engagements and tell them I can’t come.’”
Battle tells the story with a raucous laugh that just about busts a gut. The most famous and revered coach in college football was going to be represented by the president of a window company.
As Bryant neared the wins record the following season, requests began to flow in for licensing rights to the Bear’s image and likeness. Manufacturers wanted to make hats, T-shirts — anything they could produce that had Bryant’s likeness on it. One company made bronze-colored busts of the Bear, one of which sits in the CLC offices in Atlanta today.
“Things picked up dramatically,” Battle said. “That’s when it got fun. And what happened as more people wanted the license for Coach Bryant? They wanted to use Alabama’s logos too.”
Finding the gatekeeper for Alabama’s marks, however, presented a problem. The Crimson Tide, like most schools 30 years ago, didn’t have a licensing program.
Finally, after walking the halls and fruitlessly knocking on doors inside the Rose Administration Building that day on the Tuscaloosa campus, Battle came across a familiar face in the school’s purchasing office.
Battle had known Finus Gaston because of their mutual connection to Alabama football — Battle as a player for Bryant’s first national championship team, in 1961, and Gaston as a team manager years later. Gaston’s father also had been the sports information director at Alabama when Battle was a player.
Maybe Gaston would know the answer to Battle’s licensing question. What Battle didn’t know when he entered the office is that Gaston had been talking to other administrators on SEC campuses about just such a program. They just weren’t sure how to get it going. How could these colleges sell licenses, manage the licensees, make sure they get paid, and enforce the program against rogue T-shirt makers who were pumping product out of their basements?
In walked Bill Battle.
“As soon as we started talking about a licensing program, we knew there was a lot of synergy there with Coach Bryant and Alabama,” said Gaston, now the athletic department’s chief financial officer. “The more we talked, the more sense it made. It was just logical for everything to come together right there.”
That conversation late in 1981 set the table for Alabama to become Battle’s first collegiate client in what was then Golden Eagle Enterprises, the company that became CLC in 1984. Golden Eagle, a company that made hickory-shafted mallet putters and Jack Nicklaus-licensed eyewear, was owned by the same man, Larry Striplin, who owned DISCO — and it had just enough of a licensing flavor to serve as the agency for that college business that Battle was starting to bring in.
Think it was strange for a window company president to serve as Bear Bryant’s agent? How about a putter and eyewear company representing the University of Alabama’s licensing?
But this is how it all started.
“After we talked for a while, Bill said he wanted to submit a licensing proposal to the university,” Gaston said. “We just didn’t know who you’d submit it to.”
After Battle secured Alabama with approval from the school’s president, Mississippi soon jumped on board. Within a few years, seven of the ACC’s eight schools at the time became clients, too.
Wake Forest was one of those first ACC clients. Ben Sutton, now IMG College’s president, was the Deacons’ licensing director in the 1980s.
“Bill used to say that ‘We’ve got everybody from Alabama to Wake Forest,’” Sutton said. “I took it to mean alphabetical. … Bill blazed the path onto campus for a lot of businesses. We all owe him a great debt for that.”
A BUSINESS ALLY
Battle’s path into the ACC was cleared by Clemson’s athletic director at the time, Bill McLellan, who proved to be an important ally. The Tigers won the national football championship in 1981, and products with Tiger paws started showing up everywhere in the following months. Clemson couldn’t regulate it.
McLellan had seen one of Battle’s licensing proposals, similar to what he had sent to Alabama, and arranged for Battle to meet with all of the ACC’s athletic directors, which led to discussions with the schools’ business chiefs. Battle liked to pitch to the vice presidents in charge of business because they typically oversaw the bookstores.
With McLellan opening the door, Battle signed nearly all of the conference’s schools. Virginia was the lone ACC school that didn’t sign — a notable exception, because a rival was beginning to emerge. Steve Crossland, a former bookstore manager at the University of Southern California, was attempting to corral some schools of his own, and Virginia represented a big early win. Battle and Crossland eventually decided to join forces, and when they did, CLC’s list of schools grew to 25. Crossland remained a partner until Battle bought him out in 1993.
Battle oversaw the growth of the college licensing business from T-shirts and hats to such diverse products as perfume, keyboards, billiard balls, hair dryers and tires.
Photos by:BRIAN SMALL (PRODUCTS); IMG
The schools, the licensees and the retailers all could win if they were in this together, Battle said. Sure, they’d have to pay royalties, but with the top schools finally available from the same licensing agent, licensees could go one place to acquire 40 or 50 licenses, and eventually, the overall pie would grow so much faster.
The schools liked the enforcement that came with it, too. Administrators used to throw up their hands every time they saw unlicensed products that didn’t reflect well on the school, thinking they couldn’t do anything about it.
Battlin’ Bulldog Beer was one of those products. The cans featured a hung-over Georgia Bulldog in a school sweater with bloodshot eyes. The school took the beer’s distributor, Bill Laite of Macon, Ga., to court in 1985 to make him stop marketing the beer cans with the unlicensed Bulldog mascot.
CLC also developed the first label that identified “officially licensed collegiate products.”
Despite some of those wins, not everyone was on board. Many administrators doubted that there was any money in licensing. Arkansas AD Frank Broyles had to be convinced that the school even owned the rights to its own marks.
University bookstores, the only place consumers could find school merchandise back then, weren’t in favor of the new model, either. They already had the market cornered. Bookstores bought from whichever manufacturers they wanted, and royalties weren’t being paid. Battle had to convince them that his model would make them more money eventually.
“One of the smartest things we did was put incentives for the schools in the contracts,” Battle said. “Once I saw that we could get the schools to sign, I wasn’t worried about making enough money. I was worried about making too much. I didn’t want anyone on campus asking why they were paying us all that money. So we put incentives in there that paid the school even more as sales went up. The more we got, the more they got.”
Before Battle consolidated the college market, it was extremely fragmented, requiring a licensee to go from school to school to buy the rights. Battle had to sell administrators on his vision of a model that resembled the NFL’s, where all of the marks were available in one place.
Along the way, CLC broadened its business to represent NASCAR — Battle actually started NASCAR’s licensing business — and the PGA Tour, but it never strayed from its college roots.
“You just couldn’t conceive of someone better suited to start CLC than Bill,” said Russ Richards, Battle’s attorney for the last 20 years. “He’s this tall, handsome guy with this disarming personality who just sets everyone at ease. He had been an athlete and a coach, and he knew how the college administrators thought.
“This is the guy who is the smartest guy in the room, but he never acts like he’s the smartest guy in the room.”
Over the years, schools saw Battle as less of an old coach and more of a business ally who understood the challenges on campus and could respond with a service-oriented approach. That’s why athletic directors still call him, whether they have a question about business or they’re looking to hire a position.
He remains one of the most quietly influential figures in college athletics today, even though he has slipped away from the day-to-day duties of running the company. Working as CLC’s chairman and an adviser for the company’s management, Battle, 70, remains that important figure because of his deep relationships with clients and his ties to CLC’s past.
His sons, Pat and Mike, and daughter Shannon worked in the business through the years, and Pat became an influential figure in the sale of CLC to IMG. He led the growth of IMG College from 2007 to 2011, when he left the company.
Consolidating the college marketplace from a marketing and sponsorship standpoint was Pat’s ultimate goal at IMG College, but he took his cue from his dad, he said.
More than 30 years ago, Bill Battle saw how the fragmented college marketplace could be brought together, and CLC came as close to doing it as anyone could.
“The original vision for all of this was my dad’s,” Pat Battle said. “He saw that it could be done.”
‘DOING THE RIGHT THING’
The halls inside CLC’s Atlanta office today are a testament to Battle’s vision. Boots with Oklahoma State marks, a red Georgia tool box and a UCLA No. 1 foam finger are among the hundreds of licensed products that line the walls.
As long as Battle is in town and not visiting one of his vacation homes or his favorite retreat, a several-hundred-acre farm northeast of Atlanta, he’s in the office taking calls from longtime associates like Alabama AD Mal Moore or serving as a resource to IMG College’s Sutton, who oversees CLC’s business now. Mostly, though, Battle enjoys the spoils of what he’s built. He’d just as soon be outside, hunting turkeys or dropping a line the water.
Top: Battle, with NACDA’s Bob Vecchione (left), son and then-CLC executive Pat Battle (second from right) and ESPN’s Rob Temple, mark CLC’s 25th anniversary in 2006. Above: The National Football Foundation honored Battle, T. Boone Pickens (center) and John Glenn at its awards dinner in 2008.
PhotoS by:COLLEGIATE LICENSING CO.; GENE BOYERS / NATIONAL FOOTBALL FOUNDATION
“Honestly, I couldn’t believe it when Bill Battle called me back,” White said. “My parents couldn’t believe it. I knew he had this little sports marketing company down in Selma, and to me, working for him was my dream job.”
White had been onboard just a year or so and was still green to the licensing business when Battle shocked him with an assignment to go pitch Tennessee for its licensing business.
White guessed at the time that Battle didn’t want to go because of how the Volunteers treated the former coach when he was there. Even though Battle took the Vols to a bowl game in each of his first five seasons, he was fired in year seven, and throughout his tenure, the local fans never warmed to him. One day, Battle pulled up to his house in Knoxville to find a moving van sitting there. Other times, fans would come by in the middle of the night and express their displeasure by putting “For Sale” signs in his front yard.
