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The Wizard of Awes

Michigan State Athletics Director Mark Hollis organizes magical, one-of-a-kind sporting events he hopes fans and athletes remember for a lifetime

Mark Hollis is grinning with mischievous pride as he pulls up in his black Cadillac outside the Breslin Center.

It’s late July, and the thrumming from a $24.5 million stadium expansion resonates from the football complex nearby amid surging anticipation of the first day of practice. Yet Michigan State’s athletics director is in the spotlight on this day, not the customary shadows from which administrators often cheer their program’s athletic achievements. And Hollis is entertained by that displaced attention.

“Did you see me on ‘SportsCenter’?” he wants to know the moment his car door opens. “I made the top 10, man!”

Mark Hollis got his start with Michigan State athletics as a men’s basketball team manager. Thirty years later, Hollis is devising events that leave his former roommate, basketball coach Tom Izzo (below, left), joking, “He’s got a ticket with God.” Ice hockey coach Tom Anastos (below, right) recalled the effort behind Hollis’ Cold War event and the impact it had on college hockey. “It put the sport on a platform we’d never seen before, worldwide,” he said. “We got an audience in prime-time football season.”

Understand the innate wizardry that led to this moment and you’ll understand Hollis – a Bill Veeck figure in college sports whose runaway creative mind brought hockey’s blue lines to football’s red zone and a basketball game to an F-16 blacktop. His inspirations have reshaped the Final Four and set the blueprint for the NHL’s Winter Classic. But they all seem to follow the same path as Hollis’ latest “SportsCenter” moment.

It started with a friendly golf challenge with Michigan Director of Athletics Dave Brandon, exchanged two years ago on Twitter during a break in Big Ten meetings. But Hollis rarely sees any event as simple. It seems everything in his job – and even outside it – holds potential to be hyped and marketed. So the initial challenge turned into the annual B1GADGolf event, a nine-match challenge between Michigan and Michigan State athletics faculty, media, coaches and former student-athletes. Local media covered it. A news conference preceded. The results ran in the Detroit Free Press.

And this time, Hollis took the biggest bow. Trailing Brandon by two holes through 16, Hollis icily sank a 23-foot, match-tying birdie putt on the 18th green, then calmly retrieved his ball with a champion’s strut that belied the fortunate finish. He won on the first playoff hole.

That putt made the top 10 plays on “SportsCenter” the next day. The news raced across Michigan State’s campus.

As Hollis enters the Skandalaris Football Center that afternoon, a UPS deliveryman approaches to shake his hand. “It’s always good to beat Michigan,” he says. Athletics department employees light-heartedly cheer as he enters his office, chiding that Hollis’ stature has grown too big to be around. Hollis savors the theater with good humor. His putt surely will be recalled at next year’s event.

Memory maker

The shelves, walls and desk in Hollis’ office bear all the markers expected of a successful administrator. Autographed footballs and basketballs sit among awards and memorabilia, reminders of the 19 Big Ten championships, five bowl games and two Final Fours the school has collected since he was named athletics director in 2008.

Less noticeable among the office décor are the eight Disney characters. There are two stuffed Mickey Mouse dolls along with miniatures of Pluto, Donald Duck and Goofy. A porcelain figurine of Mickey Mouse, given to Hollis by members of the Disney Institute consulting firm, contains a brass plate congratulating him on being named SportsBusiness Journal’s 2012 Athletic Director of the Year. On a second line, the plate also recognizes the 318 days he’s visited Disney theme parks — a number that has since eclipsed 320.

Hollis’ connections with Disney are as tight as his four-decade relationship with Michigan State. He’s leaned on the Disney Institute professional development firm for advice on improving his department’s working culture and its relationship with its fans. He’s given out miniatures of its characters at NCAA committee meetings. One of his favorite pastimes on those Disney trips is to simply watch the visitors walk to the front gates with eyes full of excitement and wonder, then leave hours later, exhausted from the experience, only to return the next day with the same innocent faces. The memories they take away are powerful and lasting.

He saw the same awed expressions in East Lansing on Oct. 6, 2001, as the 74,554 fans who packed Spartan Stadium looked to the field with wonder.

A crammed football venue for a Michigan and Michigan State game on a Saturday in the fall isn’t unusual. But there was a hockey rink on the field this time, stretching between the 18-yard lines. No college program had attempted an outdoor hockey game on artificial ice before that day. It was a Frankenstein event for Hollis’ mad-scientist marketing.

They called it the Cold War. The tickets sold out three months earlier, guaranteeing that the game would smash the world-record crowd for a hockey game of 55,000 set in 1957. Tailgating began at 7 a.m., 12 hours before the puck dropped.

