Kentucky Wildcat basketball coach Rick Pitino bounds onto a
temporary stage inside the gaping expanse of the Philadelphia
Convention Center, a winning grin spread across his youthful
face, his bright eyes all aglow beneath the spotlight.
"America's Most Energetic Motivational Speaker" immediately
begins to pace an imaginary sideline, working the huge crowd
toward an emotional pitch fit to inspire a flagging basketball
team. "We have 1,500 superstars in this room!" Pitino crows.
"Damn right!" shoots back a heavyset office-products salesman in
the 11th row.
Many of the 200 or so sports celebrities who work the
flourishing business-lecture circuit launch into platitudinous
rants the moment they take the stage. Fox TV football analyst
Terry Bradshaw often grabs his audience with a screeching ode to
"childlike enthusiasm," which the former Pittsburgh Steeler
quarterback seems determined to demonstrate throughout his
$10,000 exhortation about the vagaries of success. But Pitino
prefers an articulate "Manager of the '90s" persona for his
motivational lectures. For $20,000 and a first-class plane
ticket, he will convey his secrets of managing and motivating a
winning team--secrets that enough leaders of the business culture
believe to be so similar to the keys to managing and motivating
a winning company that they have created yet another source of
windfall profits for contemporary heroes of sports.
"He's got the competition beat at the podium, too," proclaims a
promotional document mailed out by one of the several lecture
agencies that collect 20% of Pitino's speaking fees. "He'll
energize your team."
"Most of the time I talk to senior managers," Pitino will say
after the speech. "Then, it's like I'm talking to other coaches.
When I talk to salespeople, I change the speech a little,
because that's more like talking to recruits. I have a pure
entertainment talk too."
Arrayed across the hundreds of faces angled up at Pitino in
Philadelphia are the ready smiles of salespeople. Some of those
gathered in Philadelphia sell variable annuities, some sell
mortgages, and a few sell industrial compressors. When the
successful coach tells them to do so, most carefully consider
whether or not they indeed have the "attitude" possessed by the
winners Pitino describes.
"Attitude" is actually Element 3 of Pitino's four-element,
win-like-me prescription, represented by the acronym TEAM. TEAM
is a kind of study aid by which listeners can remember lessons
derived from sports that will lead them to superior business
performance and even to commence a personal renaissance marked
by wealth, organizational triumph and happiness. Almost all of
the hot-ticket jocks working the upper tier of the
corporate-inspiration circuit ($20,000-plus per speech, though
most fees are negotiable) proffer canned axioms and truisms that
at once delineate and dilute the common complexities of work and
play, and most of the speakers insert some kind of acronym near
the crescendo of a motivational address. For a $20,000-per-throw
talker like former Chicago Bear coach Mike Ditka, the code word
is ACE, which stands for Attitude, Character and Enthusiasm.
Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz ($25,000) prefers WIN, for
What's Important Now. Former Los Angeles Laker and New York
Knick coach Pat Riley ($45,000), reputed to be the most
requested sports speaker in the country, prefers an amalgam of
"rules," as in the "Rule of the Rebirth, Rule of the Heart, Rule
for the Triumph." In Pitino's watchword, T is for Togetherness,
E for Esteem, A for Attitude and M for Mental Toughness.
Pitino illustrates and underscores all of these values with
stories from his career, his personal life and what he can only
imagine goes on in the world of business, since basketball has,
as he often points out, consumed his life. Pitino illustrates
the A in TEAM with stories of the collective attitude problem
that was the Knicks when he coached them (1985-87), and with
jocular references to his conjugal stamina with Mrs. Pitino even
when it's late and he's tired. ("Three hours," he says, "but
then, I'm Italian.")
The E-for-Esteem in Pitino's TEAM is considered something of an
innovation, because in the realm of sports motivational bombast,
E usually stands for Enthusiasm. At the moment, enthusiasm is
the most popular sports value being repackaged as a clarion call
to business success--a value as essential to the '90s as
Intensity was to the '70s and Work Ethic was to the '80s.
And, it should be said to all doubters of the power of an
honest-to-god sports celebrity talking victory up close and in
person, the crowds invariably lap it up and call for more. For
every executive who considers it absurd to draw corporate
direction from individuals who in only rare cases have managed
more than a dozen 22-year-olds at one time, there are probably
12 who believe that if you pay the price for a seat on the
figurative bench of a great coach, success will follow. Meeting
planners and other executives who book sports speakers contend
that a well-delivered motivational talk to a sales force
actually inspires immediate increases. But the kick tends to
wear off, so another shot of concentrated competitive spirit is
Marc Reede, a Beverly Hills-based agent who books some of the
top motivational speakers, claims that he has seen a post-speech
photograph of his client Dan (Rudy) Ruettiger ($10,000 and
booked well into 1996)--he of the sepia-tinged Hollywood movie
Rudy, in which young Ruettiger defies all odds and follows his
dream into a Notre Dame football uniform--being carried out of an
auditorium atop the shoulders of tearful health-products
executives in gray suits.
