Tom Starr’s Game Is Bowl-ing
On Dec. 30, when Arizona State and Air Force square off at Anaheim Stadium in the fourth annual Freedom Bowl game, Tom Starr’s football season will come and go in the space of a few hours.
As executive director of the Freedom Bowl, Starr’s schedule consists of one game. But a whole year of preparation goes into that game. And even the excitement of knowing it is all going to come together in a few weeks doesn’t obscure the slogging months of pursuit that went before.
Like the Saturday last October that Starr found himself in State College, Pa., scouting Penn State as a possible Freedom Bowl contender. Starr isn’t sure which Saturday because he was doing the same thing in another town the week before and the week before that and the week before that. So memories of stadiums, and especially stadium parking lots, tend to get a little blurry.
On this day, he had done his usual fraternizing after the game before heading for his car. Only after hitting the parking lot did he realize he hadn’t the foggiest notion what kind of car he had rented--and the keys gave him no clue.
“That’s happened before,” he recalled over lunch last week, “but usually by the time I get out, the parking lot is almost empty. But at Penn State, the fans have tailgate parties after the game--and all I saw was a maze of cars.”
It took him almost an hour to find his car by trying his key endlessly until it finally fitted a lock. But he’s not complaining. Far from it. Probably no one in the nation enjoys his job more than Tom Starr. When he took off Thanksgiving Day--his first day of rest in almost two months--Starr spent it on the couch in his bachelor apartment watching the Texas-Texas A&M; football game.
Starr’s problems in putting together a postseason football game that will pack Anaheim Stadium and draw national attention--possibly via network television coverage--to Orange County do not arise just from the relative youth of the Freedom Bowl. (“We can’t use that excuse much longer,” Starr said.) Mostly they arise from money--or the lack thereof. In order to be officially sanctioned, a bowl game must guarantee each participant $500,000. And that’s what the Freedom Bowl guarantees: the minimum. By contrast, its competitors all offer more--up to $6.1 million for the Rose Bowl.
The Anaheim businessmen--notably Joel Rothman (Anaheim Marriott), Karl Wray (Anaheim Bulletin) and Bill Snyder (Area Visitors Bureau)--who were the movers and shakers behind the Freedom Bowl--knew going in that money would be a problem. So they needed to do two things up front: offer extra perks to attract teams and put in charge a skilled professional who knew the bowl game business.
First things first. The man they chose was Tom Starr, who at 36 had already put on five successful Sun Bowl games in El Paso, Tex. He also had a long history of athletic administration--mostly in the Midwest.
About the only thing Starr knew about Orange County was that it practically never rained on an athletic event here. So naturally, the first Freedom Bowl in 1984--a surprisingly good match-up between Texas and Iowa--was played in a torrential downpour that started several hours before the game and never quit. Starr was also looking over his shoulder because of several dozen death threats from supporters of Cal State Fullerton, who thought their team should have been invited to play.
Since then, it has all been downhill for Tom Starr.
That is, if traveling 40,000 miles a year to scout football teams, attend athletic meetings and glad-hand college administrators can be regarded as downhill.
It is to Starr, an unabashed football aficionado who glows when he talks about his job. He remembers vividly, for example, the first time he was ushered into the presence of Van Gordon Sauter, then the director of CBS Sports.
“I was waiting for him in his office in New York,” said Starr, still a little awed, “and I looked around and saw 25 TV monitors, and I thought, ‘That’s more TV sets than they have in the whole town I grew up in.’ ”
That town was Newton, Iowa, and Starr’s childhood was spent watching the prodigious athletic feats of his older brother. “I was little and I was slow, and I knew I could never make it as an athlete, so I looked to the other side of sports--the business and media side. That’s where I found my heroes.”
He got a BA in journalism at the University of Iowa and a master’s degree at Iowa State before he was detoured to Vietnam, where he was decorated three times. After his return from the military, he worked his way up through steadily better jobs in athletic administration. They won him enough attention to be named an Outstanding Young Man in America in 1980 (by the U.S. Jaycees) the year after he took over the Sun Bowl.
He’s a realist without being a cynic about big-time sports in the United States today. “I like the people I work with,” he said, and you knew he meant it. “And I can understand the importance of money to these schools. Athletic departments are facing multimillion-dollar budgets and declining contributions because of the stock market. Television revenues are down and travel expenses up, so they have to go for the money.”
