Archive for Sunday, July 15, 2007

Memorable figures offer insight on character, success

July 15, 2007

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Academia and professional baseball introduced me to many exceptional people from all walks of life. Memories of some are reinforced by the passing of time, people like:

¢ Larry Doby, the first African-American to play in Major League Baseball's American League, once told me that "compassion and goodness are not determined by the color of one's skin," and that some of his own teammates in Cleveland shunned him, but not Ted Williams of the rival Boston Red Sox who "reached out to me as a fellow human being. That gentleman stood tall in many ways; he was more than a great baseball player to me. He was a hero." Larry Doby was a Hall of Famer for all seasons.

¢ Allen H. Neuharth, the founder of USA TODAY, America's most widely read newspaper, told a class of mine at Princeton University that "creative risk takers are the ones who fill the pages of history." He told the students at the Ivy League school that central components of the Gannett Company gamble on a national newspaper were colorful and tightly edited sections dealing with national and international news, editorial views, business, entertainment and sports.

Most daily newspapers followed, some reluctantly, his lead; he believed "no newspaper would survive long without an informative and attractive sports section." Time has proven him correct on most counts.

¢ Bob Kerrey, the Medal of Honor winner, turned to a life of public service and education and proved as an undersized football player in high school that "size of the heart matters in things of importance," on and off the playing field. He thrived on being an underdog in politics, too, gaining election as a governor and as a member of the U.S. Senate.

"No sacrifice is too great for one's country and one's beliefs," he told me at the New School University in New York where he serves as president. "The United States remains an international beacon of hope for millions of men and women, and we must continue to deserve that trust in the years ahead." He lost a leg in Vietnam but not his combative spirit. He believes the average person is capable of extraordinary things if properly motivated.

¢ George M. Steinbrenner, the sometimes reviled owner of the New York Yankees, has done more than anyone else to keep baseball energized and visible to growing numbers of fans from across the country. He freely admits to being headstrong, at times, always an entrepreneur, and an unflinching patriot. He has built the Yankees into a multi-billion dollar enterprise, one that is not for sale.

The rarely deterred owner reminded me, more than once, that "winning is the most important thing in my life, after breathing. Breathing first, winning second." He has always sought a competitive edge, explaining that "the people of New York deserve a winner, year in and year out." The Yankee faithful see him as a champion who will spend what it takes to win; his player payroll now exceeds $200 million, easily the highest in all of Major League Baseball. At 77, he is an original, a Yankee Doodle Dandy born on the Fourth of July. Above all, he has never flinched, but did it his way.

¢ Legendary football coach Tom Osborne and I contributed to each other's success. We once competed for the assistant to the chancellor position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in the late 1970s and we both won. Tom decided to stay with coaching and I got the job. He went on to win three national football championships while I headed three state universities. In his quarter-century as head coach he posted a 255-49-3 record, the best among Division-1-A coaches at the time.

Osborne was a public figure and a private person, one that players respected and fellow coaches revered. Few claimed to know him well because he lived within a certain competitiveness zone, a place that left little room for anything but football and winning; he seemed to discourage small talk. He always supported his players even when the media questioned his motives. Unfortunate off-field behavior was addressed behind closed doors.

"Tom was guided by his conscience, not by what a bunch of sports writers thought at the time," Bob Devaney, his mentor at UNL and another Hall of Fame football coach, once told me. I believe Tom's compass is stuck in the right direction.

¢ Jerry Reinsdorf is an American success story, a kid from Brooklyn who went on to be a lawyer, public accountant, real estate developer, and eventually owner of the Chicago White Sox and the Chicago Bulls. He has seven world championship rings, one from the 2005 White Sox and six from the Bulls and Michael Jordan during the 1990s. Jackie Robinson was an idol, teaching him the value of racial diversity and harmony. He has led drives in both professional baseball and basketball to increase the number of minority employees at every level. Minorities have a special friend in Jerry Reinsdorf.

As an owner, he wants to win championships for Chicago and at least break even. He sees his teams as important to the general welfare of the city. His key to success during more than three decades of ownership: Hire good people, treat them right, and have the courage to back them during difficult times.

¢ Roy Williams is what you see: pleasant, open, accessible, and highly competitive. He has friends everywhere he has been. He loves people and especially college students. However, he gets dead serious when it comes to coaching basketball; laughs are few. He coached the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to a national championship in 2005 and his teams at Kansas University and Carolina to 17 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. He has led five teams to the Final Four.

But he, like Tom Osborne, has need for "escape periods" when his total attention is focused on the game. He never forgets the fundamentals, what it takes to win, often devising game plans that would rival battle strategies of Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur. He is college basketball's most effective recruiter.

Dean Smith likens Roy to Tiger Woods in golf, "they have the whole package." Smith told me that the 1972 Carolina graduate is bright, knows basketball, can judge talent, is an excellent coach at practice, makes good game-time decisions, and is highly organized.

¢ Rachel Robinson has spent a lifetime reaching out to others, often to the most unfortunate among us. As the wife of baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson, she has reminded millions of people about Jackie's belief in the need to grow the human spirit. The president of the United States has said Jackie's legacy in Civil Rights lives on through his soul-mate, a nurse.

Rachel met Jackie at UCLA where he was a four-sport standout. After his death in 1973, she finished college and returned to teaching and nursing and later weighed in on numerous projects designed to spread hope through her husband's words and deeds. Specifically, she created a foundation to provide deserving minority students with college scholarships and chaired an organization that provides housing for low-to-moderate -income families in New York.

Perhaps her greatest contribution came when she and her daughter Sharon joined with Major League Baseball to create a program embracing the core values of Jackie Robinson in the elementary school curriculum in urban America.

¢ Most know Bob Dole as an American statesman. He was a longtime U.S. senator from his native Kansas, the 15th Senate majority leader, Republican vice presidential candidate in 1976, and presidential nominee of the Republicans in 1996. Long before he became a public servant, he was a soldier in World War II who was hit by enemy fire in his shoulder and back while attempting to pull a friend to safety. Over the next three years he lost a kidney and use of his right arm and most of the feeling in his left arm.

What most observers do not realize are the many pieces of legislation that he shepherded for the disabled in the United States. Looking at a long line of wheelchairs at a KU special education building dedication, the senator said to me, "All these folks want is to be accepted, to be treated like human beings." His words were underscored by a masked tear. Known for his candor and wit, Bob Dole should best be remembered for his compassion.

Strength of character can be found everywhere, and those who dared to make a difference are our neighbors; we need to take time and look around.

- Gene A. Budig is the past president of baseball's American League and a former president/chancellor at Illinois State University, West Virginia University, and Kansas University.

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