Rudy is the reigning king of the Overcoming Adversity
subcategory of the sports-idol business-motivation scene. Since
the recession-born lecture lull of three to five years ago, the
market forces shaping the sports-speaker universe have become so
strong that all sorts of niches and subspecialities have been
formed. A company in a slump can order up an Overcoming
Adversity screed that focuses on impediments to success as
hackneyed as Ditka's working-class mill-town youth, as narrow as
Bradshaw's inability to throw to his left or as profound as the
talk by former umpire Steve Palermo ($10,000) about his
paralysis after being shot while attempting to stop a robber.
The Spiritually Oriented motivational niche is occupied by
motormouth college-basketball TV analyst Dick Vitale ($18,000)
and overtly "Christian" motivators such as Florida State
football coach Bobby Bowden and Gene Stallings of Alabama (both
$5,000). Orlando Magic general manager Pat Williams ($10,000)
and former Chicago Bear linebacker Mike Singletary ($15,000)
have both learned to pop God in and out of their addresses
depending on their reading of audience preferences. Early on,
Williams was told by veteran bookers that he was too serious and
pious on the podium, so now he warms up with the longest string
of one-liners in the business.
In the $75 billion U.S. meeting-and-convention industry, the
sports-talk business earns only several hundred million dollars
a year, but it has grown large enough to house an entire
subniche dependent on the memory of Vince Lombardi alone. In the
1970s Green Bay Packer old-timer Jerry Kramer ($5,000) was one
of the first speakers on the business talk circuit to lean on
tales about his late coach. But today nobody relies more upon
the Lombardi mythos to maintain an elevated income than Vince
Lombardi Jr. ($3,500), who looks like his father, sounds like
him and even speaks in brief and rugged platitudes reminiscent
of his famous dad.
At the bottom of the oratorical hierarchy--though not necessarily
at the bottom of the pay scale--reside the traditional Meeters
and Greeters, current and former athletes who might go up to the
podium to say hi and tell a few stories but who are essentially
present to retail only their celebrity. Muhammad Ali will go
almost anywhere for a weekend for $60,000, but he won't give an
extended talk. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson each will show up
for $35,000. Joe Montana quotes $75,000 for a nonmotivational
appearance, as does George Foreman--who thus far has resisted
taking the time to memorize a motivational sermon designed to
offer a corporate kick in the pants.
In the middle of the 19th century, business audiences were
addressed almost exclusively by politicians and clergymen. With
the dawn of the Gilded Age and a revitalized rhetoric of
salesmanship, business figures were ushered in as after-dinner
speakers on the banquet circuit. In the 1920s Babe Ruth
single-handedly raised the value of a sports celebrity's
handshake, autograph and rough-hewn banter. By mid-century, as
the media intensified the popular thrall attending sports
figures, athletes began to show up at business events to tell
stories and shake hands. "Appearances" became essential
components of many pro athletes' incomes.
But inspirational sports oration (as opposed to the related but
more bottom-line-oriented motivational form of today) was not
popular until the advent of the talking Olympians: Glenn
Cunningham, Billy Mills, Jesse Owens and the golden-tongued
"vaulting vicar," Bob Richards, the 1952 and '56 Olympic gold
medalist in the pole vault. Richards became famous for gracing
the front of Wheaties boxes tipped by members of the baby-boom
generation, but all the while he was crisscrossing the nation
giving speeches, sometimes for free and sometimes for $5,000 a
talk. "The difference is that I never did it for the money,"
says Richards, who was paid $30,000 a year for his Wheaties
endorsement. "I honestly did it--old-fashioned as it sounds--to
build character, to let people feel the thrill of winning a gold
medal and then to tell them what it takes. I've given 14,000
speeches over the past 40 years. I did 163 speeches for IBM
alone. But then again, I was an ordained minister before I went
to the Olympics, and most athletes back then could barely
pronounce their names. It's all changed completely in the past
few years. The money is astounding now, and the speeches are so
That Ditka's $2 million a year in lecturing income equals the
salary budgets of entire college humanities departments is the
result of a confluence of cultural curves. On the one hand,
sports celebrities continue to fill a gaping hero gap, and the
successful coach is constantly cast as a master of
organizational dynamics. On the other hand, many of the
trendiest business-management theories derive from the imagined
dynamics of a successful sports team.