Battle was an Alabama guy, and even his 59-22-2 record with the Vols wasn’t enough to satisfy the Big Orange faithful.
When White returned from making his pitch to Tennessee administrators, Battle commended him for a job well done. It was later White found out that Battle already had secured the business. He just sent White for a confidence-building experience. Battle hired a lot of recent college graduates at CLC just like White because he liked their enthusiasm and energy.
That day over lunch, White, now a high-ranking marketing executive with Chick-fil-A in Atlanta, repeated to Battle something he’s said a hundred times.
“Bill, I can’t believe you gave me a chance,” White told him. “He gave a young guy a chance, and I’ll forever be appreciative of that. And the thing is that he’s done that for a lot of people.”
Cory Moss, a senior vice president at CLC and a veteran of nearly 20 years at the company, runs the day-to-day business now. He’s one of those many young people who dreamed of a profession in sports and started at CLC.
Moss can recall two occasions that he’s been in the hospital during that span, and Battle was the first non-family member to visit each time, including once when Moss’ wife had triplets, only to lose two of them from complications of a premature birth.
“Bill was right there for us,” Moss said. “He is the consummate leader by example. … The one thing he always talks about is doing the right thing for the client, even if it might not be the best financial decision for the company. He believes that if you do the right thing for the client, the program will grow.”
Just look at Battle’s associations through the years and you’ll understand why so many people call him the Southern gentleman of the college business. His banker, Rod Knowles, has been his friend and adviser for 30 years. Richards, his attorney, has worked with Battle for some 20 years.
He still goes bird hunting with his college roommate and Crimson Tide teammate Butch Wilson, and he still goes to visit Alabama’s Moore, who played with Battle on that 1961 national championship team, to talk about the good old days.
Nobody, it seems, just does business with Battle. They form relationships, and more times than not, those relationships last a lifetime.
“Bill has backed an untold number of people,” Knowles said. “He probably wouldn’t want me to tell this, but he has given support to so many people who have fallen on hard times, just because he believed in them or wanted to help them.”
CLC is the perfect reflection of Battle. IMG has owned the company for five years now, but a trip around the CLC home office near the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta reveals just one small IMG logo. CLC has maintained its name and an identity separate from parent company IMG because of all the personal equity Battle built into it over the last 30 years.
“There’s just a great reverence for Coach Battle and for CLC,” Sutton said. “A lot of people thought that Bill probably would have moved on after IMG bought the company, but I’ve pleaded for him to stay and remain engaged. He’s a great visionary, a great entrepreneur and he’s been a role model for somebody like me. He has an amount of good will, of social capital, that’s really unmatched. The way I hear schools talk about CLC and Bill Battle, that’s how I want them to talk about IMG College.”
Photo by:RENE MACURA
Dressed casually in black slacks, a V-neck sweater and loafers with no socks, Ohlmeyer appears relaxed on this weekday in early February. He played golf earlier in the day — shooting a 78 on the local course — and now is giving a tour of the community where he’s lived part time for the past nine years.
At seemingly every turn, he runs into people he knows. He stops to chat with each of them, sharing light, good-natured banter. One of his neighbors hosted a flapper party the night before that Ohlmeyer and his wife, Linda, attended. Stories from that party were a big topic and the cause of many laughs.
A media titan known for his hard-charging personality and take-no-prisoners approach, Ohlmeyer has taken to retirement with the same gusto that he approached his career, where he is one of the most accomplished executives in the history of American television.
He grew up in the business as one of Roone Arledge’s disciples at ABC Sports. He eventually moved over as executive producer of NBC Sports, ventured out on his own by setting up his own company, and he wound up heading up NBC Entertainment’s West Coast office.
Ohlmeyer has a well-earned reputation as a workaholic, consumed by whatever task is at hand. From the late 1960s through the 1990s, he used that all-consuming work style to become one of the most influential media executives in the United States.
But since leaving “Monday Night Football” in 2000, he has kept a relatively low public profile. He consults for at least one television network, he teaches a course in directing at Pepperdine University, and he produces paintings that regularly sell for more than $10,000.
Seeing how relaxed Ohlmeyer, 67, is today, it’s difficult to picture how nonstop, forceful and brash he once was.
“I really got tired of fighting the wars,” he said. “There’s a lot of pain involved in these things. A lot of personal pain. When you’re young and brash, you don’t really give a shit. As you get older, God, you get tired of fighting. I got tired of fighting with people. I got tired of yelling and screaming and stamping my feet.”
But it was those wars — or, to be more precise, Ohlmeyer’s single-minded pursuit in battling them — that his admirers remember most fondly and that have come to define Ohlmeyer’s career.
Few media executives can match Ohlmeyer’s accomplishments. He has produced the biggest events on TV. He’s created shows like “The Skins Game” and “The Superstars” that have entered the national conscience. You’d be hard-pressed to find an executive who has done more to change the way Americans watch television than Ohlmeyer.
But this isn’t a story about what he’s done since starting in the business in 1967. Rather, it’s a story about how he’s done it and the “wars” he’s had to fight to get what he wants.
“The great thing about Don is that Don would win almost all of the wars,” said “Sunday Night Football” announcer Al Michaels, who has known Ohlmeyer since 1975. “When you were on Don’s team, you didn’t have to fight them. He’d fight them, and he’d win almost all of them.”
Ohlmeyer spent a career getting people to bend to his will: his bosses and his direct reports, people in the production truck, and talent in front of the camera.
While stories of his volatile temper are legendary (he routinely would blow up in the production truck, in his office, or wherever he was working), he also would use more subtle approaches when needed. Take his approach to dealing with “Monday Night Football” announcer Howard Cosell, for example. He wouldn’t harp on every transgression. Rather, he would wait until Cosell really crossed the line before bringing down his hammer.
“What I would have to do with Howard is I would have to wait,” he said. “Sometimes it would take three or four weeks for him to do something that was so outrageous even he knew it was over the line. Then I would just beat the living shit out of him, and he would be fine for two months.”
For Ohlmeyer, the battles started with his first job in broadcasting, when he was hired straight out of Notre Dame to become a production assistant at ABC Sports, and continued throughout his career. Even in retirement, there have been battles for Ohlmeyer. He referenced a battle he fought during his teaching gig at Pepperdine, when he wanted to make a change to the curriculum. That was one he didn’t win.
“It took me a long time to learn that it’s never a waste of time to try and make things perfect,” he said. “But sometimes, the scars aren’t worth the battle.”
Ohlmeyer’s longtime friend Geoff Mason, a fellow member of the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame, believes it’s Ohlmeyer’s deep-seated need for perfection that underscores the battles he fought during his career.
“No one ever gave as much of himself or contributed more to the creative energy of our business than Don,” Mason said. “He’s one of the smartest, hardest-working people I’ve ever known in my life.”
Bob Basche, who worked with Ohlmeyer at NBC Sports in the late 1970s, offered a glimpse of how often these disputes would pop up and how Ohlmeyer wouldn’t hesitate to battle his bosses, his production staff or rights holders to pursue something he thought was right.
When Ohlmeyer joined NBC in 1977, he hated the fact that Wimbledon’s final was aired on tape delay, six hours after the actual start of the match. In 1979, he finally convinced NBC to air the final live, starting at 9 a.m.
One battle was won.
But another battle immediately started when Ohlmeyer wanted to start the broadcast at 9 a.m. with a shot of the players — Bjorn Borg and the American Roscoe Tanner — walking onto the court. The All-England Club pushed back, saying they would not change tradition that mandated the first serve occurred at 9 a.m.
“Don went absolutely ballistic,” Basche remembers.
Ohlmeyer enlisted Tanner’s agent, Donald Dell, to convince his client to stall in the locker room long enough to allow NBC to carry the shot of Borg and him walking onto the court live. Tanner complied.
Another battle won.
Not everyone appreciated Ohlmeyer’s forceful approach, though. There are many who caught the brunt of Ohlmeyer’s ire who still harbor bad memories, but none was willing to speak on the record. Ohlmeyer admits to being a “tough boss to work for.”
“I was fair,” he said, “but I was tough.”
Basche and others say he has many more supporters than detractors. “While he cared for people, he demanded they were as good as he was,” Basche said.
Ohlmeyer’s supporters are effusive in their praise. They consistently describe him as one of the giants in sports broadcasting history and suggest that he never truly has received his due.
“Don’s on Mount Rushmore, right alongside Roone Arledge and David Hill,” said the NFL’s top media executive, Steve Bornstein, who worked with Ohlmeyer during the early days of ESPN. “I don’t use the term ‘genius’ too much, but Don would be in that category.”
Ohlmeyer’s retirement in Indian Wells, Calif., is filled with the same enthusiasm as was his career, along with teaching, golf and working in his art studio.
Photos by:RENE MACURA
“He’s had a creative energy that, perhaps, has been more impactful than Arledge,” Mason said. “The shows that Don has sat in the director’s chair for over the decades — no one has even come close to living the life he did.”
But Ohlmeyer’s influence extends far beyond the production truck. He also has a résumé of successful business deals that makes him one of the most accomplished sports business executives of all time.
