Tough as nails
There’s a twinkle in the eye and a sly grin on Roy Kramer’s face as he reminisces about his days as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference.
The 1990s were a time of upheaval and change in college athletics. The BCS was taking shape, conference expansion was in its infancy and the way TV contracts were written was about to change. In his 12 years as the SEC’s chief from 1990 to 2002, Kramer was in the middle of it all.
|As a former football player and coach, Roy Kramer relished contact and was willing to tackle controversy head-on.
About the SEC’s landmark television deal with CBS in 1996, Kramer said: “We knew that it was going to be very controversial.”
What about when the SEC moved the football championship game from Birmingham, Ala., to Atlanta in 1994? “Oh yeah, that was very controversial. A lot of people
■ Kramer ‘a master puppeteer’ in dealing with TV networks
■ Roy Kramer: Behind the curtain …
■ Roy Kramer on …
This is the third in a series of profiles of the 2013 class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business. This year’s honorees, and the issues in which they will be featured, are:
Feb. 4: Ron Shapiro
Feb. 11: Pat Williams
Feb. 18: Roy Kramer
Feb. 25: Rosa Gatti
March 4: Donald Dell
March 11: Harvey Schiller
And the selection system for the BCS: “Some years, that has been very controversial.”
What made Kramer the perfect man to lead the charge during those signature moments was his willingness to take controversy head-on. As an old football player and coach, he relished the contact, and that didn’t change once he moved from the field to administration, first as an athletic director at Vanderbilt and then as commissioner of the SEC.
Kramer was on the front end of all the issues that dominate the headlines today, from college football’s postseason to the exploding TV contracts and conference realignment. “He’s a guy who could always see the future,” Big East Commissioner Mike Aresco says today.
Yet without fail, his willingness to chart a new course made him an easy target for critics who were uncomfortable with the way he upset the apple cart.
“If you believe in what you’re doing, you don’t worry about that part of it,” Kramer said. “When you’re convinced that it’s the right thing, you don’t turn your back on it.”
|Executive Editor Abraham Madkour talks with staff writer Michael Smith and assistant managing editor Tom Stinson about Roy Kramer and the 2013 class of Champions of Sports Business.|
It’s a peaceful life for the former SEC commissioner, who spends his days fishing from his pontoon boat or playing a round of golf before retiring to the clubhouse with his beloved wife of 60 years, Sara Jo, for a bowl of soup. Gone from his concern is the turmoil of the 1990s, when Kramer made decisions that shaped the future of college sports, especially football.
“The best part now is when people call you up and I can say, ‘Well, that’s not my problem,’” Kramer says with a laugh from his leather chair in a spacious family room.
But the father of the BCS, as he’s often called, knew little peace during his run with the SEC. His decisions often flew in the face of conventional wisdom, and the confrontations that resulted made Kramer a lightning rod for criticism. He never seemed to mind, though, and more times than not he embraced the controversy, saying it was good for college athletics because it meant people were talking about it.
“Roy pushed very hard for what he believed in and he was not afraid to take a stand or make a change,” said Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, who took over leadership of his conference in 1989, a year before Kramer became the SEC’s chief. “Criticism never bothered him. Or, at least, he never let it change him.”
Roy Kramer found out at an early age what it meant to take an unconventional and usually unappreciated stance. His father, Russell, was an attorney in their hometown of Maryville, Tenn., just outside of Knoxville, and he was known for defending the defenseless.
In one 1950s case, Russell Kramer defended nine United Mine Workers who were accused of burying their boss alive in the hills of Tennessee. Even though many in the community had already convicted the men of a gruesome murder, Russell Kramer took their case.
In an impassioned closing speech that has become legendary around Maryville, Kramer asked the members of the jury to close their eyes and just listen. And if they listened closely enough, they’d hear the wives and children of those nine men saying, “Send our daddy home.”
The nine men were acquitted.
|In his basement at home, Roy Kramer is surrounded by mementos from a life in college athletics.
“Uncle Roy is the same way. He’s got that same ability to move people.”
Like his father, Roy Kramer seldom took the path of least resistance. After working his way up from high school football coach to college coach at Central Michigan, Kramer shifted gears as he neared age 50 and moved into administration. After 12 years as Vanderbilt’s AD, he moved into the commissioner’s chair at the SEC and began a run that would lead to seismic change, both in the conference and across the country.
