Wednesday, August 5, 2009

PR Guys, Large Cities and Small – Akron Zips; Covering Coaches – Gerry Faust and Lefty Driesell

I can’t explain why but I’ve always liked mid-sized cities. I have lived most of my life in two of the most major cities in the world—New York and Washington. I loved growing up in New York and still like visiting, especially on weekends when the streets aren’t completely choked with traffic.

Washington’s different. It’s spread out more and I’ve never felt a real sense of PLACE there—maybe because I didn’t grow up there or maybe because when I first went to work there the obsession both in the media and among people living there with the Redskins was like a dead weight on everyone’s shoulders.

Terry Hanson, who has been a friend of mine dating back to those days, was the public relations guy for the soccer team, The Washington Diplomats, when I arrived in town as a summer intern for The Washington Post in 1977. I was assigned to cover the team and Hanson and I began a friendship that continues to this day.

Needless to say the Diplomats were starved for attention and publicity. One August morning, Hanson was sitting in his office, which was located in RFK Stadium, a facility the Diplomats shared at the time with the Redskins, when his secretary came in to tell him that George Solomon was on the phone.

Hanson took about 1/10th of a second answering the phone. George Solomon was the sports editor of The Post. If he was calling to talk Diplomats soccer on any level, it was a big day.

“Terry, I need a big favor,” Solomon said.

“Anything George,” Hanson said, visions of a major story on Coach Alan Spavin or the marketing of the Diplomats spinning through his head.

“I know your office is right near the press box,” Solomon continued. “The Redskins are playing their first exhibition game tomorrow night. I need you to walk out there and make sure our phone is working.”

Yup, that’s about as big a favor as Solomon would ever need from the Diplomats PR guy.

I was remembering some of this two nights ago en route to dinner here in Akron, best known as the home of LeBron James and lots of tire and rubber companies. It has also been the home of what is now the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone Country Club (great golf course) for years.

Flipping radio stations I came to a guy who was “on site,” at the opening of the newly refurbished home of the Akron Zips. He was almost hyper-ventilating with excitement. If people came down that night, they would get a tour of the new stadium, the chance to buy discounted season tickets (of course) AND would get to have their picture taken with Zippy—who, surprise, is the Zips mascot.

Now, as a big city guy, it would be very easy for me to laugh at the guy going on and on about what Zippy was doing while he was talking and how fabulous the new stadium was going to be once it was completed—apparently there is still some work to be done before opening day.

But as I sat there listening—not changing the station—I had a smile on my face. All I know about the Akron Zips, if truth be told, is that they’re in the Mid-American Conference and Gerry Faust coached there after getting fired at Notre Dame. In fact, I think Faust may still live in Akron.

Without doubt, Faust was one of the nicest men I’ve ever met in any walk of life. He just couldn’t make the jump from being a great high school coach (Moeller in Cincinnati) to Notre Dame. But I was there when he coached his first game n 1981 against LSU. Everyone at Notre Dame loved the guy because he was so outgoing, in sharp contrast to the dour (to say the least) Dan Devine. On opening day, Faust was in a golf cart riding around campus greeting people as they made their way into the stadium.

Seriously.

I was part of the national media on hand for the debut/celebration and I wrote a glowing story about Faust and how excited everyone was at Notre Dame. Roger Valdiserri, the great Notre Dame SID even taped his pre-game speech and played it for us so we could add it to our stories. Notre Dame won, I think it was 21-3, and we all wrote Hail to Faust stories the next day.

Two mornings later, back home, I was sound asleep when the phone rang.

“Fahnsteen, wake up son, I gotta get on you.”

I wondered if I was dreaming. Usually Lefty Driesell only called to yell at me during basketball season. “Lefty, it’s September, what can you be made at me about in September?” I said.

“Yo buddy Faust,” he said. “He wins ONE game and you write that he’s Knute Rockne. Dan Devine won a national championship out there and you act like he was a dog.”

“Lefty,” I asked. “What have you got against Gerry Faust?”

“Nothing. But I got plenty against you.”

This was typical of our in-season conversations. He would usually slam the phone after saying he was never going to speak to me again, then sidle over to me at practice that afternoon and say, “What’s up Feiny, you got a scoop today?”

Four years went by and things didn’t go so well for Faust. After a third straight lost to Air Force, ‘Oust Faust,’ signs began to appear around campus. One morning, the phone rang again.

“Fahnsteen, wake up son,” the familiar voice said. “I gotta ask you a question?

“What is it Lefty?”

“Yo buddy Faust. He still ridin’ around out there in a golf cart or did he get himself an armored tank.”

I fell out of bed laughing.

All of which brings me back to Akron and the smile I had on my face listening to the guy talk about the Zips six game home schedule. Chances are I won’t be at any of the games. But I know there will be people there who genuinely care about the Zips. So, I’ll keep tabs on them this fall. And whenever I hear one of their scores, I’ll remember an August night and a guy who was really fired up to be hanging out with Zippy.

Seems to me there are worse things to do in life.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow - the Zips ought to hire you as a PR guy....good sell job, in a minor way, for the little guys.

Good to see you blogging.

Luke said...

Hey John -

Currently reading the *Last Amateurs* but I have had book idea for quite a
while and want to finally take the next step to begin putting my thoughts on
paper. Do you have any advice on what the first step should be? I'm guessing
some type of outline but thought I'd ask your opinion before diving into it.

Thomas said...
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