“Many people know his name but don’t really understand his influence,” said best-selling author Jim Miller, who got to know Ohlmeyer while writing books on “Saturday Night Live” and ESPN.
Ohlmeyer was an early believer in cable television, seeing its power decades before other broadcasting executives warmed to it. Through various business dealings, he made more money from ESPN than any other single executive, Bornstein said in Miller’s book on the network.
In 1984, his Ohlmeyer Communications Co. paid $60 million for a 20 percent stake in ESPN, giving Ohlmeyer a seat on the network’s board. Nine years later, Ohlmeyer sold the sports programming and sales divisions of his company to ESPN for more than $24 million, according to the book.
“I’m kind of like Wyatt Earp: I’m good to come into town and clean it up. Then, when it’s cleaned up, you should probably leave,” Ohlmeyer said. “I’m not good at caretaking. I’m good when there’s a challenge. I’m good when there’s a war to fight.”
In fact, it was the growth potential of cable television in the 1980s, coupled with the U.S. Olympic boycott in 1980, that convinced Ohlmeyer to leave NBC to set up his own company.
“I had really gone to NBC to do the Olympics from Moscow. And then that peanut farmer …” Ohlmeyer said, his voice drifting off when referencing former President Jimmy Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow to protest Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. “That was combined with the fact that I really saw that the world was going in a different place.”
While Ohlmeyer relished the corporate wars — and was extraordinarily successful in fighting them — they left scars on both him and his family, he says now.
“The accomplishments really were quite unbelievably satisfying,” he said. “But it screwed up my marriage. I was not as good a father as I should have been because I wasn’t around as much as I should have been. There were times that I didn’t really like the person that I was becoming or the person I became.”
In the mid-1990s, Ohlmeyer’s family and friends were growing increasingly worried about him. At the time, he was overseeing NBC’s West Coast office and had helped steer the network from third place to first.
But the self-described Wyatt Earp could not stand caretaking that business. He was drinking heavily. His family and friends were concerned for his health.
In late 1996, Mason, who was on the board of the Betty Ford Institute, and then-NBC President and CEO Bob Wright organized an intervention with Ohlmeyer’s sons. They thought it was the only way to convince the hard-charging executive to seek help. It worked.
“I’d been working on that for two or three years,” Mason said. “Thank God we did it. He didn’t have a lot more in the tank.”
In December 1996, a close group of family and friends sat Ohlmeyer down and read letters imploring him to go to rehab. When the last person spoke, Ohlmeyer took a long drag from an ever-present Marlboro and simply said, “Let’s go.”
“The funny thing was that I had done this series for NBC called ‘Lifestories’ and I had directed an episode about an intervention,” Ohlmeyer said. “So when I walked into the intervention that morning, I knew exactly what was going on.”
After about a month at Betty Ford, Ohlmeyer exited as a changed man. He retired from NBC a little more than two years later.
Ohlmeyer got people talking in 2000 when he added comedian Dennis Miller (right) to the “Monday Night Football” booth with Al Michaels (left).
Photo by:AP IMAGES
“Dennis was a good choice because he accomplished [what we wanted]: People started talking about ‘Monday Night Football’ again,” Ohlmeyer said. “Miller was on the cover of Sports Illustrated. People started talking about it. The biggest problem was the ratings had dropped substantially in young males. And the rating for young males went up like 10 percent that season.”
Michaels, who did play-by-play that season, supported the choice, even if it lasted only two years. “To me, it was a stroke of genius,” he said. “He took a show that was flagging a little bit, at least in terms of public perception, and made it relevant again.”
But overall, those close to him saw a different type of executive. Ohlmeyer lasted one season.
“You just come out a changed person,” Ohlmeyer said of his stint in rehab. “I was never really the same. I certainly didn’t have the same drive.”
Michaels said Ohlmeyer threw himself into that final season, but as the year wore on, he started to recognize that Ohlmeyer would not be a long-term fix for the series.
“I thought he’d go one more year. I was pretty sure he would,” Michaels said. “I think he realized that he did what he had to do. And it’s all-consuming.”
Now, Ohlmeyer is all-consumed with retirement. Finishing his tour of The Reserve, Ohlmeyer pulls his golf cart into his garage and starts to walk up the front walk.
Before going inside, he wanders into his art studio. It’s a small room filled with his paintings. Most are finished; some are unfinished. “It’s like his control room now,” said Jim Miller, who has seen the studio.
Eventually, he walks inside his house and goes to the den. Amid a bevy of Emmy statues and an MTV Spaceman (he created the MTV Awards show, too) are three flat-screen TVs. It’s the only way he knows how to watch TV.
“If I don’t have multiple screens to watch, I’m kind of bored,” he said. “I guess the thing I’d have to say is that my life has really been damn interesting. There’s things I’d like to have done differently and moments that I wished I had handled differently. But, God, it’s been damn interesting.”
Photo by:PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
Two weeks earlier, at an awards dinner in Kansas City, Sabol blacked out, awakening in a hospital bed. When he returned home to suburban Philadelphia five days later, it was aboard a specially equipped medical plane.
Testing revealed a brain tumor that cannot be removed.
As he was coming to grips with what that meant — and whether he could still function as president of the company his father founded and he built — Sabol thought of Driber, who began at NFL Films as an intern in the lab in 1984. Sixteen years ago, after working his way up to a supervisory slot and a role as a cameraman, Driber was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his back that, bit by bit, has choked off his mobility. For the last five years, he has been in a wheelchair.
Yet Driber has maintained his duties in charge of operations, with responsibility for a staff of about 65. Sabol asked his wife, Penny, to arrange a meeting with him on a Saturday, when they would be alone.
The Sabols arrived first, followed by Driber. They hugged. Then they talked. Sabol had questions. Many were about the treatments, about radiation and chemotherapy and what might spawn from each. Some were deeper. He wanted to know how Driber managed to remain so engaged with his work even as the disease took chunks of him. He wanted to know why he persevered.
Finally, he wanted to know what, if any, role Driber thought he still might play at NFL Films.
“You have to come back,” Driber told him instantly.
Sabol said he didn’t see the point.
The most pronounced of Sabol’s symptoms is aphasia, a disorder that at times makes it difficult for him to find the words to make his point. On his better days, he can converse for 15 or even 30 minutes with barely a hitch. But in darker times, when he’s fatigued from the chemo or emotionally taxed, Sabol struggles to make it cleanly past five words. His frustration only makes it worse.
The aphasia was most pronounced in those first few months after the diagnosis. After a career spent telling stories, not only through his movies, but also as the face of NFL Films on TV, Sabol wasn’t sure what purpose he could serve at the company if he couldn’t find the simplest of words.
To make that point to Driber, he reached for a pair of scissors on his desk.
“I know what these are,” Sabol said. “And I know what they do.
“But I don’t know what the f--- to call them!” he shouted, slamming them to the desk.
“Well, they’re scissors,” Driber answered calmly.
“Scissors,” Sabol said. “Right.”
He stared at the them.
“Steve?” Driber said, summoning his friend back to their conversation. “Who cares?”
THE ROAD ‘TRAVELED’
Early this year, with the Super Bowl 11 days away, Sabol perched at the edge of a chair in the office of one of his producers, screening the latest cuts from a project that is one of his pets.
Photos by:GETTY IMAGES; PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
There is stirring orchestral music, penned by an NFL Films composer and recorded in-house in a studio that can accommodate an 80-piece symphony. There is arresting cinematography, always captured from the field. And, of course, there is the sound — voices, grunts, and the clash of helmets and pads — that has emerged as NFL Films’ secret sauce. High-definition cameras and digital technology have allowed the television networks to catch up visually, but only NFL Films can wire players and coaches for sound.
“This is usually the highlight of my day,” said Sabol, angling his chair to square up with a monitor. “I love coming back here to see what he’s got.
“OK. Let’s go.”
Sabol watched the six-minute stretch intently, even though he’d seen most of it before. He made a suggestion. He answered a question. But, mostly, he watched and listened. This is what Driber envisioned when he encouraged Sabol to return to work a year ago.
“Just go around and sprinkle that magic dust on people every day,” Driber told him on that Saturday. “That’s what they need.”
And so that is what Sabol decided to do. For the last year, he has been in his office most mornings and early afternoons, staying for as long as his body will allow. He takes days off during chemo treatments. But, mostly, he is at work at NFL Films.
Sabol still churns with frustration when the proper word evades him, or when he has to jot it on a note card because he can’t get it out. But he encourages others to fill in his blanks. With time, conversation has become more comfortable for him, at least on most days.
“It turns out most of the people here know what I’m thinking before I even say it, so we get through it,” Sabol said, chuckling. “That’s important for me, because this has been my life. I’d like to still be part of it.”
Sabol’s connection to the 100-plus hours of original programming produced from the 200,000-square-foot facility in Mount Laurel, N.J., each year is evident throughout his vast, corner office, which he, in a parlance befitting a filmmaker, prefers to call his “room.”
On a corkboard to the right of his desk are ideas that have percolated lately, some more refined than others, all lying in wait for a home.
One index card is headlined: “COMPARING TEAMS,” scrawled in red marker. Beneath it are two quotes, also written in Sabol’s hand. “History is an argument without end,” and “Nostalgia is a seductive liar.” There’s also a passing reference to Monet.