“Our grandfather used to be characterized as an old family horse, who could sprint to town or pull the plow,” said Steve Kramer, Roy’s son and Russell’s grandson. “He could represent a mine worker or a huge company like Alcoa. Dad’s the same way. He was an old football coach who dearly loves the game and would do anything to protect it. Or, he could be that executive negotiating million-dollar deals.”
Soon after his term began at the SEC, Kramer led the era of expansion with the addition of Arkansas and South Carolina in 1992, giving the conference 12 teams, splitting them into East and West divisions and setting the stage for a football championship game. The championship game, the first of its kind, drew plenty of skeptics, particularly among coaches and athletic directors who thought “it would be the end of the SEC’s chances of winning a national championship,” Kramer said. “Our coaches really thought we were shooting ourselves in the foot.”
Instead, the game has catapulted the SEC’s champion into the BCS title game seven straight years, and the conference has won 11 national titles in the 21 years since the SEC championship game was founded in 1992.
“The safe thing would have been to stay at 10 teams and not create the championship game,” said Mark Womack, SEC executive associate commissioner and a veteran of 35 years at the league office. “All the coaches were against the championship game. They thought it was the worst idea in the world because we’d never win another national championship. But Roy was very strong-willed. He looked at all sides of a situation and if he decided it was the right thing to do, he’d do it. If all the criticism bothered him, he never showed it.”
Seventeen straight sellouts at the Georgia
|These days, Kramer enjoys his retirement with his wife of 60 years, Sara Jo, while living in an east Tennessee golf course community, though he still relishes a good debate about college football.
There was something about all of that unrest that Kramer thrived on. In fact, Kramer kept a listed phone number to his Birmingham home during all of those years as SEC commissioner.
“Before people could vent on talk radio, they’d just call our house and vent,” said Sara Gray Mackin, Kramer’s daughter. “Dad never shied away from taking those calls. He’d always prefer to speak for himself than have someone else doing it.”
“He’s amazing because, on the surface, you think you’re getting this dull guy who doesn’t have much to him,” said Paul Finebaum, a longtime syndicated talk show host whose radio show originates from Birmingham. “But he was this old football coach who was incredibly smart. … He thought all of the debate about college football was good.”
Kramer also blazed trails on the media front. The SEC’s first television deal with CBS in 1996 — averaging $19 million a year over five years — led to the breakup of the old College Football Association. Before each conference had its own TV contract, as they do today, the CFA aggregated TV rights across multiple conferences, which were packaged and sold to ABC.
Notre Dame was the first school to break out of the CFA when it negotiated a TV deal with NBC. When the SEC subsequently negotiated its own deal with CBS, the CFA fell apart. That forced each conference to strike individual deals with networks, something that frightened them at the time because they didn’t realize how valuable their rights would be. Years later, those individual conference deals have exploded in value.
“Chuck Neinas was the leader of the CFA and we were very good friends,” Kramer said. “But he didn’t speak to me for a while after that.”
Once again, Kramer made a risky decision that paid off handsomely, even though the other conferences didn’t see it at the time.
“Roy was stubborn as can be,” said C.M. Newton, who was athletic director at Kentucky through much of the 1990s. “When he did the CBS deal, people started referring to us as ‘those money-hungry bastards in the SEC.’ Roy just saw a different way of doing things, and when he thought he was right, it didn’t matter what anybody else thought.
“I didn’t always agree with him, but I always admired him. And you know what, most of the time he was right.”
And then there was the BCS.
Of the many things Kramer accomplished as the SEC’s commissioner, he’s mostly known as the father of the BCS. It has never been determined whether that’s a compliment or a knock, but he always relished the debate.
Kramer is the first to say that many people were involved in the creation of the BCS — the conference commissioners, Rose Bowl Chairman Harriman Cronk, ABC executives Dennis Swanson and Tony Petitti. They all played a role.
It was Kramer, though, who took charge of the BCS, shaped it, became its spokesman, and cleared the path for its inception in 1998.
The college football postseason went through some clumsy iterations in the early ’90s, from the Bowl Coalition to the Bowl Alliance. They attempted to improve the bowl matchups and, when they could, pair the top two teams in a championship game. The problem was that the then Pac-10 and Big Ten could not be persuaded to join because they didn’t want to surrender their tradition-rich Rose Bowl matchup.
