Modesty, humility, thy name is Bill Schmidt

Marvin WestWest Knox County, westwords

Bill Schmidt, great American javelin thrower and mastermind of worldwide sports marketing for Gatorade, has finally written a book, “Southview to Gettysvue.”

Southview is where he was in the beginning.

Gettysvue (in Knoxville, Tennessee) is where he is now.

In between are a couple of college degrees, an Olympic medal, a World’s Fair, the sports drink, Michael Jordan stories and many other adventures. The book is some degree of inspirational.

It could have been Me, Me, Me. I thought Bill underplayed the introduction:

“Born in a coal camp in Southview, Pennsylvania, to a German immigrant father who was a miner for 37 years, my future looked preordained. I was headed to the mines or the steel mills.

“It was the way of life in Appalachia, and the measurement of success was just getting a job, eventually getting married, and raising a family – a good life by everyone’s standards who worked and lived there.

“The Southview mine, Montour No. 1, opened in 1914 and was owned by the Pittsburgh Coal Company. It paid employees in company script that could only be spent at the company store. Housing was built by the coal company and eventually purchased by the miners. There was a two-room school with grades 1-4 in one room and grades 5-8 in the other. All the homes had outhouses, and the Sears and Roebuck catalog was the toilet paper of choice.

“My dad committed suicide when my twin brother, Bob, and I were 2-1/2 years old. We have no recollection of him. My mother was left to raise six children without a husband or a provider. She was a remarkable lady who ruled with a firm hand and the ‘fear of God.’

“Growing up, I was a shy, scrawny kid whose best friend and competitor was Bob. We were inseparable. We eventually migrated to sports and realized we might have a way out. I was a very private person in competitive sports and in the business of sports. Of course, we had dreams of succeeding, and that’s what drove us to succeed, but we didn’t share those dreams with anyone.

“Having no coaching or scholarships, I was a walk-on athlete. I graduated from North Texas State, made the 1972 U.S. Olympic team and won the bronze medal at Munich in the javelin throw (84.42 meters).

“I began my career in sports marketing in 1981, before it was defined as a career.

“Having worked as vice president of sports at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and later as vice president of Worldwide Sports Marketing at Gatorade, my career and my core competencies developed and I was successful above my wildest dreams.

“With the dreams, hard work paved the path. My deep faith in God as my Savior provided me divine guidance and intervention along the way.

“When I shared some of my life experiences, friends said, ‘You need to write a book. It will be motivational and inspiring.’

“After three years of work, I’m humbled and honored to share my story.”

The 1972 Olympics

I heard about Bill in 1970. He was runner-up in the NCAA javelin throw at Des Moines. Tennessee’s Bill Skinner, he of the infamous handlebar mustache and the public conflict with Bill Battle and Bob Woodruff, was the champion.

Schmidt was an Army private when he reappeared at the Munich Olympics. He almost missed his opportunity to compete. There was confusion in the transportation department. The van from the Olympic Village to the stadium didn’t show up. Schmidt, wise enough to stop waiting, ran the three miles and called the trip his event warmup.

He ran into a little stumbling block at the front door. He was told he was too late. He was denied admission. He pushed past two gate guards. Both took tumbles. The incident reminded Bill of a jailbreak only it was in instead of out.

He threw poorly and thought he had failed to advance. Others did worse.

Schmidt was in his bed when Palestinian terrorists attacked. Israeli racewalker Shaul Ladany awakened and alerted U.S. track coach Bill Bowerman. He called for help. U.S. Marines, in town for the Games, rushed to the area where two Jewish athletes lived.

Bill Schmidt at the 1972 Olympic trials.

The Munich Olympics were stained by blood, but Bill Schmidt and swimmer Mark Spitz were professionally protected.

From the day of the javelin finals, Bill remembers the thrill of 90,000 fans chanting “Let’s go Schmidt.”

“It’s a common name in West Germany. They could have been calling the beer salesman.”

Bill stunned the track and field world by placing third. As he proudly looked up at the American flag, he concluded his bronze medal might not open doors for the rest of his life. But it helped.

The 1982 World’s Fair

Stan Huntsman and Schmidt happened to be on the same flight from Germany back to the United States. The Tennessee coach asked what Bill would think about coaching.