To this, Sabol has glued a paragraph from a yellowed newspaper article, examining the shortcomings of comparing the Packers or Steelers dynasties to the more recent vintage Patriots.
Nearby, another pin holds a sheet of Sabol’s NFL Films letterhead. “Ravens-Texans” is written at the top, underlined. Then “3rd piece of music.” There are more notes beneath that, but they’re hidden, because at some point Sabol put a small square from a notepad on top of it — “Return to Win” 2097. (Strings only) — and skewered both back to the board.
At the back of the office is a row of tables, lined side by side. Here, Sabol keeps a catalog of note cards, compiled over the years.
Kennie Smith, who now oversees scheduling and logistics for NFL Films, was Sabol’s assistant in her early days at the company. She remembers pasting some of the now-yellowed newspaper clips on the cards, taking care to make sure they were neatly aligned.
The clips and notes never stopped coming. At the start of a cross-country flight, Sabol would unzip a large duffel bag, stocked with books and magazines. He’d read each for a bit, highlighting paragraphs on some pages and slapping sticky notes to others.
“Been that way for as long as I’ve known him,” Smith said. “He’ll have 10 things with him wherever we go. A Sports Illustrated. A book about Lombardi. A book about some swimmer. He’ll read one for 10 minutes and then put it down and move on to the next.
“Anything Steve sees can end up in a film.”
Explaining the process behind a project like “Road to the Super Bowl,” Sabol opened a vast binder with hundreds of pages listing compelling clips from throughout the season, bits and pieces of stories he thought they might want to tell. Those shots, culled based on which themes fit the season best, provide the guts of the show. But it starts with the music, with a score written by in-house composers who work with Sabol to match the varied moods he intends to set at different segments of the film.
He edits the film to fit the score.
“It’s a strange way to work,” Sabol said. “But I’ve always done it this way.”
As a result, so do many of the Emmy-winning producers who have come up through NFL Films.
“We work for an artist,” said Keith Cossrow, a supervising producer whose work includes the recent HBO biopic “Namath.” “How many presidents of companies are actually artists? Steve doesn’t come to work in the morning thinking about ‘How can I make money for my company today?’ The only thing he cares about is ‘How do I make a great film today — or make sure my people are making great films?’”
On the wall of Smith’s office hangs a pop-art collage that marries football with the long-lost romance of air travel. In the foreground is an illustration of a leather-helmeted player, trotting to daylight. The background is a mix of vintage airline stickers, the sort that travelers once affixed to their bags.
The walls of NFL Films are covered with thematic photos, artwork and frames all selected by Sabol.
Photo by:PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
“I came in to work and it was there,” said Smith, who oversees a web of project logistics for the company. “I may come in on Tuesday, and there will be a yellow note stuck in its place [on the wall], and then on Wednesday it will be a different picture. Steve likes to keep things fresh.”
The walls of NFL Films are covered with artwork; photographs of great plays and players, a theme recurrent everywhere except the green room next to the studios — which is decorated with movie posters and stills, many from old westerns. Each of the hundreds of pieces was selected by Sabol, who decides which hangs where and in what frame.
When Howard Katz, the former ABC Sports president, began working with Sabol in 2003 to align NFL Films with the soon-to-be-launched NFL Network, he made the mistake of using the photos as road signs around the labyrinthine offices. Each day, he’d find Jerry Rice and make a right. Then, one weekend before NFL owners were scheduled to visit, Sabol decided it would be better if all 32 teams were represented on the walls. So he swapped out some photos.
“I got lost,” Katz said.
Outside Katz’s office hangs a black and white photo of John F. Kennedy at the Army-Navy game. It appeared there one morning, a few days after an offhand chat with Sabol. They were talking about the connection football forges between fathers and sons. Katz told Sabol that one of his greatest memories was of his father taking him to the Army-Navy game and seeing President Kennedy there. Two days later, the photo hung on his wall.
“If you walk around these halls, this is Steve Sabol,” Katz said. “Everything about this place is Steve Sabol.”
While action photos dominate, Sabol has sprinkled in others. There are pictures of NFL Films camera crews. Here and there, there are pop-art collages, like the one in Smith’s office.
Sabol began making them 20 years ago. He estimates that he has produced about 200, showing and selling them at galleries and online. At their core is the juxtaposition of characters and themes. One, titled “Pluck and Luck,” features William Randolph Hearst, the bullfighter Manolete, Kit Carson, Bronko Nagurski, Garibaldi, Cochise, Gen. Kazi Dworak and Vivian Leigh.
Sabol likes to talk about his art but says it is difficult for him to convey its meaning these days. Instead, he points to a blurb he wrote for a calendar he produced earlier this year: “I combine the arcane with the commonplace, the ephemeral with the everlasting.”
Explaining his process is easier. For the last 20 years, he has spent the weekends that aren’t occupied by football trolling flea markets, gathering stuff that catches his eye. Old tobacco cards. Game pieces. Doorknobs. Faucets. Nails. Hammers. Boxes and boxes of old magazines. All of it is organized, neatly, in a studio at his home, where he makes his collages using varied types of glues.
In the last year, his art has proved therapeutic.
“With this, you don’t have to worry about your vocabulary and finding the right word,” Sabol said. “It’s all images. You put them together and you tell a story. But not with words.
“It’s good for me to be able to do that in my situation now.”
Sabol is certain that this would have been his vocation, rather than his avocation, had his father not famously landed the rights to film the NFL championship game for $4,000 in 1962 and then parlayed it into the company that became NFL Films, opening the door to the only full-time job he’s ever held. He would have been an artist. Football might have played a peripheral role as his subject matter, but it wouldn’t pervade it.
He’d be drawn more to history.
‘HE EARNED EVERYTHING’
Steve Sabol accompanied his father and NFL Films creator Ed Sabol at the enshrinement ceremony for the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year.
Photo by:GETTY IMAGES
From behind the camera, Hank McElwee, the man who set the aperture on Sabol’s camera and loaded his film when they were blazing trails together on NFL sidelines 40 years ago, asked if he was ready to go.
“Yeah,” Sabol said.
And he started talking.
“Let me tell you about my dad,” Sabol said, smoothly. “He was a loving father. He was a generous boss. He was a leader. He was a dreamer. But most of all, he was the funniest man I’ve ever known.”
Behind the camera McElwee stood, stunned.
“Freaking nailed it,” McElwee thought.
Seated in the adjacent sound studio, behind glass, Vince Caputo quickly checked to make sure everything was running. He was the one Sabol came to see soon after he returned to work, asking whether there was a way to cobble his words together into a narration of a film that they could show at the induction. Sabol knew he could not get through a traditional speech from a stage.
“You understand how I’m talking,” Sabol said to Caputo. “I can’t get more than six or seven words together. But if I write something and I try to say it a little bit at a time, can you put it together?
“When I make a mistake, can you fix it?”
Caputo has known Sabol since he was a boy and Sabol was a young man. The son of Ed Sabol’s longtime driver, Caputo grew up around the old NFL Films offices, washing cars out back for extra money. He worked summers in the film vault. When Caputo was in college, studying engineering, he floundered. Sabol came to him with the offer of an internship in the NFL Films sound department. Turned out, he was good at it. A couple of months later, Sabol offered him a job.
“He trusted me 27 years ago by putting me into a position to succeed,” Caputo said. “And I think I’ve spent the last 20 years trying not to disappoint him.
“Whatever it took,” he said, “we were going to get him through.”
McElwee was one of the company’s first employees — No. 21, it said on his pay stub. Today, he is head of cinematography. But McElwee’s first job was as an assistant to Sabol, who was learning his way as a producer, editor and cameraman.
“Here’s this rich kid whose father owns the company,” McElwee said. “I’m from the other side of the tracks. I watched him work and said, ‘God, I’m struggling to keep up with this guy.’ I knew he was the boss’ son, but he earned everything he got.
“We all realized pretty quickly that Steve was the force behind what we were doing here. The sound. The pictures. Big Ed had the idea and he sold the owners on it, but when it came to the actual vision of this company, without a doubt it was Steve. Steve saw things in a unique way that every network is copying right now.”
In the afternoon, after they’d shot the rest of the 10-minute narration in fits and starts that took up much of the day, McElwee put an arm around his old friend.
“Sudden, how long did it take you to memorize that first part?” McElwee asked, using the nickname that Sabol gave himself when he played small-college football — Sudden Death Sabol.
“Hank,” Sabol said, “I’ve been working on it for three months. I had to get it right.”
At the induction in Canton, McElwee was one of four NFL Films cameramen following the Sabols for the day. As he has so many times after a game, he came away from the ceremony with a shot that he knew captured the moment. As McElwee filmed Big Ed Sabol sliding an arm through his new, yellow jacket, he panned up and caught Steve Sabol in the background, smiling with pride.
“I call that a tingle shot,” McElwee said, “where the hair on the back of your neck stands up.”
STICKING TO A PLAN
Cossrow and Ken Rodgers, the two 30-something producers responsible for the NFL Films’ bell cow “Hard Knocks,” sat in Rodgers’ office sharing stories about their mentor.
When the topic turned to Sabol’s creative process and his affinity for the yellow sticky notes that dotted his scripts, his desk, his walls and even the dashboard of his car, Rodgers reached into a drawer and produced a large, manila folder.