"Management is dead," professional business motivator Ray
Pelletier proclaims during his talks. "Coaching lives."
Meanwhile, the perception that employees need regular doses of
"motivation"--as opposed to cash bonuses and other more
traditional incentives--has been intensified by the abiding
presence in economic life of abject fear. These days companies
suddenly downsize, and positions and related benefits disappear
as quickly as ... well, coaching jobs. Competition is ever more
intense in the world of buying and selling, and the imperatives
of daily victory appear ever more similar to those of making the
big play under pressure in front of a screaming crowd.
Straight-talking veteran agent David Burns, of Chicago-based
Burns Sports Celebrity Service, Inc., estimates there are now
300 agencies jockeying to book the 200 most capable sports
speakers. Burns has been renting out athletes' time since 1970,
long before the boom in motivational sports speaking. "At first,
my business was about CEOs paying a bundle to put Jack Nicklaus
or Arnold Palmer into commercials that made no sense, just so
the CEO could be breathed upon by his god," Burns says. "The way
it works now is that I get a call from a meeting planner or a
human-resources executive, and I find out what category of
motivational speech he or she wants. I inquire about budget,
location and time, and I fax back a list [of candidates] within
With a hefty 20% to 33% of the quoted fees going to the agents,
the bookers are forever jousting to land star speakers as
exclusive clients. Busy speakers sometimes opt for an exclusive
arrangement, like the one former Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton
($10,000) has with the elite Washington Speakers Bureau, because
the agency will absorb promotional costs and manage the
paperwork. But most speakers remain independent.
Agencies handle contracts--Riley's has been known to run past six
pages, specifying in legal prose even the number of autographs
he will sign--and help speakers assemble the preview tapes most
upper-tier speech consumers demand. The tapes the Washington
Speakers Bureau use of Holtz, Bradshaw and other clients imitate
the ponderously epic tone of NFL Films highlights. At the onset
of the Holtz reel, huge letters appear against a black
background: When Lou Holtz was 12 years old, he announced to his
family and friends that he would someday be the coach of Notre
Dame. After a long pause, new words appear on the screen: No one
The agents also collect great sheaves of praise-laden letters on
behalf of clients. Beneath a welter of impressive corporate
logos, the written testimonies indicate that as many "hearts"
have been "touched" and "spirits elevated" by sports spiels as
by Spielberg movies or romance novels. "It would be difficult to
overstate the impact that Dan Jansen ... had on our recent CEO
Circle of Excellence events," wrote a sales operations manager
for Southwestern Bell Telephone, lauding the Olympic speed
skating gold medalist.
The agents also help speakers develop their skills. A few sports
speakers have had professional coaching, but most of them seem
to have observed the hyper-competitive environment of
motivational speaking and turned the creation of a table-pounder
of a speech into yet another test of their strength and will to
win. Pitino says he learned to hold an audience by listening to
hundreds of coaches' harangues at clinics and basketball camps
he attended as a young man. Later, he recalls, "when I started
out as a coach, I would give 60 to 65 basketball-camp talks per
summer. I'd go up and down the Eastern seaboard, spending $45 on
gas to give a $75 lecture. Then, when I started coaching the
Knicks, the corporate stuff started to flow in. I got $5,000 at
first--which seemed like a whole lot of money at the time.
"And I know it sounds silly," adds Pitino, "but I really do get
pumped up when I speak. I think it helps me in coaching."
"It's taken years of nurturing and marketing to get Rick Pitino
where he is now," says Reede, who approached Pitino in his
search for "an East Coast Pat Riley" in 1987, when Riley was
still in Los Angeles. "But he's moving to the top because
everybody loves a winner, and everybody wants to know what it
takes. Corporate America is looking for a kick in the pants, and
Rick can deliver it. I've told him that all he needs is one
national championship, and he will be able to write any number
he wants on his ticket."
Twenty minutes into his Philadelphia address, Pitino steps up
the intensity, and the Convention Center begins to rock like
Rupp Arena in the closing seconds of a game. The coach kneels on
the stage in his black suit to act out the diagramming of a
final shot. He divides the huge crowd into Kentucky Wildcats and
Louisville Cardinals and ascribes a surfeit of good attitude and
bad to the two teams respectively. Later he jumps down into the
audience and claps his hand on the shoulder of a middle-aged
white man in a nubby sportcoat: "You are Charles Oakley," Pitino
declares, "and you're gonna be great tonight!"
