Remembering Steve Sabol: A Lesson in Client Service

October  2,  2012 / By Bryan Harris

We all could use a good pep talk now and then. Maybe it’s because we’ve lost focus. Or lack motivation. Or simply don’t get it. Whatever the reason, a swift kick in the rear and a cold dose of reality can really pay dividends – if you’re fortunate, for the balance of a lifetime.

For me, one of the most valuable such talks I ever received came courtesy of Steve Sabol, the visionary leader of NFL Films who passed away recently at the age of 69. It was actually delivered through an intermediary, but nonetheless, it had a defining impact on me as a professional.

The “intermediary” was Mike Cohen, a legendary sports publicist, power broker and world class schmoozer who introduced me to the world of public relations and wage earning back in the early 80’s. Imposing, gregarious, wildly outspoken, and rarely without a lunch or golf date on his calendar, Cohen took this introverted, uncertain young man with a curious resume – a degree in anthropology and a love for sports — and mentored and molded me into a budding public relations professional. He introduced me to a world of fascinating, high energy (and often very quirky) people and helped nurture my skills of storytelling, selling, and persuasion. The first week I worked for him, he made me retype all of the hundreds of handwritten cards in his bloated Rolodex (both of them). He then let me keep the old cards, just to get me started. The best advice he ever gave me was a simple and direct command: “You gotta be relentless.”

A former PR executive at NBC Sports, Cohen was revered (and often feared) in the world of sports television, at a time when giants like Arledge, Cosell, and Ohlmeyer ruled the airwaves. Many top television executives, agents and sportscasters sought his counsel, which was usually served up with his personal blend of blunt force constructive criticism and Bronx street smarts. For his invaluable services, he was sometimes paid, but often was not. He was giving and charitable, to a fault.

Steve Sabol

So one lazy June afternoon in 1984, after returning from a long lunch during a particularly slow period for the business — which consisted of Cohen and me, tucked into a single office on E. 57 Street– we got a call from Steve Sabol. I can’t remember who referred him our way, it could have been one of 100 people who Coehn guided and cajoled over the years; but he wanted to meet and discuss representing NFL Films. Back then, I didn’t know a lot about Sabol the man, but I was very familiar with his work. Like most football fans, I grew up watching the classic This Week in the NFL, mesmerized by the camera work, the music, the storylines, and the lordly tones of John Facenda (“The Doooomsday Defense had arrived.”). At a time when our business was overwrought with boxing – a heavyweight title fight we were handling fell through a week earlier when the promotion’s shady backers finally ran out of their shady money – hearing from Sabol was welcome and refreshing.

So two days later we’re heading down the Jersey Turnpike to NFL Films’ cavernous headquarters in Mt. Laurel, just outside of Philly, to meet Sabol. Upon greeting us, I could see right away that he was very down to earth, dressed in jeans and sneakers, long before it was fashionable and acceptable to do so in the workplace. Clearly, he was very comfortable in his own clothes, a man of far greater substance than style.

It was inevitable that Sabol and Cohen would meet. They were kindred spirits, impresarios with larger-than-life personalities who took a big bite out of everything in life. Forget what it said on their business cards; they shared a common belief that you offer anything and everything in your arsenal of experience, talent, and chutzpah to bring greater value to the equation. By the time we were done with lunch, which featured Sabol and Cohen waging a friendly battle of corny jokes and fish tales, we were hired.

Working with Sabol over the next four years was an invaluable learning experience. He was a bottomless well of material and inspiration, a dream for any publicist. Enormously gifted, he was a true auteur, putting his personal touch on every facet of the business that he helped build with his father, Hall of Famer Ed (“Big Ed”) Sabol. Writer, producer, cameraman, on-air personality, historian, master motivator, storyteller, and wordsmith. He actually created the term frozen tundra to describe the icy winter turf at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, and was ridiculed by Vince Lombardi for its redundancy.

Mike Cohen

One of my favorite Sabol stories — which I repeated often to rapt journalists — was about his days as a star running back at Colorado College. Thanks to his late game heroics, he earned the nickname “Sudden Death Sabol,” bestowed upon him by the sports editor of the school newspaper – an ambitious and imaginative young journalist who built Sabol into a near mythical figure on campus. The editor, by the way, just happened to be. . .Steve Sabol.

Yes, he was versatile.  And yes, he understood public relations, evident from his days as a college athlete/journalist and probably long before then. But more so, Sabol was a savvy marketer. He may be remembered first and foremost as a filmmaker, who teamed with Big Ed to change the way we experience football, and sports in general. But the Sabols also had an innate feel for how to shape and mold the image of the sport, inviting the viewer closer to the field and its denizens so as the better feel and appreciate the history, artistry, heroism, and brutality, of the game.

On a personal level, what I am most grateful to Sabol is a valuable lesson he taught me about client service — which brings me to the aforementioned pep talk. It was sometime in 1985, after we’d been working with NFL Films for about a year. Cohen and I were walking to lunch (we always seemed to be heading to or from lunch) and he says, “I was on the phone earlier with Steve Sabol and he mentioned something toward the end of the call that I have to share with you. He said, ‘Mike, I think Bryan needs a little pep talk. I really like the kid; he does a great job. But sometimes he just seems kind of down, kind of blah. I just want to know that he’s really excited and enthusiastic about what we’re doing.’ ” There’s a pause and then Cohen adds, for good measure, “Don’t forget that next time you’re on the phone with him. Or with any client, for that matter.”

Wow, what a kick in the butt. I thought I was doing such a great job. Sabol and I spoke several times a week. We had a really good rapport. I was lining up interviews for him with all the key media we targeted. So now he was questioning my enthusiasm, my dedication? I truly loved working this account. I was delivering results.Did I have to be “on” every single time for him to appreciate my efforts?

Maybe I was just too green to figure it out right away, but after a few days of reflection, and replaying some recent conversations I had with Sabol, it was clear. I knew where he (and Cohen) was coming from. He created NFL Films with his father, It was his life’s work. So if you want to ride along with Steve Sabol to help shape the image of the National Football League and build its fan base— that’s what it meant to him, far more than just press clippings and radio interviews – then you better bring it on every play, in practice and on Sunday.

I did wonder at times: would it have been even more effective had Sabol cut to the chase and delivered that talk to me directly, without enlisting my boss as the messenger? I think not. Cohen had just the right touch and knew best how to push my buttons. He played this role well, having managed many a delicate young psyche over the years. Working in tandem with Sabol produced just the right effect, offering me one of the best lessons in client service I ever received.

I never discussed my moment of reflection with Sabol, nor did he make any mention of his conversation with Cohen. He knew the message would find its way to me, as subtle as a crushing hit over the middle by Dick Butkus.  During my next chat with him, and the many to follow in the ensuing years, I was always focused and engaged. It was never forced, didn’t have to be. I learned how to absorb and feed off the energy of Cohen, my hard-charging, highly-demanding mentor – no easy task for an anthro major. Now, I had to apply the same approach to clients like Sabol, whose level of expectations in life soared high above those of most mortals.

Sadly, Mike Cohen passed way in 1988. He was just 44. In the seven years I knew him, he taught me a lifetime of wisdom. When I take inventory of all that I learned at his side – during lunch, at the racetrack or ringside at boxing matches, driving up the Palisades, sitting across from him in that office on 57th – I always think of Steve Sabol and the pep talk. And in my mind there are drums beating, horns blaring, a blue-gray November sky, cold mist all around, and John Facenda speaking of legendary men who made the ground shake beneath them.

Roll credits.

 

Image credits: Steve Sabol – USA Today; Mike Cohen – Bryan Harris

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