At first, it was easy to dismiss as a ludicrous dream. It started with an offhand comment from Michigan State assistant coach David McAuliffe: It would be cool to hold a game in Spartan Stadium, he suggested.

“You are crazy,” Michigan State coach Ron Mason told him.

Most people comfortably seated in reality would stop there. But Spartans employees have learned better than to tempt Hollis’ creativity with such a far-fetched suggestion. Hollis heard the remark and thought of a movie released two years earlier — “Mystery, Alaska” — about a local club team that takes on the New York Rangers outdoors. Hollis saw potential in Hollywood’s fantasy.

So tickets went on sale four months after McAuliffe’s casual comment, even though nobody really knew how to construct a hockey game outdoors – at least, not off of a frozen lake. The technology for such a game didn’t technically exist – the 281-ton refrigeration unit used for the game was originally built to chill movie studios. Three days before the Cold War was to be played, Spartans administrators didn’t even know if they could keep the ice from melting in unseasonably high temperatures.

Those concerns have now become some of the unforgettable memories from a night that redefined the sport. And Hollis kept adding P.T. Barnum layers to the evening.

He brought in Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe to drop the puck — decorated red, white and blue in honor of 9/11 victims. He orchestrated a laser-light show to electrify the standing-room-only crowd, which exceeded the stadium’s football-game capacity by more than 2,000. Flames shot up from the field whenever Michigan State scored a goal.

Ordinarily a regional rivalry, the game transformed into a national curiosity. Media traveled from New York and Washington, D.C. Fox Sports Net broadcast it to 38 million homes – as many as a major Spartans football matchup could hope to reach. Fans talked about framing their tickets and programs. Those who couldn’t land tickets crowded around radios in the parking lot. They recalled childhood games played on frozen lakes. Commemorative T-shirts, hats and hockey pucks vaporized from shelves.

“It was like nothing we’d ever experienced,” said current Michigan State coach Tom Anastos, the commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association at the time. “I must have said ‘Wow!’ a thousand times.”

And in the process, Hollis’ wild idea helped Michigan State realize something about itself. For decades it had struggled with an awkward reality. Within four hours of its doorstep lay three of college sports’ most recognizable names: Notre Dame to the southwest; Michigan and Ohio State to the southeast. How was it supposed to stand out?

The Spartans boast some enchanting memories: Magic Johnson in the highest-rated NCAA championship game in history; Bubba Smith and the back-to-back national champion football teams of the 1960s. But neighboring schools outpaced them in revenue and stature. How could they differentiate themselves?

The Cold War showed them.

The Carrier Classic (left) may have been Hollis’ most eye-grabbing spectacle, helped by the attendance of President Barack Obama. But his creative vision had already inspired other major events. The Cold War outdoor hockey game (above) laid a path for the NHL’s Winter Classic, while the BasketBowl established a new template that the Final Four now follows.

So two years later, another wild idea that began with a napkin sketch in the middle of a Detroit Lions football game turned into the BasketBowl – a basketball game between Kentucky and Michigan State. Played at the 50-yard line of Detroit’s Ford Field, the game broke another record with a crowd of 78,129.

Then in 2011, Michigan State opened its season against North Carolina on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. U.S. military servicemen swarmed around former Spartans and Tar Heels in attendance, snapping photos with their cell phones and cameras. President Barack Obama cheered courtside. A lilac sunset provided an iconic backdrop.

“Wow!” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams told Spartans coach Tom Izzo as they shook hands after the game. “Thanks for everything. This was unbelievable.”

Just like on his Disney ventures, Hollis hears those astonished responses, sees wonder in the eyes of his student-athletes and knows the memories are cherished.

“Those are things that will never go away in their minds,” Hollis says. “Their eyes tell the story.”

Detailed creativity

Jud Heathcote didn’t see a creative marketing mastermind when he first met Hollis. He saw another freshman eager to be around the basketball team. So he shut the door.

That’s what the legendary Spartans basketball coach did to all the kids eager to be a manager for his teams. Magic Johnson had just led them to the national title and was now the star of Showtime in Los Angeles. Young men flocked to the program. So Heathcote tested them the same way: shutting the door on them, telling them to come back another time.

So Hollis did. And the door shut on him a second time.

And a third.

And then a fourth.

On the seventh trip, Heathcote handed him a broom.

“Go sweep the floor,” he said.

Hollis stayed with Heathcote throughout his college career and developed from the coach an appreciation for logistics, leadership and management. Heathcote was detailed and demanding. Hollis learned to anticipate problems and devise corrections. By the end, Heathcote entrusted his young manager with handling the team’s expenses on road trips and overseeing the open gyms that attracted a half-dozen pros to East Lansing on summer nights.