Though Pitino's touching of shoulders and his role-playing are
relatively sophisticated ways to connect with his listeners, he
also likes to open things up with an ice-breaker typical of the
talk circuit--in his case, the old story about how he got the
plum Kentucky job because an assistant to his predecessor, Eddie
Sutton, was caught sending cash to a prospect in an Emery
Express envelope ("So I use Federal Express," Pitino says with a
knowing smile). Ditka will warm up a crowd by mentioning his
current unemployment, though this is ironic in light of his
speaking income, and humor is hardly Iron Mike's strong suit.
Pat Williams gets a crowd going with his Henny Youngman shtick
("From now on," he told one Florida group, "no Florida Gator
athletes should get letters unless they can read them"). And for
his $9,500, former Washington Redskin All-Pro quarterback Joe
Theismann will raise energy levels with the cry, "How many'a ya
A casual look at a selection of motivational speeches actually
reveals more similarities than distinctions. Ditka and Theismann
even rattle off the same setbacks Abraham Lincoln suffered
before he "overcame adversity" and made himself President.
Like all the hot sports speakers, Holtz gets quickly to the
rhetorical point essential to every motivational address: that
sports and business are just the same. "Winning at football at
Notre Dame is just like being successful at business," he avers.
"What's the difference between coaching and running a business?
You're handling people. You have expectations and goals. You
have a profit and a loss. You have a scoreboard. You have a game
tally and a season tally."
Then there are the compulsory lists. The two, three, four,
five--or even eight--"things you have to know" to seize your
dreams and win big. Theismann has "five fundamental areas in
which you can build a game plan for success." Williams describes
eight "rungs" on the ladder to your dream. Aside from his
reductive WIN formula, Holtz has both the Three Rules ("Do what
is right and avoid what is wrong"; "Be totally committed to
action"; "The Golden Rule") and Three Ways to Succeed in the
'90s ("Teamwork," "Sense of purpose," "Togetherness").
Riley is the circuit's heaviest reader of great books that
underscore the profundity of his own insights--or perhaps just
the heaviest user of books of collected quotations. Williams can
weave into a few minutes of oration phrases borrowed from Bob
Knight, Napoleon, Winston Churchill, John Thompson, King
Solomon, Mark Twain and Brooke Shields. Theismann quotes IBM
founder Thomas Watson, oil millionaire H.L. Hunt and Theismann's
own mom. Ditka quotes Horace Greeley ("Fame is but a vapor") and
his own dad.
"I know it's formulaic," Pitino says. "But I do think the
speeches can lend some organization to the way people think
about their lives. The idea is to pull them into the present
For all the sameness, the endless stating of the obvious and the
apparent lack of deep personal connection to the words that
characterize these pricey orations, each speaker does seem to
include at least a passing moment of honest reflection and
perhaps inadvertent revelation.
Ditka sometimes notes that by today's standards, his
discipline-loving father probably abused him. Holtz offers a
brief "love one another" antiracism moment in which he observes
that someone of a different race might actually turn out to be
your boss ("Times have changed"). Theismann admits that until
1985, when his leg was broken in a game against the New York
Giants and his career came to an end, "I didn't need people in
my life, because I was always getting pats on the back." He then
tells the harrowing story of being carried off the field after
Lawrence Taylor delivered the fateful hit. "Fifty-five thousand
people rose to their feet to cheer," Theismann recalls. "And not
one of them knew they were thanking a man who didn't need them
But Theismann suddenly drops the insight and backs away. He
never returns with a progress report on his psychological state,
just as he never talks about the pain of his expensive divorce.
Pitino talks about growing up a few blocks from Madison Square
Garden and becoming the boy-wonder coach of his beloved
Knicks--but he doesn't go into the ways that the dream came
"None of them will ever talk about their losses," Pelletier
observes. "The speeches would all be a lot better if they took
off their masks."
But then, most listeners are not scribbling notes in order to
discern a psychological subtext. Their companies have assembled
them in the room to become motivated, to learn, as Pitino puts
it, "to start to believe in dreams."
"It is a disaster if you don't accomplish your dreams!" Bradshaw
screams into the audience. "It is a disaster!" he repeats,
looking unmoored by the passion of his message.