The Freedom Bowl hopes to correct the imbalance next year, but this year it had to go with the minimum $500,000--and it was tough. Starr explained the process this way:
During the off-season, Starr draws up a list of 35 possible Freedom Bowl participants (Indiana was his sleeper this year; next year, he says, it will be either South Carolina or Colorado).
Once the season starts, Starr and his blue-ribbon board of directors, which includes 34 local business and civic leaders, pare the teams down week by week--to 15 by Nov. 1 and to eight realistic possibilities by Nov. 15. (This year, those teams were USC, UCLA, Arizona State, BYU, Air Force, Iowa, Penn State and Alabama.).
One team is picked to key on, “either from the Pac 10 or Western Athletic Conference for the local crowd draw. For the other team, we can go nationwide.” The original key team was USC, with Arizona State as a backup.
As decision day approached, the list was pared again. BYU was eliminated because “we had just had them, and Air Force would attract all the military people and defense contractors in this area,” and Alabama because “we found out they’d made a three-way deal with LSU and Auburn to divide up three other bowls.” Meanwhile, Penn State was looking elsewhere, and UCLA was showing little interest because it played last year in the Freedom Bowl.
For a brief time, it looked as if USC and Iowa could be induced to come. (This was a week before USC unexpectedly beat UCLA and won a trip to the Rose Bowl.) Then the Iowa coaches voted to go to San Diego’s Holiday Bowl, and USC withdrew because of its insistence from the beginning that it wanted to play a Top 20 team.
Thus by simple elimination, Air Force and Arizona State remained. Starr was up all night on Nov. 21, sweating out these developments. By 10 a.m., he had nailed down his two teams. His only other option at that point was to wait a week, see if UCLA lost to USC, then try to induce the Bruins to return to the Freedom Bowl. “It just wasn’t worth the risk,” Starr said. “Besides, we already had an exciting attraction with two teams that have both averaged more than 30 points a game this season.”
Starr knows about risk. He has had to deal with it in his personal life, too, and he has become convinced that his frenetic life style isn’t worth the risk of another marriage. His first and only marriage ended nine years ago in divorce, but he has a 12-year-old daughter living in Kansas City “who is the most important thing in my life.”
He’ll be with her for 12 hours the day before Christmas, “not nearly enough, but well worth it,” he said. “One of the advantages of this job is that I travel so much that I get to see my daughter often. But it’s tough to be married in a job like this. It’s totally unfair for another person to have to share this kind of life style.”
When the 1987 Freedom Bowl game is over and the postgame rituals completed, Starr will have a few days off. Then on Jan. 6, he’ll drag himself to the annual meeting of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. (“the bowl guys are zombies”), and the whole process will start again.
What does he see next year for the Freedom Bowl?
“The newest thing for bowls,” he said, “is full corporate sponsorship. We’ve got the Sunkist Fiesta and John Hancock Sun and Mazda Gator and several others. Even the biggest bowls are looking into it. Sponsors come up with anywhere from $200,000 to a million a year, but it’s a bargain for them. How much would 3 1/2 hours of prime-time television cost? It’s a lot cheaper just to buy your own event.”
Starr said the Freedom Bowl is talking with several potential sponsors and also hopes to have up to 40,000 game tickets committed next year before the teams are selected. (There were 18,000 this year.) Either development would make it possible to up the ante, which the Freedom Bowl expects to do in 1988.
As for extra perks, Starr--who is still a little breathless about the Orange County area--said that recruiting is nevertheless the Freedom Bowl’s biggest selling point. “This is the best area in the United States for football talent,” he said, “and the exposure coaches get here is enormously helpful in recruiting.” He also pointed out that local teams, by saving vast amounts in travel costs, can make more by playing in Anaheim than in distant bowls, since their loot has to be divided with other conference teams.
Starr and his Freedom Bowl associates are also willing and eager to offer any extra perks the visitors might seek, from entertainment to accommodations. Sometimes, these requests take on a pretty exotic nature. He recalled the big-time coach who once told Starr, when he was managing the Sun Bowl, that he would consider it a favor if Starr would put his team up at the Camelback Inn. Starr agreed, reluctant to rock any boats by pointing out to the coach that the Camelback Inn was about 450 miles from the site of the game in El Paso.
But that’s all routine operating procedure to Tom Starr. Meanwhile, he has made one resolution for the new year: to write down the make and license number of every car he rents. He figures that will save him at least 24 hours in 1988--particularly if Penn State is in the picture again.