In 1991, Miami and Washington finished the season undefeated, but Miami was locked into the Orange Bowl and Washington was committed to the Rose Bowl, so the two best teams could not play in a No. 1 vs. No. 2 final. The same scenario unfolded in 1994 when Nebraska and Penn State finished unbeaten but couldn’t play in a title game because of the Big Ten’s commitment to the Rose Bowl and a Pac-10 matchup.
As public pressure mounted, ABC’s Swanson and Petitti, who had deals with the Rose Bowl and several other bowls, explored ways to fix the postseason mess. They met with the Rose Bowl’s Cronk, the Big Ten’s Delany and Tom Hansen, commissioner of the Pac-10, and found them receptive.
“There was a concern that the Rose Bowl was getting passed by financially,” said Petitti, now president and CEO of MLB Network. “The Rose was not in the Bowl Alliance and it was kind of a mess. We told Delany and Hansen that we had to change the dynamic. We asked if they’d be interested in something different. They said they’d think about it.”
It was just enough of an opening for ABC to feel emboldened. With the Rose Bowl open to new ideas, college football could have its coveted, but rare, matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 2.
Now Swanson and Petitti had to figure out the next move.
“At that stage, the BCS was just a germ of an idea,” Petitti said. “We needed someone who could bring it all together and keep everybody moving in the same direction. We all agreed that person was Roy Kramer. He was the only guy who had the ability and the clout to get it done.”
Early in 1996, Petitti boarded a plane from New York to Atlanta for a meeting with Kramer that would forever change college football’s landscape. Petitti and Kramer met in a conference room at an Atlanta airport hotel.
Kramer was immediately intrigued that there was an opening to match No. 1 vs. No. 2 and he agreed to take the lead.
So many things had to be determined: Who would be in it? How would the money be distributed? Could Notre Dame be influenced to participate? What would be the selection process? Could Kramer conceive a system that would protect the Rose Bowl’s traditional afternoon kickoff?
It wasn’t unlike the process just completed by the commissioners to form the new playoff system.
|Kramer (center) works on the BCS standings in 1998 with SEC executives Mark Womack (left) and Charles Bloom at a hotel in Atlanta.
Several months later, Kramer, with the help of Womack and associate commissioner Charles Bloom, had a system in place that would address three key objectives. And, as Kramer likes to point out, “None of it had to do with how much money it would produce.”
First and foremost, the BCS would pair No. 1 vs. No. 2 in a championship game. Secondly, it would keep the bowl system healthy. The third point Kramer makes is that the BCS would provide college football a better platform to compete against the NFL.
“The NFL was really coming on and we thought we needed something to create additional interest in college football,” Kramer said. “Of all the things we did, we probably did that better than anyone. Because of the BCS, we’ve had situations like this past year where Alabama fans are watching a Stanford-Oregon game. Who in Tuscaloosa would have been watching that game if it didn’t have some impact on Alabama’s chance to win a national championship? It has created a national interest in the regular season of college football.”
By the late summer of 1996, Kramer, who had his SEC staff working on BCS models night and day, had a proposal for Petitti that made the BCS real.
|The BCS conference commissioners gave Kramer this drawing upon his retirement.
“At that point, it was like, ‘Wow, this is real,’” Petitti said. “It was a major breakthrough. … Roy ended up carrying that water for a long time. He was out front on the BCS, and it wouldn’t have happened without him.”
The creation of the BCS was just the start. Kramer and his staff at the SEC maintained the BCS rankings, worked with the administrators of the various computer polls and pulled it all together.
Those early days of the BCS came with enormous stress. In 1998, the inaugural year, with the title game slated for the Fiesta Bowl, Michigan and UCLA entered the month of November undefeated and headed for a showdown in the desert. Cronk, the Rose Bowl’s chief, was beside himself.
In all of the modeling that Kramer did to form the BCS, only once in the previous 50 years would the No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup have featured the Big Ten and Pac-10 champs. Cronk was crazy with worry that the Rose Bowl would look like fools for having their champions play for a national title in someone else’s bowl game.
He called Kramer past midnight on a Saturday in November and said, “Roy, you said this wouldn’t happen.”
Kramer laughs now as he recollects his response. “Harriman, don’t worry about it,” he replied. “If it does happen, it won’t happen again for another 50 years.”
By the end of that season, neither UCLA nor Michigan made the title game. Tennessee beat Florida State for the inaugural BCS championship, and Kramer’s model held true.
