Saturday, November 18, 2017
Colleges

Rosy outlook pays off for McVay-run Outback Bowl

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TAMPA — His honeymoon period as a bowl executive was Kardashian in its brevity. Jim McVay had been running the Hall of Fame Bowl less than 24 hours when he received two sobering phone calls.

The first was from then-Tampa Sports Authority chief Joe Zalupski, demanding the bowl employees jostling for elbow room with TSA staffers in Tampa Stadium's congested office space leave — pronto.

The next came from the game's banker, requesting a meeting.

"He looks at me — he was kind of a stern guy — and he says, 'Jim, you know you guys owe us a lot of money,' " McVay recalls of that eventual face-to-face. "He says, 'I hope you clean up that (expletive) mess because we're not lending you another dime.' "

Had coach Ray Perkins not still been employed at nearby One Buc Place, McVay might have been Tampa's most beleaguered guy. He was a 33-year-old newbie with no credit, no set date for his game, not even a parking space.

What he had was monetary savvy, marketing chops, football contacts stretching to the upper altitudes of the NFL, and a pile of promissory notes — $10,000 each — from when the bowl originated.

McVay, who had worked for the Bucs and USFL Bandits, knew he could clean things up. An organizational chart here, budget rationale there, and daylight surely would surface.

"They just structurally needed some revamping," he said.

Today, the Outback Bowl — its name since the 1996 game — is a New Year's Day staple, tied with the Fiesta Bowl for the longest-tenured corporate sponsorship. McVay, 59, and in his job since 1988, is the longest-tenured bowl president/CEO still going.

"I love the guy," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "No phoniness about him."

•••

After the upcoming LSU-Iowa game at Raymond James Stadium, the bowl will have paid $117 million to NCAA member institutions and generated more than $1 billion in local economic impact over the years.

While coffers are filled, college kids are indulged. A trip to the Outback Bowl guarantees players steak-and-chicken feasts, Busch Gardens trips, and often a Lightning game.

And those promissory notes? McVay still has them; he never called in a single one.

"He just has a passion for what he does and obviously he does it very well and gets paid very well for doing it," Outback Steakhouse co-founder Bob Basham said.

"I kid him about only having to work one day a year, that he's got the best job in America. But I say it kind of tongue-in-cheek to him. He's just an enthusiastic, positive guy, and I think he's very knowledgeable."

Though effusive in praising his staff of four full-time employees — all of whom have worked there at least 20 years — McVay's fingerprints can be found in every nook of the game.

Had he followed his dad, John, into NFL coaching, he might have been the hands-on type calling his own plays.

He negotiates the game's TV rights agreement and title-sponsorship renewal. According to Outback Bowl communications chief Mike Schulze, who has worked with McVay a quarter-century, no director of a BCS bowl can make that claim.

"He's got so many different skill sets that I think most people don't have in this business," Schulze said. "The guy could be a general manager of an NFL team or whatever. He could've left here many times for other jobs."

McVay is also at the table for contract extensions with the game's conference partners, the Big Ten and SEC. For that, as well as overseeing the bowl's year-round slate of ancillary events and trumpeting the bay area to anyone who will listen, he earns $727,513 annually.

Throw in a benefits package and his total compensation — according to the bowl's 2012 tax documents — exceeds $800,000. According to a USA Today report last December, he's the nation's top-paid bowl chief.

Salary is the one subject he won't discuss during an hourlong interview in the conference room of the fifth-floor West Tampa office his staff occupies.

Those same tax documents indicate the bowl — which operates as a 501c(3) nonprofit to "create an economic impact" in the bay area and "positively showcase" it — generated more than $10.4 million in revenue.

Its total expenses were slightly higher, around $10.6 million. Still, the bowl claims net assets of nearly $5 million.

"I know that he is well compensated, but he's worth every penny that he's being paid, and the results speak for themselves," said the other Outback Steakhouse co-founder, Chris Sullivan.

•••

If the last name sounds familiar, well, it's steeped in college and pro football lore.

John McVay, who at 82 still attends every Outback Bowl, was a journeyman coach who nonetheless kept his home in Dayton, Ohio, until his three boys all graduated high school.

"He could've gone to a hundred places," said Jim McVay, married with two adult sons. "But he promised my mother that he would get us through high school."

Once his nest emptied, John was a head coach in the World Football League (Memphis) and NFL (Giants) before helping Bill Walsh construct a dynasty in San Francisco. John McVay has two more Super Bowl rings than sons.

"I grew up in press boxes," Jim McVay said. "I learned to swear on the sideline of a Big Ten game when I was 6 years old. … I said, 'Dad, did you see that (two-expletive) play?' He said, 'Where did you get that?!' "

All three boys followed their dad into football, but not coaching. The younger John McVay roamed a Miami (Ohio) secondary with a guy named Ron Zook. Tim was a team captain for Lee Corso at Indiana. Jim, the middle child, was a sturdy, undersized quarterback at Dayton.

Armed with a marketing degree, McVay joined the front office of the World Hockey Association's Cincinnati Stingers. It was an ideal apprenticeship; selling tickets required fresh angles, flair, resilience, cold calls.

It led to a gig as marketing director with the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits, where McVay worshiped late owner John Bassett, whom he calls "a marketing genius."

"Flamboyant, great guy, nice guy," McVay said. "And boy was he smart."

In terms of innovation, the Bandits' promotions matched coach Steve Spurrier's plays. McVay oversaw diamond giveaways, mortgage burnings, bikini contests. One game, while seven Dodge cars were being raffled off, somebody hopped in one and drove off into the Tampa night. The car was never found.

"They said, 'Were there any witnesses?' " McVay recalled. "I said, 'Yes, 48,000.' … We led the league in crazy promotions."

But there were harsh lessons. McVay saw owners outspending the salary cap, ignoring the revenue line. Three seasons after it began, the USFL was done.

Similarly, the Hall of Fame Bowl was nearly $400,000 in the red when McVay took charge, after an administrative gig with the Bucs. At its essence, his credo was — and still is — cash-on-the-barrel in nature: take no step without first being certain the money's in place.

"We're taking all the risks," he said. "So when we take on that risk to pay millions and millions … to these schools, it's our job to make sure we can fund that. So we have to drive the revenues, the ticket sales, the sponsorships, the memberships, the TV revenue, title sponsorship."

"What happens if it doesn't work?"

With that, James Patrick McVay stabs a finger in his chest. Hence the reason he'll slip on his coffee-colored blazer and speak at any luncheon, anywhere.

"The one thing I think he's done … here is he's been able to get the community to support the bowl game," Basham said. "It seems like other endeavors we try to do sometimes around this city, it's hard to bring everybody together. But because of college football he's been able to do that."

Outback recently extended its sponsorship until 2020. By then, it's anyone's guess as to how strong the gravitational pull of a college football playoff system will be. McVay insists bowls and playoffs can — must — co-exist.

"I think it would be very detrimental to the game of college football to have the weeklong bowl experience go away," Foley said. "There are so many programs out there that aren't going to ever play in that final four, for whatever reason. … That's just fact."

So McVay, whose bowl will operate separately from plans for the 2017 College Football Championship game in Tampa, will keep promoting, pitching, peddling. There always will be a faction convinced he's making out like a Tampa Bay bandit. Most of those only see his job through a three-hour time window, on New Year's Day.

"I think he's very good at what he does," Basham said. "It's not a thing that happens the first day in January and everybody forgets about it."

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