This weekend, Andy Dolich will no longer know where to turn. In the 90s, he had a brief stint as president of the Golden State Warriors during a change in ownership. And then for most of the 2000s, he oversaw business operations when the NBA’s Grizzlies moved from Vancouver to Memphis.
Saturday in the Bay Area, where Dolich has spent most of his professional life, what promises to be the most intriguing series of the NBA playoffs will land from Memphis as two of his former teams face off in the third in a seven-game mini-marathon, making it to the Western Conference semifinals and quarterfinals overall.
“I was very happy when the Warriors won Game 1 in Memphis,” he told me from his office in Silicon Valley during our phone conversation Wednesday night. “I was very happy when [Grizzlies star] Ja Morant played out of his skull [in Game Two on Tuesday]. Incredible. And I want it to be seven games. I don’t know if that will be the case. But wow, both games were amazing. Just absolutely incredibly exciting.
A good friend of mine told me I needed to log on and chat with Andy Dolich and I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Reading his CV certainly intrigued me – a five-decade career in which he held leadership positions in major professional sports; the big four, NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL as well as stints in professional football and lacrosse.
Most intriguing, to me anyway, was his 14 years with the Oakland A’s, amid which they won the 1989 Battle of the Bay against the San Francisco Giants to secure that year’s World Series- the. We ended up going 30 minutes over time.
“I was able to get into the business before it became a business in the early 70s,” he said. “And it was just a path for me that turned out to be way more amazing than I could have ever imagined.
“My work was really on the business side of these franchises, as the sport was starting to become a real big business.”
In 1972, Dolich was one of the first graduates of the first class of the world’s premier sports management program for aspiring executives. Ohio University (not to be confused with Ohio State University) celebrates a historic 50-year anniversary this weekend, with more to come in a bit.
When I asked him to elaborate on what that era of sports was like before Ohio University sent the world’s first sports business graduates, he laughed and said he would send me some something later to explain to me.
The 75-year-old was supposed to go play basketball first, but soon enough an email with a link to a 2010 Sports Illustrated article, in part about Dolich, appeared in my inbox with the header: “Answer your question about getting started in sports”.
Frank Hughes was writing about the then New Jersey Nets (now in Brooklyn) flirting dangerously with “achieving” the worst regular season record in NBA history. In the end, they failed to dethrone the 1973 version of the Philadelphia 76ers whose feat of nine wins was reduced to seven by the 2012 Charlotte Bobcats a few seasons after the Nets struggled to earn 10 wins. .
Dolich couldn’t have launched his career on a lower level and the introductory paragraph of this 2010 Sports Illustrated piece by Hughes captures it pretty perfectly, so I basically bring it up here:
Andy Dolich was a 25-year-old trainee of the then general manager. These were the pre-Magic and pre-Bird days of the NBA, when front desk staff not only sold tickets but also acted as video coordinators, drivers, promoters and campaigners. And so Dolich was sitting by the side of the yard when he saw [player] Charlie Tharpe, with vomit seeping through his fat fingers and onto the moldy college gymnasium floor, walks up to Roy Rubin and asks, “Coach, what do I do with this?” At that point, assistant coach Paul Lizzo turned to Rubin and proclaimed, “Holy shit, we’re screwed. We’re totally screwed.”
The Sixers general manager was a man named Don DeJardin and as the organization crumbled around him following the departure of Wilt Chamberlain, one of the greatest players of all time, DeJardin had the foresight to tap into the Ohio University curriculum on the cheap. recruits who could help boost ticket sales, Dolich and three others from the program.
It had to start somewhere.
“There just wasn’t a sports business,” Dolich told me by way of background.
“I mean, yeah, there was the Dodgers, the Yankees, the football Giants, the baseball Giants. But they weren’t selling seats for $1,000. They had no suites. You had a hot dog and a beer and a coke. That was it. They didn’t have VIP parking. ESPN did not exist. You had a front office of maybe 10 people versus the 300 people needed to lead an individual team today. There were no subscriptions.
“So I was very, very lucky in the early 70s to get into the first sports management program in the United States.”
Dolich was born in Brooklyn, raised on Long Island, and eventually transplanted to the West Coast.
A familiar story in many walks of life, but most realized in the sport of baseball whose Dodgers and Giants raised bats from Brooklyn and Manhattan to LA and San Francisco in the late 1950s.
But what blew my mind was that it was Walter O’Malley, the controversial visionary who took over the Dodgers and moved them west after they were thwarted in his attempts to build a new stadium, who endowed the money to launch the world’s first sports administration program.
O’Malley had first taken the idea to Columbia University, which had recoiled in horror at the idea of an Ivy League institution lowering itself to the status of an athletic university.
“O’Malley was a visionary,” says Dolich. “It was literally in the late 1950s when he was telling anyone who would listen that ‘sport is going to be a gigantic business’. And of course people were laughing at him.
“By the way, O’Malley bought the Brooklyn Dodgers for $800,000. What is it worth today? $3.8 billion, $4.5 billion?
The westernmost team where Major League Baseball had a team was the St. Louis Cardinals, and O’Malley also needed to look west to kick off his athletic program in Athens County, Illinois. ‘Ohio.
In the 1950s, O’Malley and Columbia University professor Dr. Clifford Brownell shared ideas about how baseball could and should evolve as a business. The Dodgers owner was frustrated with the lack of business acumen at his ball club. In its ideal world, a university would train students in areas such as player contract negotiation, facilities management and marketing to ultimately improve on-field performance.
Brownell planted those seeds later for a doctoral student named James Mason who returned to O’Malley and the Dodgers a decade later with the idea of starting a program at Ohio University.
“There are about 2,400 of us around the world,” Dolich told me.
“I love the program and I’m a member of the board. It is simply amazing to see where these men and women have worked in their careers all over the world. And it was because of the vision of a man, Walter O’Malley. Today, there are 375 masters or bachelors degrees in sports management in the United States. 375! There shouldn’t be because many of them are just stealing tuition from young men and women who believe there is an opportunity and they don’t. They won’t help them. Dolich won’t stop playing basketball in his 70s and he won’t stop thinking about the many voids the sport has yet to fill.
“Does the tech world really understand sports? And vice versa? Does sport really understand the incredible global power of technology? My answer is no.”
But it is also disturbed by the deep problems facing grassroots sports, the lack of access for young athletes without means, the negative impacts of overambitious/deluded parents, the emphasis on conquest rather than team building.
Dolich happened to be working at the Washington Diplomats as the now defunct NASL began its short, sharp era of professional football in the United States. There, their star for a season was Johann Cruyff. Thus, the still young sports executive learned early on the immense power of the most famous approach to youth development.
“Truly an amazing human being and an amazing footballer too,” he recalled.
We finish so he can come out to shoot some hoops.
“Healthy body, healthy mind,” is his mantra, he says, and there is no sign of letting up.