Magic Johnson could square off in those games against Detroit Pistons starters Isiah Thomas, Mark Aguirre and Bill Laimbeer – a lineup known as much for its ill temperament as its talent. Hollis managed those characters without backing down, picking lineups among millionaires, announcing nightly all-star teams among touchy egos, breaking up brawls among polished professionals.

Hollis’ disposition impressed Heathcote: He was authoritative without being overbearing.

“He was dependable,” Heathcote said. “And he loved his job. A lot of guys just liked being around the team. But he loved his job.”

Hollis now sees Heathcote’s imprint on his biggest events. The experience he later gained in marketing, finance and management as an administrator for the Western Athletic Conference and Michigan State prepared him to lead his alma mater. But beating on that door seven times required determination. Handling the gruff coach required attention to detail – like knowing his seat on commercial airlines was always second on the left behind the bulkhead. And working with him taught Hollis that a man who always seems to have answers does so because he always asks the right questions first.

Hollis needed all of those skills to pull off his signature events.

When Michigan State and North Carolina took the stage on the USS Carl Vinson on Nov. 11, 2011, the only thing the nation saw was a made-for-TV spectacle. But who stopped to consider the late-afternoon tipoff was set not because it offered a prime-time broadcast slot on the East Coast, but because the dew point and humidity levels at that time of day would keep moisture from condensing on the court?

Who questioned how the game was even proposed, or wondered about the eight-year process Hollis spent pushing the concept diligently through the bureaucratic channels within the U.S. Navy?

There was legal trepidation and logistical concern – could a ship be guaranteed to be in dock when world events constantly called national security into question? There were television interests to consider, military needs to mind and two basketball squads to corral. Sailors knew how to manage ships; athletics department personnel knew how to manage games. But could they learn to work together?

Such barriers would keep many people from even attempting such an effort. But Hollis’ respect for the practical demands of his impractical aspirations helped them work through it. He had a way of reaching across the table to get people of varying expertise to combine their knowledge. Without that ability, the events may have fallen flat.

There was no precedent for Hollis’ visions. Nobody could lean on experience from previous projects and pinpoint every problem and solution. They needed one another’s expertise, knit together by a leader who may ask for the improbable, but could inspire them to believe it was possible. And when moments grew tense, Hollis’ calm confidence kept his team focused.

Nobody had more on the line for the Carrier Classic than Hollis. The game was already certain to lose money. The slightest error – if the president arrived later than he did, causing the storm that soaked the court 45 minutes after the final buzzer to arrive with time on the clock — could have presented a nationally televised embarrassment.

Everyone involved felt that strain. There were a half-dozen occasions when Adm. Dennis Moynihan, the head of communications for the Navy who provided Hollis a bureaucracy Sherpa, called at the end of a stressful day of conference calls to ask, “We’re going to be OK on this one, right?”

Hollis’ reassurance always eased the strain.

“Yeah, we’ll make it work,” he’d answer.

That composure held even in the tensest moments.

Three days before the Cold War, the Michigan State staff was scrambling to recruit student-athletes to scrape ice from their hockey complex, Munn Ice Arena, and rush it to Spartan Stadium. Temperatures rose to 78 degrees in East Lansing that day. Waves rippled across the melting ice, pushed by 23 mph winds. Key equipment was stalled at the Canadian border by post-9/11 security procedures. The NHL’s top ice alchemist, Dan Craig, rushed in to triage the stadium. He led a team of volunteers through the night to avert a disaster.

“It was brutal,” said Michigan State Deputy Athletics Director Greg Ianni, who has been Hollis’ right-hand man – assigned to manage the realities of his boss’ visions — from the Cold War through the Carrier Classic. “We got towels stuck under the boards so the water won’t leak out. I called Mark and I said, ‘Dude, we could be in a little trouble.’”

On that same day, Hollis spoke to the Detroit News as his staff anxiously asked student-athletes to call family in Chicago and ask for the temperature as they prayed that a stalled cold front would arrive in time to save the game.

“Everything is going well,” Hollis told the newspaper.

Then, a miracle: Temperatures dropped 23 degrees overnight, and stayed in the low 60s the next day. They fell to near freezing by the day of the game. The crowd bundled up in a nippy 41-degree stadium when the puck dropped.

“So he’s got a ticket with God,” Izzo joked.

But while it’s easy to dismiss as luck, other groups took Hollis’ templates and found inspiration ­— with mixed results. Seven years after the Cold War, the NHL initiated a regular tradition of playing an outdoor game in the middle of its season, termed the Winter Classic.

The NCAA brought the Final Four to Ford Field five years after the BasketBowl, copying Hollis’ design of placing a raised court, surrounded by temporary seating, on the 50-yard line. Centering the court, instead of placing it on one end of the field, eliminated the need to partition off much of the stadium’s permanent seating, led to a championship attendance record and opened the door for thousands more fans to attend future Final Fours.

