Hank Steinbrecher (right) with former U.S. Soccer president Dr. Bob Contiguglia. (Michael Lewis/FrontRowSoccer.com Photo)
By Michael Lewis
There is a good chance a ritual will be played out at the end of a game sometime this weekend.
As the final seconds of an NFL playoff game counts down, a player will sneak up on his coach and give him a Gatorade shower.
That gesture will signify triumph for that team.
What the millions of fans out there in TV land won’t realize is that became a tradition with the help of a football man, well, futbol man, Hank Steinbrecher.
Yes, that Hank Steinbrecher, a former college soccer coach and future secretary general of U.S. Soccer.
The Gatorade shower been a pro football ritual for more than three decades.
Steinbrecher, who had joined the Quaker Oats Co. as director of sports marketing in 1985. The company had just purchased Gatorade, an energy drink for athletes.
“How are you going to market with this drink?” Steinbrecher said in a One-on-One interview with Dean Linke at the United Soccer Coaches digital convention Thursday. “It was invented for athletes, University of Florida. Okay. But do you market it as a medicinal drink, because it’s very much like Pedialyte, or do you market it to the macho athlete? This replaces your energy.”
Bill Schmidt, the vice president of Gatorade Worldwide Sports Marketing, and Steinbrecher, who grew up in Levittown, N.Y., put their heads together.
“We start going out and talking to athletes, talking to everybody about in the athletic realm, about Gatorade,” Steinbrecher said. “Well, I’m an athlete. Bill Schmidt’s an athlete. We know it in here, what it feels like to be an athlete. And who controls the purchase of that product, and the athlete chain of supply is? It’s not the owner of a team. It’s not the president of the club. It’s not the general manager. It’s not the coach. It’s the athletic trainer. It’s the athletic trainer. The most overworked, underappreciated and underpaid person in the sport chain feeding chain.”
Gatorade became the first sponsor of the National Athletic Trainers Association. Gatorade paid for the organization’s convention and supplied it with “a good deal of money,” under a contract, Steinbrecher said.
“But a contract is only a contract. You really need to build relations,” he added. “So, we instituted the program where we decided we take a trainer to a dinner. So, if, let’s say, the New York Giants came to Chicago, we would not contact the GM or the owner or the star quarterback. We’d take the athletic trainers and his staff out to dinner at some of the finest restaurants in town.”
So, when the Giants came to Chicago, Schmidt and Steinbrecher took Giants trainer Ronnie Barnes, who at the time was the lone African American trainer, to dinner. Barnes praised the men.
“You guys are great and you understand it. We so much appreciate it,” Steinbrecher remembered Barnes saying. “Anything we can do for you in return, please let us know.”
To which Steinbrecher replied: “Funny you ask. When a quarterback comes off the field, we’re going supply you with cups, coolers, towels signage, everything. Make sure you take care of your staff, and the camera crews, because they never get any swag. But this label [Gatorade] goes outside in the quarterback’s hands, and anything you can think of that would bring positive attention to Gatorade, please do so.”
The Giants won their next game and linebacker Harry Carson got ahold of the Gatorade cooler and dunked an unsuspecting head coach Bill Parcells with it.
“Well, this is cool,” Steinbrecher said. “Next game, dunk. Next game, dunk. Next game, dunk. Next game, dunk. They’re on a roll. The CEO of Quaker Oats, not Gatorade came down [and said}: ‘So I have no idea what your boys do but keep it up.’
“We were getting publicity like it was unbelievable. So now we’re in the playoffs, and we get a call from Harry’s agent. Go figure. Harry’s agent said, ‘Listen, you guys are making tons of money. And my client’s not making anything. And he’s not going to do this any longer unless you sign him to a personal services contract.’
“What to do? Bill and I huddle. And I’m going reiterate: Bill is responsible for all this. I was managing it with him. But now what do you do? So, Bill and I hunker down and we talk about corporate policy. We do not do personal services contracts. They’re too dangerous led by us. Think of putting your name with an athlete who can go astray, really quickly.
“So, we just don’t do it. We call the agent figure. Well, we roll the dice. Next week, the dunk, the shower. Now we’re getting into the Super Bowl. Two weeks before the Super Bowl, Parcells’ agent calls and says, ‘Coach is not going to let this happen unless you sign him to a personal services contract.’ What do we do now? Corporate policy. We’ve got the CEO watching the Super Bowl, wanting to see a dunk at the end of it. Let’s be real, what are we going to do? So, Bill had this brilliant idea.”
They went to Brooks Brothers and purchase a pair of $10,000 gift certificates, put them in a golden box and sent them out to Parcells and Carson.
In the previous Giants’ game, Carson wore a disguise, wearing a trench coat, before he dumped the cooler on Parcells, we
“So, we sent out a little message: ‘Dear Harry, your Inspector Clouseau outfit needs a little bit of work. We hope this helps,’ ” Steinbrecher said. “Go to Parcells. ‘We, Gatorade, feel responsible for your poor wardrobe. Hope this helps.’ And we FedEx it to them. And we get calls from both of them. ‘My agent’s not going get a sniff of this,’ as it should be. The final, the Super Bowl, the dunk occurs.”
That happened at Super Bowl XXI, when the Giants defeated the Denver Broncos, 39-20, at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Jan. 25, 1987.
“Then it was replicated and replicated and replicated and replicated,” Steinbrecher said. “So, it became synonymous with victory. And you couldn’t ask for better marketing than that, but that process still must be managed. It still must be managed. Because now we have all the bean counters at Quaker Oats saying, ‘How do we get more cookies? We’ll turn the logo upside down.’ When they dumped the logo [it was] right side up.”
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