John Somsky rhapsodized about his longtime pal and former boss, and the words flowed easily. Especially when asked why the man is such a smashing success.
“Bill Schmidt is probably the most competitive person I’ve ever met.”
Manuel Pihakis agreed.
“There was only one speed and that was full speed,” he said. “Bill never took shortcuts, and he worked seven days a week whether he had practice or not.”
Schmidt – Canonsburg legend, Olympic hero and athletic innovator – chuckled briefly at those sentiments, then turned serious.
“I agree,” he said. “I came from a background where hard work was no problem. I grew up in a family that had a single mom with six kids and a twin brother (Bob). You had to be competitive in everything you did.”
That drive enabled Schmidt to take care of business every day as a young athlete, then take care of business in the business sphere. Athletic marketing is his specialty, a field in which he has been special for more than a quarter-century – and why he is deserving of a special award.
Schmidt, 66, is one of six people comprising the 2014 class of The Champions: Pioneers & Innovators in Sports Business. Sports Business Journal/Daily, a Street & Smith’s publication, makes the selections and will honor the group March 19 at the IMG World Congress of Sports in Dana Point, Calif.
The other selections: Joan Cronan, former women’s athletic director at the University of Tennessee; Wayne Embry, former National Basketball Association all-star and general manager; Rick Kendrick, NASCAR Winston Cup team pioneer; Michael Ilitch, founder of Little Caesars pizza and Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner; and Verne Lundquist, veteran broadcaster.
“I’m humbled and flattered at the same time,” said Schmidt, who was raised in Southview, educated at Canon-McMillan (Class of 1965), North Texas State University (bachelor’s) and University of Tennessee (master’s), and who is still going at full speed.
“This is the business of sports and it’s an honor to have people honor you for that.”
His trademark to many, of course, is the bronze medal he secured in the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, Germany. That is the only Olympics medal a U.S. javelin thrower has earned since 1952.
Yet Schmidt may have eclipsed that moment during his 15 years at Gatorade (1984-99). He helped elevate the image of sports drinks and, incredibly, the marketing image of Michael Jordan,
Yes, Michael Jordan. The “Be Like Mike” campaign in the mid-1980s was Schmidt’s.
“Michael and I are very good friends,” said Schmidt, who has lived in West Knoxville, Tenn., for many years. “Michael actually hadn’t been that successful in the professional ranks yet. We were looking for someone sports-related.
“I was in Lake Como, Italy, and was asked if I had one athlete to sign, who would it be. I said Michael Jordan. I said he lights up the room and he’s going to be a very good player.
“I called his agent from Lake Como. His contract with Coca-Cola was going to expire and I asked whether Coca-Cola had rights of first refusal and was told they didn’t. But at the time, we couldn’t afford him.”
That changed, as Gatorade and MJ eventually agreed to a 10-year, $14 million deal.
Schmidt also was a linchpin in the “Gatorade Bath” campaign and in introducing the company’s Gatorade Players of the Year program for every state.
His non-Gatorade list of innovations may be more formidable. Schmidt was responsible for incorporating the Home Run Derby in Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game fest; the Slam Dunk competition to the NBA All-Star Game; and putting the venerable Punt, Pass & Kick program under the auspices of the National Football League.
“Bill is one of the pioneers in boundary presence,” said Somsky, who worked for Schmidt at Gatorade before taking a position with McDonald’s. “How you create events and leverage them to create awareness is part of the boundary presence.”
Schmidt left Gatorade in 1999 to be chief executive officer with Oakley Inc., a sunglasses and apparel firm. Today he owns Pegasus Sports Marketing in Knoxville, and is a strategic planning officer and marketing consultant with Allegiant Athletic Agency, which represents 27 NFL, two NBA and five international basketball players.
Apparently, that competitiveness drove brother Bob. The other twin is chief executive officer of Central Kentucky Radiology in Lexington.
Perpetual motion is still Bill Schmidt’s mantra – he was interviewed for this article via cell phone while driving. His lifetime ride has been smooth overall, following a turbulent start.
His father, Louis, a native of Germany, was a local coal miner for 29 years. He died when Bill and Bob were 2. They were the youngest of seven children who were subsequently raised by their mother, Helen.
Bill Schmidt played numerous sports as a youth, and favored one above the others. And it wasn’t track.
“I had a burning desire to play baseball. I made (the Western Pennsylvania American Legion all-star team) with Tom Dettore,” he said, referring to a Canon-Mac classmate who eventually pitched for the Pirates and Chicago Cubs).
“I thought I could pitch, but my range was dugout to dugout. I had no control.”
He ended up pitching javelins. Though he had a solid but unspectacular track experience at Canon-McMillan, Schmidt made the team at North Texas State University as a walk-on, graduated, served in the Army and made another team – U.S. Olympic.
After barely making it to the qualifiers in time in Munich – a scheduling miscommunication left him without transportation, so he had to run there – Schmidt qualified by finishing 12th. He did better in the competition, taking bronze.
Though he is about 500 miles removed from his roots, Schmidt has not forsaken them. He returns occasionally, like in December 2012 when Canonsburg honored him with an 8-by-4-foot monument to his Olympic performance, situated in a garden at Pike Street and Ashland Avenue. Schmidt has given back to the community where he developed his drive.
“Any time we’ve needed anything in the Canon-McMillan School District, when he worked for Gatorade, he supplied it. And that was often,” said Pihakis, who was the school’s athletic director for 37 years. “He supplied our schools with Gatorade and plenty of equipment on a pro bono basis.
“And he’s the type of person who will proudly say, “I’m from Canonsburg, Pa.’”
It’s a sentiment that’s reciprocated.