He opened it gently, revealing a mound of stickies. There had to be a hundred of them, most of them yellow, the top ones sliding ever so gently toward the fringe as the folder settled on the desk.
“Wowwww,” Cossrow said, jaw agape. “Look at that.”
“I’ve saved every sticky note he’s ever given me,” Rodgers said, leveling the pile with a careful swipe. “Because, to me, this is him. When he leaves stuff for me about my scripts or my films, this, to me, represents Steve. I thought maybe one day I’d make a collage out of these and put it on my wall, because they seem to me to be the closest I can come to Steve’s essence.
“It’s in his little notes to all of us.”
Rodgers isn’t the only one saving stickies. Caputo still has the note Sabol left for him after he got his first look at rough cuts from the 2010 season premiere of “Hard Knocks,” when the show followed the New York Jets and notoriously profane head coach Rex Ryan. Caputo was at work at 5 a.m. the next day to work on the final mix when he came upon the following directive, waiting on his chair:
“There’s too much cursing in ‘Hard Knocks,’” Sabol wrote. “Whenever possible delete the f---s and shits.”
“This is Steve,” Caputo said, laughing as he held up the note. “‘Whenever possible’ — there’s some leeway in that.”
Sabol’s brain tumor has brought to the surface a fear that has percolated at NFL Films for years. While nobody could have predicted his illness, they knew that, as he aged, he would become less engaged. It might have taken another decade, but it was going to happen.
“When you’ve been defined by someone for so long,” Rodgers said, “What are you when you’re no longer with that person?”
In the last year, Sabol has helped them find the answer.
It’s in the notes. And on the walls.
It’s in all of the good ideas that he nurtured. And the bad ones he tolerated.
It’s in the film vault. And on their hard drives.
It was there when Cossrow sat watching a rough cut of their recent biopic on Joe Namath, and heard a stretch of music — a “ratty f---ing guitar,” Sabol calls it — that they knew the boss would hate.
It was there a few weeks ago, when Rodgers hung a photo at home.
“It’s really impossible to create anything here without thinking, ‘What would Steve do?’” Rodgers said. “I could be in a coma for five years, and the first thing I would think when I wake up would be, ‘What would Steve think of this shot?’”
THE FORCE OF NFL FILMS
When they wheeled Sabol off the flight home aboard a gurney after he fell ill in Kansas City, Katz was among those waiting to meet him at the airport.
“He couldn’t really say much, but he grabbed my hand,” Katz said. “He just looked so frail.”
After he was released from the hospital, Sabol summoned Katz to come to his home to talk about what would come next. Working together for the last eight years, they have become not only colleagues, but friends.
NFL Films has changed dramatically since the launch of the NFL Network. What for 40 years was a gilded, documentary film company, with long lead times and production budgets that were made to be broken, now must feed the television beast, creating about 40 percent more hours of content and doing it in less time with fewer people.
Katz points out that, while the introduction of fiscal controls frustrated some at NFL Films, most came to accept them because Sabol did. While he always leads with his creative side — only acknowledging a familiarity with budgets and bottom lines when pressed — Sabol bought into Katz’s promise that they could continue making great films even as the NFL demanded television features and highlight packages in greater quantity.
“Steve is the unquestioned leader of NFL Films,” Katz said. “He is the creative driving force here. He is the inspirational driving force. He is the personification of NFL Films. You couldn’t make the changes we’ve made without Steve Sabol.”
Sabol had an important message for Katz when the two met to discuss the future. He said his illness had led him to take stock of his priorities. That only three things in his life “mattered.” There was his wife, Penny. His 26-year-old son, Casey.
And NFL Films.
“He said he was kind of entrusting NFL Films to me,” Katz said. “The good news is, he’s been here pretty much every day since, so it’s not time to think about that yet.”
Later in the week, again at his home, Sabol had a similar conversation with NFL Films’ creative leadership. They thanked him for his confidence, and then reminded him that his expression of it was premature.
That was a year ago.
“Even with everything that has happened to him, his juices still flow,” said Bob Ryan, one of the original NFL Films producers who still works on projects as a consultant. “He comes in every day and stays as long as he can. If he had to stay home all day and watch re-runs of ‘Justified,’ that wouldn’t be Steve.
“He has other interests. But this place is his life.”
In an alcove at the back of his office, Sabol keeps boxes filled with letters from and to his father, game credentials, photographs, newspaper clippings and magazine covers, all meticulously cataloged and filed. “Everything I ever did in my life,” he said.
On a shelf was the old splicer he used when editing his earliest films.
Sabol placed the heel of his hand on it, and pressed down.
“I love what I do,” he said. “I always have.”
Photo by:CURT HUDSON
He has built two multipurpose arenas and is that rare creature within the world of sports: a team owner who made his money in sports instead of buying in after amassing a fortune large enough to allow such dalliances.
After almost 50 years working with some of the brightest minds in sports, media and marketing, Snider harks back to his father’s grocery store when you ask him where he got the temerity to insist that hockey would succeed in a town where ice was considered something used in a highball glass. At 10 years old, Snider had been working in his father’s grocery for a few years and had enough chutzpah, even then, to change the bread display on his own. His uncle said no, but his father overruled, letting the young Snider take the initiative. “My father always allowed me to use my own mind for important things at a young age,” said Snider, inside his office atop the Wells Fargo Center on a recent afternoon. So perhaps that day in the grocery store was the start of Snider refusing to listen when people said “No way.”
“For most people in business, when a door closes, they move on,” said Joe Cohen, chairman of HTN Communications, a cable television pioneer who worked for Spectacor, Snider’s original arena management company, before becoming chairman of the Los Angeles Kings in 1993. “That’s just the opposite of Eddie. Once he starts on a project, he just won’t go away.”
An outsider from Maryland, Snider made Philadelphia one of the NHL’s model franchises. Earlier in his career, as vice president of the Philadelphia Eagles, he navigated politics adroitly enough to assist in getting the city to build Veterans Stadium, and then he suggested at just the right time to the mayor that an arena in what was going to be the new football stadium’s parking lot would make a lot of sense.
Across pro sports, there are no purists like hockey purists, but after taming politics in the most parochial of America’s big cities, standing up to the demands and doubts of the owners of the NHL’s original six franchises seemed easy. But it wasn’t. Early on, at least one banker fell asleep during Snider’s pitch for a loan for the team, and one infamously told Snider that “soccer will never work” in Philadelphia.
The 2012 Winter Classic was played at Citizens Bank Park. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman (far left) posed with Snider and others.
Photo:COURTESY OF ED SNIDER
“When I started to get interested in bringing hockey here, there were six teams in the NHL and all played to capacity,” he said, “I was young enough to think there was no way it couldn’t work.”
Snider, elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1988, was neither an entrepreneur nor a marketer by training, though he recalls organizing his University of Maryland fraternity brothers to sell Christmas trees and Easter flowers. Still, he’s sure entrepreneurship is more DNA than MBA. “It’s an instinct,” he said, noting his grandfather pushed a fruit cart through the streets of Kansas City. “It’s just part of you that can’t be taught.”
A CPA by education, Snider found early on that while there was a ceiling on earnings working for others, either as an accountant or at his father’s grocery business, there was no ceiling when it came to working for yourself.
He got into the music business, placing overrun 45s — the surplus of records — that cost pennies at grocers and other retailers and selling them at an increase, 19 cents apiece or six for a buck. He was young in what was then a very attractive business, music, and he was doing well. Then he tried to take it national, and “it overwhelmed me,” he said. In the aftermath, the company was sold and a family friend got him into the Philadelphia Eagles organization in 1964 as the team’s treasurer. He eventually became vice president and led all non-football operations before setting his sights on hockey.
Everyone who has worked with Snider says he’s fiercely bright and a quick study. Leo Carlin, Eagles director of tickets and client services and a 52-year employee of the NFL club, remembers an early meeting when he and several team employees were waiting for Snider to finish a phone call and approve ad copy for tickets to the next home game.
“He grabbed the paper, drew up the ad he wanted, and he never stopped talking on the phone,” Carlin said. “It was better than anything we’d drawn up.”
Where did that come from? Once again, we’re back in the aisles of Sol Snider’s grocery store, where Ed Snider also worked as its advertising manager once it became a chain. “Supermarkets are a business that work on around a 1 percent margin,” he recalls, before reminiscing about breaking down hind saddles of beef and watching chickens run around after cutting off their heads. “So it’s a business where you have to be sharp to survive.”
As for the origins of Snider’s marketing savvy? “Ed’s a fundamentally creative guy and marketing is all about creativity,” said Howard Baldwin, the Flyers’ original ticket manager who went on at 28 to found the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers (the franchise that would become the Hartford Whalers) and later owned pieces of the San Jose Sharks, Minnesota North Stars and Pittsburgh Penguins, where he won a Stanley Cup.
Snider’s diligence and vision, first in securing an NHL franchise for Philadelphia and later in building an arena that he had to rescue from bankruptcy early on, are legendary. Beyond building a great hockey tradition where there was none, Snider’s genius was in seeing how sports could be used to build, connect and support interconnected businesses. Now, every owner wants related media, management and sports marketing businesses. Snider was building a cable network before most people knew what cable was and followed that with one of the first regional sports networks. After being besieged by fellow building operators for advice, he saw the business opportunity and launched Spectacor in 1974, sold it, and started another in 2000, Global Spectrum, which is now second only to SMG (formerly Spectacor) in facilities management.