Throughout his years as SEC commissioner, Kramer advocated change and innovated at a pace most others couldn’t conceive. Think about all of the things that happened in his 12 years.
He expanded the SEC, created a championship football game, changed the media landscape and shaped the BCS. Lost in that was his role as a lead negotiator for the NCAA’s first billion-dollar TV deal in the early 1990s when he was chairman of the NCAA basketball committee.
Yet through it all, Kramer never deflected his identity of being an old football coach, which is how his children still see him.
“In his heart, he’s a coach,” his daughter, Sara Gray Mackin, said. “When you hear him talk about football, you can almost feel what it would have been like to be in the locker room with him.”
At a National Football Foundation banquet speech in 1998, Kramer brought the crowd in the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City to the edge of their seats on an evening that’s typically long and boring. In an address now deeply embedded in NFF folklore, Kramer’s voice rose like a Baptist preacher. Just like his father, the prototypical courtroom lawyer, Kramer worked an angle and closed in a passionate crescendo.
“We’ve got to reconnect with the core of the game,” Kramer said, imploring those in the audience to go watch high school football on a Friday night.
“Frankly, I’m perturbed when I go into a community and I see 100 kids playing around and NOBODY’S HITTING NOBODY!”
A fired-up Bo Jackson, there to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame, famously stood up and said, “Put me in, Coach!”
“Roy would have been a great lawyer or politician,” Newton said. “He’s a very gifted speaker. You’d think you’re at a Baptist service listening to the preacher when he spoke.”
Kramer spent 20-plus years utilizing that passion on the football sidelines as a coach. After an initial losing season on the high school level, he never again lost more games than he won, with his only coaching job at the college level being a roaring success. In 11 seasons at Central Michigan, his teams went 83-32-2, winning the 1974 NCAA Division II championship. In perhaps a glimpse of the future, Kramer also played a pivotal role in helping Central Michigan land membership in the Division I Mid-American Conference in 1975.
By the end of his run at Central Michigan in 1977,
|Kramer was very successful as a hard-nosed football coach in the 1960s and ’70s, leading Central Michigan University to the NCAA Division II championship in 1974. He also was integral in Central Michigan moving to the Division I ranks and joining the Mid-American Conference a year later. That experience and mentality gave him a unique perspective as a college athletic administrator, while also affording him a special bond with coaches such as Nick Saban (below), shown with Kramer in 2001 after winning the SEC championship with LSU.
Just months later, he received a call from Dr. Rob Roy Purdy, the faculty athletic representative at Vanderbilt, which needed an athletic director.
Kramer spent a dozen years leading Vandy athletics, where he was just as hands-on as the AD as he later was with the BCS. Newton, the basketball coach at Vandy at the time, recalls coming into the office on a Sunday, only to find Kramer fixing a door lock or sweeping the gym floor.
“He had that old high school coach mentality of doing everything himself,” Newton said. “If something needed to be done, he’d just do it himself.”
That mentality carried over to his days with the SEC. Bloom, the league’s former associate commissioner, sat in the library with Kramer and Womack, going over stacks of old media guides and record books as they created the model for the BCS.
“Every time we tweaked the formula for the BCS, we had to go back and check the last 10 years to see how it would have played out,” Bloom said. “Commissioner Kramer took it upon himself to do a lot of the research.”
“You could hear the fax machine upstairs turn on when the computer polls were sent to us at home,” said Sara Gray, Kramer’s daughter. “I’d run up and get the fax and bring it down to dad, and he’d put it into his laptop. We did it all sitting in the living room. It felt like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ where somebody might pull back the curtain and see all of us sitting on the floor with the numbers. This wasn’t something left to an intern. He and Charles did it all.”
It just wasn’t Kramer’s style to do it any other way. His quest to find a better method of crowning college football’s national champion made Kramer an easy target for criticism, especially when the clunky old BCS computers spit out results that didn’t make sense to one fan base or another.
But those years of coaching football toughened Kramer’s hide. As he said in that speech to the NFF, he couldn’t stand it when “Nobody’s hitting nobody!”
“He did so much to make the SEC the dominant player it is and to make college football so popular,” said Aresco, the Big East commissioner and a former executive at CBS and ESPN. “He’s absolutely one of the seminal figures in college athletics. He had a vision, he stuck to it and he never shied away from explaining exactly what he was doing. Any visionary takes shots, and some people didn’t like the BCS, but when you look at the history of his decisions, he was right.”