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Tom George is nearing the end of his first year as athletic director at American University. He took the job after about two decades as a sports-marketing honcho, most recently with Octagon, an international powerhouse with local offices in Tysons Corner. The career change can be summed up thus: George used to sell people on jockettes and jocks named Kournikova, Swoopes, and Hill and Robinson (as in Grant and David); now he tries to get folks interested in athletes named Cupp, Hamori, and Mikhailov and Akbar (as in Olga and Samia).
Before becoming AU’s AD, George’s experience in sports administration was limited to managing his daughter’s softball team. And he’s not even an alum—”I’m a Wake Forest Deacon, through and through,” he says. Then there’s what he admits was a “huge pay cut” that he had to take to leave Octagon for the land of the student athlete.
So why make the jump from Jerry Maguire to Al McGuire?
“Being a sports agent is such a tough, competitive field,” says George. “And I think people in that business are looking at me taking a job at the college level like it’s a missionary thing, like one of their own going out into the world to do good. My father was a high school basketball coach for years, and my brother is now a high school basketball coach, so doing something like this is kind of in my family. I think that’s one of the reasons why I went after the job. Plus, I think the opportunities at this school are incredible.”
His former co-workers also think he’s got the tools to succeed at any job.
“Tom probably doesn’t want everybody to know this,” says David Schwab of Octagon, “but before he got into [sports marketing], he was in the funeral business, selling cemetery plots. You know any guy who can sell cemetery plots can sell Michael Vick and Anna Kournikova. But even when he was here, he would spend more time talking about his kids than he would [stars]. So we could see this coming.”
George proudly confirms his past in the graveyard — “I started working at Parklawn Cemetery in Rockville in high school. So I can say I didn’t start my career at the bottom. I started 6 feet below the bottom and worked my way up.”
Up, too, seems like the only direction AU athletics can go from a marketing standpoint. Plainly, the school has never been known for its sports. Several former basketball coaches went on to greatness after leaving the Massachusetts Avenue campus—Jim Lynam, Tom Young, Tom Davis, and Gary Williams—but the sad truth is that none of those alleged clipboard geniuses ever brought American to the NCAA tournament. In the school’s 110-year history, there’s really only one Eagle, Kermit Washington, whose athletic exploits were recognized away from the dorms.
Washington was a local product who in 1973 became only the fifth person in NCAA Division I basketball history to average 20 points and 20 rebounds over an entire college career. (The others: Bill Russell of San Francisco, Julius Erving of UMass, Artis Gilmore of Jacksonville, Paul Silas of Creighton. Elgin Baylor, another local product, was a 20/20 guy at Seattle and the College of Idaho, which wasn’t a D-I school.) Washington was named first-team all-American that year, a designation not given to any AU hoops player before or since.
At the time, AU played its home games at an Army gym at Fort Myer in Arlington. If Washington had gone 20/20 at a more sports-conscious institution such as Maryland or even Georgetown, he’d have an arena named after him by now. But Washington has almost no presence at his old school. One of George’s goals is to belatedly expose students and others in town to its greatest alum.
“I really would like to bring Kermit in for a jersey-hanging ceremony during the next basketball season,” says George.
Even that may not be so easy. Washington, who was a two-time academic all-American at AU, played in the NBA for nine seasons, but his good reputation and pro career effectively ended on the same night in December 1977. That’s when Washington, then with the Lakers, punched Houston Rockets forward Rudy Tomjanovich so hard in the face during an all-hands brawl that his spine leaked. Washington now operates a sports bar in Vancouver, Wash. (Local hoop fans might find it interesting that Washington’s partner in the bar business is Kevin Duckworth, a former Bullet who ate himself out of the NBA.) He’s made few public appearances since the fight.
“He hasn’t said yet whether he can make it,” says George.
Even if the jersey-raising takes place, however, George doesn’t want alums’ expectations raised to Terrapin- or Hoya-fan levels. No matter who the AD is, George says, no parade of future basketball all-Americans will ever call the school’s home court, Bender Arena, home. Instead, he’ll just try to get a lot more hoop fans jazzed about AU’s push to win a Patriot League title. Though on a basketball level the conference is to the Big Ten what Kia is to General Motors, a league crown would bring AU the NCAA tournament berth that every current and former Eagle so covets.
The school does have a decent shot at becoming a national presence in less-hyped sports, including soccer, track, and, particularly, volleyball. (George just finalized a deal with Comcast to televise an invitational volleyball tournament from Bender Arena next month.)
George has also begun aggressively hawking AU sports to D.C. residents, particularly those in the Upper Northwest neighborhoods surrounding the campus. He says his predecessors never even bothered promoting the school in the local market, perhaps because such a large percentage of its student body, including its athletes, comes not only from out of town but from out of the country.
In the short term, George says, the strategy should merely bring more spectators to various Eagles games; eventually, it could mean that the city’s best prep athletes will consider staying close to home when it comes time to pick a college.
If playing to their local loyalties isn’t enough to bring in recruits, George says he’s prepared to flaunt his old connections if he thinks it’ll help close the deal.
“Anna Kournikova was nice enough to sign a bigger-than-life Sports Illustrated cover with her picture for me,” he says. “I keep that in my office here, and I’ve noticed it really has an effect on visitors. Will that bring in recruits? You never know.” —Dave McKenna