“Very quickly, Eddie came to understand that the box office potential was not limited to selling tickets in the building,” Baldwin said, “and he saw that before almost anyone else.”
Clockwise from above: The Flyers’ Stanley Cup banners hang on the concourse at the Wells Fargo Center; Snider poses with his U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame induction plaque; the Calder Cup was hoisted in Philadelphia when the AHL Phantoms defeated the Chicago Wolves in 2005.
PhotoS by:CURT HUDSON; GETTY IMAGES (2)
Consequently, as the growth of broadcast and cable television fueled the growth of pro sports and pro sports venues, Snider benefited handsomely. Now certainly that sort of prescience and foresight didn’t originate from within a grocery emporium. It has to be a quality you are born with, one that perhaps can be honed with experience.
“The two most intuitive guys I ever worked for are Ed Snider and [former Disney CEO] Michael Eisner,” said Tony Tavares, former president of Spectacor Management Group, who went on to run the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and California Angels for Disney, before running the Montreal Expos and Dallas Stars during their time as league-owned franchises. “Ed could hear a deal and instantly tell you what was right or wrong with it. Before everyone had a computer, he would scan a financial statement and tell you, ‘This doesn’t foot.’”
See, there’s still a CPA in there somewhere.
“Ed has this ability to simplify. Smart guys just know how to do that,” said Peter Luukko, hired by Tavares at Spectacor in 1985 and now a strong No. 2 to Snider as Comcast-Spectacor’s president and COO. “We have budgets for some of our buildings that are as big as dictionaries, and he’ll look at one quickly and tell me, ‘So if we can get X concerts and sell X suites, it’ll be a good year, right?’ He’s got a financial mind. That’s what allows him to be a disciplined risk taker.”
Ask Snider’s contemporaries how to describe his particular brand of indefatigability, and you’ll get an intriguing variety of responses.
Certainly, in the business world, he’s more like hockey enforcer Dave Schultz than Wayne Gretzky.
“You won’t meet many guys in sports tougher than Ed Snider,” said Tavares. “Not in an unreasonable way, but he is a tough guy.”
Said NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, “I’m not sure I would use the word tough. He is demanding. He seeks and expects excellence. He’s not demanding or tough for the sake of being that way. He just wants everything he touches to be first class. That’s the way he runs.”
But from Boston Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, chairman of the NHL’s board of governors, the “tough” quality re-emerges. “Tough is a good word to describe him, but he also can see more than one side to an issue,” Jacobs said. “He’s usually a guy you want to take the temperature of well in advance of the [board of governors] meetings, because you know he’ll show up with data and arguments to back up his opinion.”
Adds Luukko, “Ed’s your favorite coach: demanding, but with you. People tend to view him largely on the Flyers, but really, he gets just as excited on a hard-fought food service, facility management or ticketing contract. He just loves to compete.”
Snider’s office is filled with more family than hockey mementos, and that commitment extends to his hockey family. “Nowadays, everyone wants to treat their players and their families well, but I can tell you that Mr. Snider was doing that 40 years ago when my father came to town, and it was unusual,” said Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero, whose father, Fred Shero, coached the Flyers to consecutive Stanley Cup wins in 1974 and 1975. “It was always a family, and that started with Mr. Snider. The brand on the ice has a certain perception, of course, The Broad Street Bullies, but off the ice, it was always about doing things the right way. Among players, the word on how the team traveled was always that there was first class and Flyer Class, which was better than first.”
Snider with stars of sports and show business. From top: Tennis star Bobby Riggs (second from left), Billy Joel, and Julius Erving.
Photos:COURTESY OF ED SNIDER
Baldwin, who now owns the AHL’s Connecticut Whale, admits he modeled his Whalers on the Flyers.
“My idea was to make it so that when a player came, they didn’t want to leave, or if they did leave, they’d stay in the community — not unlike a really good college,” Baldwin recalls. “He created this family environment that is so lacking in other franchises.”
Now, at age 79, Snider has shown no signs of slowing and is as peripatetic as a man 40 years younger.
“He has more energy than most of us, and that was true 40 years ago,” Cohen said.
“When it comes to the Flyers, I still love to be involved. Love to be in the locker room after a game,” Snider said. “If I ever lose that, I will retire.”
Listening to the dean of NHL owners and a man who has owned a major American sports franchise longer than anyone outside of three NFL owners, it doesn’t appear that retirement is on Snider’s agenda, even though he will turn 80 next January.
“There’s a different challenge each year,” he said. “You aren’t looking for a 10 percent increase in volume or profit each year. It’s ‘Are you going to win the Cup or end up in last?’”
Off the ice, nearly 50 years in sports has given Snider the perspective of a connoisseur.
“A banker taught me early on not to look at a sports franchise only from a P&L basis,” Snider said. “You evaluate it like a great work of art: Hang it on the wall, it’s rare and unique, and it will increase in value because of that. It’s an asset play, and a tax shelter for some. And as a way of life, it’s better than owning a widget factory.”
Photo by:STAN LIU
It was a roll of the dice for the Milwaukee native, who was leaving a teaching job at the University of Arizona and heading to San Diego with no job prospects and few connections. But the day before the school year was to begin, she landed an interview at Kearny High School, located just a few blocks from her newly rented apartment. The principal took one look at the fresh-faced Midwesterner and hired her on the spot — though not for the job advertised.
“I got a call for a long-term substitute teaching position, but when I walked into the principal’s office and introduced myself, he said I was the new modern dance teacher,” Sweet recalled with a laugh.
There was one small problem. Sweet, who had earned her master’s degree in education from Arizona and was a physical education and math major at the University of Wisconsin, had never taught high school, much less modern dance.
“I thought maybe he was talking to someone else in the room,” Sweet said. “But nevertheless, I became the modern dance teacher. It was a good lesson that you can do anything if you have to.”
While Sweet hastily boned up on the particulars of a high school dance class curriculum, she had no inkling that it was the break of a lifetime — and the start of her remarkable career as a true trailblazer for women in sports. It’s a journey that has taken her from her humble high school teaching days to a pioneering career at the University of California, San Diego, over to the conference rooms at the NCAA and in front of Congress. Over the course of her career spanning from the mid-1970s to today, Sweet has developed a reputation as the conscience of college sports through her work as a tireless defender of Title IX and other diversity issues.
“Judy is one of a handful of women who took it upon themselves to remind people on a daily basis and at every opportunity that if intercollegiate athletics is valuable because it enhances some life lessons, then that can’t be true just for men, but also for women,” said Wally Renfro, NCAA vice president and chief policy officer. “Equal rights in sports was a big hill to climb when Title IX came in, and she is one of the people who has spent her career making sure that hill got climbed.”
Her style is a blend of unmistakable calm, measure and determination, qualities that have allowed Sweet to put together a career of firsts. She was the first female athletic director to run both the men’s and women’s programs at UC San Diego, where she began her career in 1973, after spending that year teaching dance at Kearny High. Her initial job at the university was as assistant athletic director and supervisor of physical education. Two years later, she was named athletic director.
She was 27 years old, and with the new job, she was too consumed by its immediate challenges to even consider what future successes could be ahead.
In 1975, UC San Diego had a shoestring athletic budget of just $90,000, not to mention gross financial and scheduling inequities between its men’s and women’s sports. The women’s basketball program had a total budget of $1,000 compared with $10,000 for the men’s team. The women’s team played a limited schedule in a local community college league while the men’s team played a full schedule against four-year schools.
“It was quite obvious that needed to change,” Sweet said. “The whole athletic department was grossly underfunded.”
She immediately began to close the gap between the men’s and women’s programs, backed by the federal Title IX legislation that was passed into law in 1972. She shifted more funding to women’s sports, rearranged practice schedules that had always given the men’s programs prime-time access, and convinced her trustees that women’s sports deserved equal funding and support as men’s programs.
Predictably, the decisions didn’t sit well with some of the male coaches long used to having things their way.
“It wasn’t easy,” Sweet said. “Several male coaches whose programs had received a disparate amount of resources and attention didn’t like the fact that I was changing the landscape to make things more gender equal. There were many times when we would disagree when I would suggest we make a decision based on the best interests of all student athletes.”
But Sweet prevailed, quietly but firmly battling against gender discrimination, a fight she had grown familiar with while growing up in Milwaukee.
From the Auburn Opelika Touchdown Club to NACDA, Sweet has been widely recognized for her service to collegiate athletics.
Photos by:STAN LIU (3)
“I have loved sports all of my life, but I never had the opportunity to play on a high school or college team because there weren’t any,” Sweet said. “We had girls’ athletic associations, which amounted to sports days where you had no formal coaching and you’d go mix with girls in other schools and then have punch and cookies. That was all that was available.”
As Sweet began her overhaul of UC San Diego’s athletic department, she also earned her MBA, bolstering her qualifications on the business and administrative side of her job. Despite her steady run of success, she always felt the burden that came with blazing a trail for women athletic administrators.
“I felt a responsibility that I had to be true to my commitment and couldn’t be scared away by individuals who wanted me to fail,” Sweet said. “If I had failed, it would have been very easy for other universities to say, ‘That is why we can’t hire other women.’ I absolutely felt that pressure.”