As it turned out, being the only American to win an Olympic medal in the javelin from 1952 until now and counting, is a fine bit of trivia, but it’s no meal ticket. Huntsman helped.

Bill became a graduate student coach at UT. He earned a master’s degree in business with a concentration in accounting. For a while he was a teacher and coach at Central High School. He won the national championship in the javelin in 1978. He was named “Javelin Thrower of the Decade” by Track and Field News. His best was 283 feet, 2 inches.

On an otherwise uneventful day, Huntsman asked: “Have you heard there is a fair coming to town? You might want to check it out.”

He did. The assistant track coach was surprised to find himself appointed director of sports for the World’s Fair. Sports editor Tom Siler had recommended him.

The fair turned into a financial calamity. Schmidt’s sports operation turned a profit. There was a sold-out NFL exhibition game, international competitions and a popular memorabilia exhibit. There also were sports that Schmidt had no clue about.

Bass fishing? Bill Dance?

“I didn’t know who those people were. And NASCAR. Stokely brought in that Gatorade 88 car. I had to post a guard to keep people from climbing in. That was kind of the beginning of sports marketing.”

Bill Schmidt had a handful of brushes and a blank canvas.

When the fair went away, Stokely Van Camp hired Schmidt – based on what he had done with the world watching. The son of a hardscrabble coal miner went, step by step, from being an assistant track coach to one of the most influential figures in sports business.

“If I can make it from where I came from, with just desire, really without any direction or a mentor … hard work will get you there.

“You get up, you dress up and you show up.’’

Gatorade and Be Like Mike

The introduction of Michael Jordan as the iconic spokesman for Gatorade was Schmidt’s master stroke. But there were others – the Home Run Derby was added to baseball’s All-Star gathering and the Slam Dunk Contest to the NBA All-Star Game.

Punt, Pass & Kick – with girls, too – went under the NFL umbrella. Gatorade honoring high school players of the year in every state was a Schmidt idea.

In discussing marketing successes, Bill still chuckles: It wasn’t rocket science.

“A lot of it, it seems to me, is common sense. But common sense isn’t common to a lot of people.’’

Stokely had no game plan, no budget, just a product – Gatorade – and Schmidt’s knack for figuring things out on the fly.

“Be like Mike” was pure Bill brilliance.

Schmidt, Jordan and Gatorade made a good assembly for all concerned. Jordan’s relationship with Nike is considered a wee bit more successful (best endorsement in history).

Success and back to knoxville

Stokely loaned Bill Schmidt to Peter Ueberroth for the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. With the help of the “Knoxville mafia” from his World’s Fair team, Schmidt helped LA turn a $225 million surplus.

In Schmidt’s 15 years with Gatorade, the brand went from $84 million in annual sales to $1.75 billion and expanded to 24 countries. His strategy was to ensure that Gatorade was visible at virtually every professional or college sports event.

“Every contract we ever entered, whether it was with team trainers or the NFL, we over-delivered on everything we promised. You build a reputation that ‘his word is good.’

“That goes back to when you could do a deal on your word or your handshake.’’

Or, a cocktail napkin.

During the 1991 NBA All-Star event in Charlotte, Schmidt huddled with Michael Jordan’s agent, David Falk. They negotiated a 10-year, $13.5 million deal to make Jordan the sole spokesman for Gatorade. They exchanged napkins with numbers, crumpled them up and did it again.

Getting Jordan was a really big deal. Schmidt would eventually sign Mia Hamm, Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning, too.

Schmidt left Gatorade in 1999 to become CEO of Oakley, the sunglasses and apparel company, as a favor to Jordan. Bill eventually returned to Knoxville to create and run his own consulting firm, Pegasus.

The ‘Almost’ list

In between, there was an “almost” list. He was almost president of the Miami Dolphins. He was almost chief of USA Track & Field. Twice he applied for the job of athletics director at the University of Tennessee, in 2003 and 2011.

“A lot of people encouraged me to do it,’’ Schmidt said. “‘You’ve got a business background, you’ve got a sports background, you’ve managed $300 million budgets.’

“It seemed like a natural. But it didn’t work out.’’

He lost to Mike Hamilton and Dave Hart.

Marvin West welcomes comments or questions from readers. His address is [email protected]

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