And a year after the Carrier Classic, three games were scheduled on aircraft carriers — though two were canceled because of condensation on the court and the third was delayed two days when it threatened to rain.

The success of each of Hollis’ events has placed a target over Michigan State that energizes its operations team with a constant question: What’s next?

“You’ll be sitting with him and all of a sudden he’s saying something, and you better be paying attention. Pretty soon we’re going to have a field hockey game in a submarine.”

– Richard Bader, Michigan State’s director of sport operations

Playing with a purpose

Hollis is grinning again as he works his iPad to stream his latest event to his office television. This one won’t make SportsCenter, or even the local news. But the video shows Hollis’ creative mind in perpetual fifth gear, always looking for an open lane so it can hit the accelerator.

This time it’s simply a golf outing with eight of Hollis’ friends. The rest of the nation would simply send an email or make a phone call. But they would miss the potential entertainment value Hollis envisions.

He grabbed photos from the Web, laid down a heroic soundtrack, and stitched together a video of such epic weight that it seemed to be introducing The Masters. The simple golf outing — a time for drinks and laughs and a little friendly competition — became “The Classic at Boyne.” Each player’s picture and name burst from the screen as if forecasting ratings-bursting national viewership. Even the breakfast schedule played like a blockbuster moment.

Hollis’ staff and a representative from the Disney Institute consulting firm discuss a plan to improve the fan experience during Michigan State home games. Hollis believes that what makes Disney so successful as a brand is the magic guests feel when visiting one of its parks. He should know, having visited Disney theme parks more than 320 times … and counting.

But don’t mistake this for a special effort to impress friends, members of Hollis’ staff insist. This is Hollis in 45-minutes-to-spare mode. This is why, when he appears in their doorways with that cunning smile and beckons, they brace for the unpredictable.

“You’ll be sitting with him and all of a sudden he’s saying something, and you better be paying attention,” said Richard Bader, Michigan State’s director of sport operations. “Pretty soon we’re going to have a field hockey game in a submarine.”

Versions of that lighthearted joke can be heard across campus, but Hollis bristles at suggestions that his signature events are pure showmanship.

Yes, he’ll take the credit for the marketing wizardry. But there is always a purpose behind it, Hollis insists. The Cold War and BasketBowl, he says, were inspired by an opportunity to excite a state that was struggling economically. The Carrier Classic provided a stage to pay respect to U.S. troops.

It was not about money: The Cold War, which sold tickets for $18 or less, broke even. The Carrier Classic lost money.

“But for a moment in time, you’re creating a memory,” Hollis says. “And that’s very much part of our mission in college athletics.”

And Hollis is fixated on that mission. It’s why he joined the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee earlier this year – fulfilling a career-long goal – and chaired the NCAA Amateurism Cabinet for two years, leading efforts to examine the issues created by high-profile sporting events. He’s challenged the cabinet to define amateurism in modern college athletics and questioned whether the NCAA membership is going far enough to defend the virtues of its model.

Big-money television contracts are inescapable in the current athletics world. And as Hollis leads a tour across his campus, proudly showing off the facilities, he can’t escape the financial truths every major program faces. The current $24.5 million North End Zone Project at Spartan Stadium comes on the heels of a $10 million upgrade to the video board and audio system, and a $64 million expansion before that. It’s a competitive reality he must manage.

But his committee involvement also provides a podium to project his belief that administrators should be held accountable if they don’t spend their revenues in ways that support their student-athletes.

“We have put a lot of focus — and when I say we, presidents, athletic directors — into revenue generating; therefore, the public has also, and I think that’s natural,” Hollis said. “There’s a lot of good people in this business, and I think we all want the same thing. You obviously want to win, and I don’t think we should ever step away from that desire. It’s how you want to win and what do you want to have wrapped around you?”

Hollis’ approach: Make the experience memorable.

So his staff works to make even regular home games an experience. Last year, the Spartans men’s and women’s basketball teams played host to Division II Tuskegee — normally a good night for a StubHub selloff. So Michigan State invited members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen World War II squadron, whose national museum is in Detroit, to attend the game and be honored. The Commodores, the Hall of Fame band that started at Tuskegee, provided pregame entertainment.

And other high-profile events are in the works. As early as 2015, Hollis envisions Spartans and Trojans doing battle in Greece in a season-opening basketball matchup between Michigan State and Southern California in the original Olympic arena — Athens’ Panathenaic Stadium. Two years after that, another season-opening tipoff will gather 16 men’s teams and eight women’s squads in Portland, Ore., for an event honoring the 80th birthday of Nike founder Phil Knight.

They’ll add to a legacy of memories.

“It’s not quirky, and it’s not goofy. It’s real,” Izzo said. “And it’s helping give student-athletes the experience of a lifetime.”