Her ability to navigate both the financial aspects of college athletics and gender-equity issues soon became clear to the NCAA.
In 1981, a local NCAA council nominated her to serve on the NCAA communications committee. Other appointments followed, and from the early 1980s through the mid-1990s, Sweet served on some 20 NCAA committees and gained a firm grasp on virtually every issue confronting the NCAA.
Her efforts at consensus-building also began being noticed by others.
“I have never seen anyone like Judy who can take a committee and its various points of view and arrive at a consensus,” said Charlotte West, former associate athletics director at Southern Illinois University who worked on various NCAA committees with Sweet.
By the late 1980s, Sweet was chairing key NCAA committees and drawing national attention both inside and outside the NCAA. In 1989, she became the first woman to serve as secretary treasurer for the NCAA, a move that raised eyebrows within the male-dominated NCAA hierarchy.
In addition to her stewardship at the NCAA, Sweet was also a leader in groups for athletic directors and for women administrators.
Photo by:JOAN TIEFEL/ NACDA; JARED WICKERHAM / NACWAA; COURTESY OF JUDY SWEET
Unlike today’s NCAA structure, in which the president’s title marks the top staff job, in the early 1990s it was the executive director who was at the top of the organization. Dick Schultz held that executive director job during Sweet’s tenure as president. Still, as president, she had tremendous influence and reach within the organization. The president was responsible for presiding over the NCAA annual convention as well as serving as a chair of the powerful NCAA Executive Committee and the NCAA Council.
Equally groundbreaking as her gender was that the newly nominated, reform-minded NCAA president came from a Division III school, the land of no scholarships, no television money and miniscule budgets.
“To a lot of people, it was more startling that a Division III administrator was elected as NCAA president rather than a woman,” Sweet said. “But I always tried to look at what was best for all divisions. Anyone who had an issue with my gender or what division I came from, that was their issue. I did not let it become my issue.”
But the letters and public opinion of protest regarding her role as NCAA president still ring as loudly for Sweet today as they did when she was elected. She cites a 1991 column penned by the late Furman Bisher, former sports editor of the then Atlanta Journal, who reportedly called Sweet’s appointment as NCAA president “pure tokenism. Like having a debutante as head of the National Mule Skinners Assn.”
“There were people who were supportive,” Sweet said, “but it was amazing to me at the number of negative, hateful letters I received.”
A key ally for Sweet was Wilford Bailey, former president of Auburn University who preceded Sweet as NCAA president, and Christine Grant, former athletic director for women’s sports at the University of Iowa.
“I watched, listened and learned in terms of how they handled themselves in difficult situations,” Sweet said.
Sweet stayed focused on her role during those two years. Among her accomplishments was her stalwart ability to address gender-equity issues not just within the NCAA, but also while stressing the balance between student and athlete.
“One of her greatest accomplishments is setting the tone for female leadership in the NCAA, which she did brilliantly,” Grant said. “She is a strong believer in education and sports. But it’s not that she is opposed to bringing in revenue. Every athletic director is concerned with that. But her top priority is the education of the student athlete.”
Sweet’s tenure as UC San Diego athletic director began in 1975 and included 26 NCAA championships and the 1998 Directors’ Cup from NACDA. She stepped down in 1999.
Photos:COURTESY OF JUDY SWEET (3)
“She was clearly a pioneer,” said Tom Jernstedt, former executive vice president of the NCAA who worked closely with Sweet. “Her overall contributions during some challenging years were extraordinary. She always understood the issues and was sensitive to the political views of all the membership.”
Her leadership over the NCAA membership proved so effective that when her term expired in 1993, she continued to lead key committees, including chair of the NCAA revenue distribution committee, maintaining her low-key but influential approach.
So cool under pressure was Sweet that even congressional committees could not shake her ability to defend Title IX.
“I remember when she was testifying before Congress, and she got cut off and interrupted as they tried to throw her off her game,” said Carol Stiff, vice president of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, who has dealt with Sweet over various television negotiations. “But she stayed very calm and just eloquently spoke as an advocate for change.”
Sweet continued to serve as athletic director at UC San Diego after her term as president of the NCAA expired in 1993, but by 1999, she was ready for a change and resigned her post.
“I just thought I needed to do something different,” Sweet said. “It’s good for organizations to have change at the top and allow for different approaches.”
Her legacy of success and leadership was defined by a combined 26 NCAA national championships won by men’s and women’s teams. The school in 1998 won the coveted Directors’ Cup awarded by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, honoring the most successful sports program from each of the three NCAA divisions.
In 2001, Sweet shelved a planned sabbatical and left San Diego to take a job with the NCAA, where she worked as senior vice president for championships and education services.
“It was a great professional opportunity, but the trade-off was that I had to move to Indianapolis,” Sweet said.
It was a drastic change not just in geography from her 25 years spent in Southern California, but also in job description. She was moving from a small-college atmosphere to the bureaucratic NCAA. There, she continued to defend Title IX, which was under attack from the Bush administration. She also ran men’s and women’s championships.
“Institutions were dropping men’s sports in favor of women’s sports, but it was about creating opportunities,” Sweet said. “There were some who felt Title IX was responsible, but they underestimated the number of soccer moms and dads who wanted their daughters to have the same opportunities as their sons.”
Sweet, 64, left the NCAA in 2006 and returned to San Diego, where she now works as co-director of the Alliance of Women Coaches (see related story) and is a gender equity and Title IX consultant to other universities. It’s a continuation of Sweet’s commitment to defending women’s collegiate sports. In so doing, she’s helped thousands of female athletes receive the same rights as male athletes. She also has paved the way for a generation of female sports administrators.
“Judy was and still is vigilant about Title IX,” Renfro said. “She will not tolerate anything that diminishes the impact.”
Nor is Sweet content to stand pat on her trailblazing in collegiate athletics. What matters more to her is that others follow behind her pioneering career.
“Being elected as the first female president of the NCAA was a matter of timing, and I am grateful,” she said. “But the most important thing is not being the last.”
Photo by:TIFFIN WARNOCK / STAFF
That’s how they know him around here. Not as Howard Augustine. Not as Humpy. Not even as Mr. Wheeler. But as the Belmont boy done good. The one who went up the road to the speedway north of Charlotte and made a name for himself building a sport with ties to the area as deep as the red clay on which their businesses are built.
They clapped as Wheeler, 73, plodded to the stage. He wore a dark navy suit, red tie and white shirt. Most of his faded blonde hair was parted at the side, but a forgotten chunk jumped off his forehead and pointed at the crowd. He grabbed the microphone and took in the room.
He gives 40 speeches a year to civic groups and feels sorry for the audience at nearly every one. He knows that the food is no good and speakers usually give doctoral dissertations. He wants his crowds to leave saying, “The chicken might be rubber, but at least the speaker was good.” So he started, as always, with a funny story.
“As I was coming over here, driving down I-85 reminded me of this highway patrolman I knew who told me a story. Right after I-85 opened, he said, I was young and trying to give everybody a break. I noticed this car pull onto the interstate. It had absolutely no taillights. So I pulled it over. I felt like I was stopping Archie and Edith Bunker. The guy screams, ‘Why the heck are you stopping me?!?!? I wasn’t speeding! I pay my taxes! Can’t I get on the highway?!?!?’
“It’s night. It’s the interstate. And this is about the most belligerent guy you ever saw. He just kept screamin’ and hollerin’, and Edith goes, ‘I told you to get those taillights fixed six months ago.’ He said, ‘Shut up, woman!’ The patrolman asked to see his license and registration and, of course, like all those, the guy can’t find ’em. He starts screamin’ and hollerin’ again. The patrolman finally looks over there at his wife and says, ‘Ma’am, is he always like this?’ And she says, ‘Only when he’s been drinking.’”
He’s a fighter, he’s a lover (with wife Pat), but as a kid and a young racetrack executive, Wheeler was always a promoter with a big smile.
Photos:COURTESY OF HUMPY WHEELER
Even in retirement, Wheeler remains every bit as deft at captivating an audience as he was during the 33 years he ran Charlotte Motor Speedway. He is still a masterful storyteller with a nose for the outlandish and an eye for the unexpected.
It is those skills that helped him develop some of the most memorable moments in race-day history. There was the Battle of Grenada re-enactment in 1982, complete with helicopters, troops and explosions of balsawood fortifications; a three-ring circus in 1980 that featured trapeze artists, clowns, tigers and elephants; and, perhaps most importantly, the installation of lights in 1992 that resulted in the first night race at a superspeedway.
During his time at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the track swelled from 75,000 seats to 167,000, and though the track’s owner, Bruton Smith, deserves credit for the facility’s physical development, it is Wheeler who deserves credit for filling it. His success in doing so served as proof that sports can be about more than competition. It can also be about the show.
“He didn’t earn the nickname of Barnum and Bailey for nothing,” said NASCAR President Mike Helton. “We had a lot of characters pioneering track development, but as the sport started to explode, Humpy took it to a new level. Other track promoters would look at him and say, ‘I wish I had the moxie to do that.’”