But Bradshaw and all the others never pause to explain how to
choose a dream, or how to find peace and contentment despite
falling short of dreams ... or how to learn that some dreams are
best left unpursued. Nobody in the sports-speak world ever tells
the crowd that some of history's darkest moments have been
engendered by supermotivated "enthusiastic dreamers," as
Bradshaw calls them, who simply refuse to give up on their
terrible dreams. The motivational speakers rarely consider
what's worth dreaming about once you've acquired the fire, once
you have invited excellence or enthusiasm or God into your life.
This absence causes these slick sermons to recall those
motivational best-sellers of 20 years ago with their themes of
How to Get Yours and How to Climb over Others in Golf Shoes and
"Goals are short-lived-you get satisfied," Pitino explains after
his speech in Philadelphia. "I try to get them to dream. The
great ones started with dreams. The overachievers, the ones who
hit the jackpot, are dreamers."
But aren't the overachievers the ones who don't need to be
tutored? Are the mere achievers in life--the ones who don't reach
the Final Four--simply relegated to being failures?
"These speakers should really be teachers," contends former UCLA
basketball coach John Wooden, who will not talk about winning
during his own speeches to business groups any more than he did
to his players during his 40-year coaching career. "I've seen
Holtz, and I've seen Pitino--and they're really entertainers.
There is obviously a tactical correlation between business and
sports, but the struggles of coaches to win, in and of
themselves, don't have much to do with character. Winning is a
byproduct of other, complicated things.
"I don't know if some of them can begin to understand what it's
like outside of sports," Wooden continues. "Coaches complain to
me about the pressures they live under all the time, and I say,
'Try being a salesman if you want to learn about pressure. Try
to run a butcher shop, for that matter.'"
Atop pulpits built on other people's fears and unrealized
aspirations, peripatetic sports motivators preach to the
business culture and further imbue it with sports metaphors and
sports pontifications. They sell only a half-true sense of what
makes well-played games so compelling and so beautiful. What is
artless and graceful and completely moving about the acts of
gifted players in motion, or the actions of leaders of magical
teams, becomes instantly banal when it is deconstructed and
mined for pithy truisms fit for the marketplace.
Certain leaders of sports teams might well own the skills and
insights required to master business life. But sports can also
be much more complicated, much less glamorous, much more brutal,
much less grown-up and only tangentially related to the myriad
complexities of running enterprises and selling widgets--although
you certainly wouldn't understand any of this from listening to
the bull-moose motivators working the talk circuit today.
Dan Whitehead, an insurance salesman from Fort Washington, Pa.,
waits patiently in a long line to shake Pitino's hand when his
speech in the Convention Center is over. "He was just great,"
Whitehead says, patting a notebook he has filled with Pitino's
phrases. "He wasn't too rah-rah, like Holtz. When he told that
story about how he told [former Knick] Mark Jackson that he was
going be Rookie of the Year even though Jackson was the 18th
overall draft pick--and then he was!--well, that was amazing. This
is why I'm here. I just gotta figure that being around
successful people like Rick Pitino has got to help me live my
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFF WONG Pitino's laying on of hands turns his motivational speeches into something like religious revivals. [Drawing of Rick Pitino] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFF WONG In their pep talks, Ditka (left) and Theismann extract the exact same mouthful from Honest Abe. [Drawing of Joe Theismann, Mike Ditka and Abraham Lincoln]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFF WONG Deep thinker Riley will put heavy literature into the lineup--as long as it illuminates the winner within. [Drawing of Pat Riley] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFF WONG [Drawing of Terry Bradshaw]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFF WONG For $60,000, Ali will be a heavyweight handshaker, but standup speeches are not part of the deal. [Drawing of Muhammad Ali]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFF WONG Holtz's pitch doesn't kid about his childhood vow that he would one day coach the Irish. [Drawing of Lou Holtz]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JEFF WONG Richards deplores the way today's speakers use their messages primarily as keys to the vault. [Drawing of Bob Richards bursting from Wheaties box]
YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR
Looking for a speaker like Terry Bradshaw (above) for your next
gathering? Here's a sample of mouths for hire (prices
Name Fee Shtick
1. Pat Riley $45,000 Machiavelli in Armani
2. Lou Holtz 25,000 Best Ross Perot imitation
3. Dan Jansen 20,000 "Perseverance and perspective"
4. Rick Pitino 20,000 Top table-pounder
5. Mike Ditka 20,000 Win like me--or else!
6. Dick Vitale 18,000 Most words per minute (surprise!)
7. Bruce Jenner 13,500 Win like I once did
8. Tommy Lasorda 12,500 Most huggable motivator
9. Terry Bradshaw 10,000 Loud fervor!!!
10.Vince Lombardi Jr. 3,500 Win like Dad did