Long before he sold his first ticket to a stock car race, Wheeler began studying what it took to gather an audience. He grew up in Belmont, a textile town of 8,000, and his father, the athletic director at nearby Belmont Abbey College, often took him to games. Wheeler would sit in the stands and imagine what would make the event better, whether it was having music play during breaks in the action or how to butter the popcorn better.
After starting the town’s only bicycle repair shop at 13, he decided to create a bicycle race in hope that kids would wreck their bicycles and hire him for repairs. He wrote articles for the local newspaper and posted fliers around town touting the trophy he’d give the winner of The Great Belmont Bicycle Race. More than a dozen kids showed up for that first race, and he ran races every weekend afterward.
Wheeler’s interest in bicycles morphed into an interest in cars in his teens. It surprised no one in his family when he came home from the University of South Carolina, where he went to play football, and leased Robinwood Speedway, a dirt track 10 miles from the family’s home.
It was there that he first began to push the boundaries of promotion. To drive attendance for a demolition derby, he developed a 10-second TV spot that showed an old Cadillac plunging through the air and smashing five junk cars filled with water barrels. The impact created a massive explosion that sent water spraying everywhere as an announcer said, “Demolition Derby, $2. Kids under 12 free.”
“It was absolute, total mass destruction, and people just loved it,” Wheeler said. “That was one of the best ads I ever had. I was just selling wrecks, you know, because that’s what people wanted to see.”
Wheeler brought his enthusiasm for destruction to Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1975, when Smith hired him to run the speedway. He did anything he could to draw attention to the track.
In 1987, a Hollywood stuntman flew to Charlotte and showed him a painting of the stuntman jumping a school bus the length of a football field. Wheeler hired the daredevil on the spot to do the jump at the speedway before an upcoming race. He took out ads during kids’ programming touting the school bus spectacle and watched as kids and parents filled the track on the day of the race.
The school bus circled the track three or four times, building the audience’s anticipation, and then it rumbled toward a ramp at 75 miles per hour. The ramp catapulted it over a row of junk cars, and it landed on its nose, teetered as though it might flip over, and then slammed down on the cars behind it. After it settled, the driver stepped out of the bus and raised his arms.
“It was so stooopiddd,” Wheeler said, “but the kids went absolutely crazy.”
Making a circus of race promotion? Wheeler was the ringmaster.
Photos:COURTESY OF HUMPY WHEELER
Wheeler threw out the idea of a 300-mile stock car race. They said no. He threw out the idea of a motorcycle race. They said no again. He started trying to think of something that would appeal to them. He was in New York and had taken a cab to the meeting.
“What about the world’s greatest taxi cab race?” Wheeler said. “We’ll get top drivers from New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and so on, and we’ll bring 20 of them to Charlotte and run them on a special course.”
The CBS executives liked it and bought rights to both races. Wheeler walked out of the room thinking, “How am I going to put this on?”
The resulting race was held on a quarter-mile track that included a tollbooth and a fake hotel lobby where cabs had to stop. On the first lap, three cars ran right through the tollbooth, demolishing it. The hotel lobby didn’t last much longer.
Wheeler was the face of the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, later Lowe’s Motor Speedway, from 1975 until 2008.
Photos:COURTESY OF HUMPY WHEELER (2) / GETTY IMAGES
But no moment in his career highlighted his ability to dream up and pull off the unexpected more than his last-ditch effort to keep NASCAR’s all-star race in Charlotte.
In 1991, NASCAR’s biggest sponsor, R.J. Reynolds, wanted to relocate the race. The move would cost Charlotte Motor Speedway millions, so Wheeler called RJR’s top sports marketing executive, T. Wayne Robertson, and asked for a meeting. He came armed with a handful of ideas he hoped would convince RJR to keep the race in Charlotte, but none of them resonated with Robertson. Wheeler’s mind raced as the meeting came to a close.
“What if we light the speedway and run the race at night?” Wheeler asked.
Robertson stared at him expressionlessly and asked to be excused for a minute. He left the room and returned five minutes later.
“You’ve got a deal,” he said. “How are you going to light the place?”
“I don’t have a clue,” Wheeler said.
As he walked out of the meeting, he turned to his executive team and said, “Looks like the dog caught the car, boys.”
No superspeedway had lights at the time. No one had even tried to develop a system to make lighting a 2-mile track possible.
Top: Wheeler with CMS’s Dan Farrell and Hall of Fame driver Bobby Allison. Above: Wheeler was adept at telling his story to both the fans and the media.
Photo by:COURTESY OF HUMPY WHEELER (2)
Shortly before the race that May, Wheeler and his daughter, Patti, a TV producer for NASCAR races, were in New York and went to see “Phantom of the Opera.” He was struck by a line in the musical that preceded the score: “Perhaps we can scare away the ghost of so many years ago with a little illumination, gentleman!” He took the concept back with him to Charlotte and wove it into the race program. Shortly before the first lap, the track’s lights dimmed and the in-venue speakers blared, “A little illumination, please.” The lights brightened, and the TV crew showed an image of the track from high overhead.
“It was spectacular,” Patti Wheeler said. “All the ugly parts of the race track were gone. There was just a ribbon of light around the track.”
Wheeler had an uncanny ability to take ideas to the edge of what was possible. One colleague said that if someone created a spectrum for ideas and put “bland” at one end and “outlandish” at the other, Wheeler would always be pushing employees to get as far from bland as possible.
In 1986, he convened staff to brainstorm the Great American Pep Rally — a prerace event to celebrate buying American products at a time when Japan’s economy was soaring. Staff suggested getting a marching band and the world’s largest American flag. Wheeler’s idea was to shoot a Honda Accord out of a cannon and let it crash and explode on the track. The group ultimately decided that would be in poor taste.
“He was always pushing the envelope,” said Tom Cotter, the speedway’s former director of communications.
Wheeler may have been long on imagination, but he was short on temper. He regularly snapped pencils and threw phones in the presence of employees, and he once threw his fist through NASCAR’s control room tower when the sanctioning body waved a late caution flag in a race. He even threatened to tow NBC’s satellite trucks when the network refused to call the speedway Lowe’s Motor Speedway on air unless the home improvement retailer bought advertising.
Wheeler’s last great promotion may have been his own retirement. He and Smith worked together for 33 years, building not only Charlotte Motor Speedway but also Speedway Motorsports Inc., which they took public in 1995. But their relationship deteriorated over the last decade.
The two disagreed over Smith’s vision for an NHRA drag strip at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Wheeler believed the facility would be a financial loser. Then Smith turned it into a civic headache by threatening to move the speedway if the county blocked construction of the drag strip.
The relationship was strained further when Wheeler came to work one day and saw a new office being constructed for Smith’s son Marcus at the speedway. Wheeler knew Marcus would be taking over soon, but he didn’t know about the construction plans in the facility he was supposedly still running.
Everything came to a head before the 2008 Coca-Cola 600. Wheeler told Smith that he wanted out. Smith asked Wheeler to announce his retirement after the race, but Wheeler, always impulsive and often stubborn, called a press conference the next day. He figured that knowing it was his last race might compel a few more fans to buy tickets.
Smith and Wheeler don’t speak any more, and Smith declined to comment.
“It’s kind of too bad,” Wheeler said. “It’s like Flatt and Scruggs. You know they broke up. There’s no relationship.”
When he isn’t promoting his autobiography, Wheeler enjoys spending his time outdoors. He’s learning to ride horses, and he shoots, fishes and flies radio-controlled planes.
Photos:COURTESY OF HUMPY WHEELER (2), TIFFIN WARNOCK / STAFF
Selling books is what brought Wheeler to the Montcross Chamber dinner in late January. After telling his joke about Archie and Edith Bunker, Wheeler talked to the business group about how he believed that creativity was the key to solving the country’s economic woes. Wheeler said he had a theory about creativity. He thinks the key is not just having the imagination to dream something up, but also having the ability to recognize someone else’s creative idea.
For that reason, he encouraged employees at the speedway to bring him ideas, and one day, a secretary came by his office carrying The National Enquirer. She laid it on his desk, opened it to the middle section, and said, “This would give kids a reason to come to our Saturday race.” Wheeler looked down and saw a 40-foot stainless steel monster with huge teeth that could eat cars. They called it Robosaurus, and it would grab a car with its hands, lift it to its mouth and chomp the car to bits, sending the wheels and fan belt and engine parts tumbling to the ground below. Then fire would shoot out of its mouth.
Wheeler’s nose for the absurd twitched and his eye for the unexpected bulged. He immediately called the man in California who built Robosaurus and offered him $25,000 to bring it to Charlotte. He held a press conference where Robosaurus split a Chevy Vega in three pieces and dropped them on pit road. Pure culture in America! And when it was over, the operator of the monster stepped out — and it was none other than Dale Earnhardt. The press ate it up.
Wheeler blanketed afternoon and Saturday morning television shows with ads featuring Robosuarus. There wasn’t a kid in the Carolinas who didn’t know that the beast would be eating cars and breathing fire at the next race. The speedway sold 16,000 more tickets than ever before for a Saturday race.
“That’s creativity in action,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler thanked everyone for coming and reminded them that he’d be in the back signing copies of his book afterward. He headed to a table near the front door, pulled out a bag full of Sharpies and planted his elbows in between two stacks of his book, “Growing Up NASCAR: Racing’s Most Outrageous Promoter Tells All.”
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