Illustrations by Israel G. Vargas
Feature image of Joe Castiglione ’67 by Jeffery Salter
From the Red Sox press box to the NBA boardroom, alumni are shaping the world of athletics.
Drew Esocoff ’79 is consumed by an electronic wall that displays more than 100 images of various sizes. It’s an overwhelming array of video feeds and high-tech graphics, the most important of which are three rows of 8-inch-wide images near the bottom. They come from 30 cameras positioned inside the nearby stadium where the Philadelphia Eagles struggle to halt the Dallas Cowboys’ advance down the field.
Esocoff is also at the receiving end of a cacophony of words — from game officials, graphics editors, camera operators, and announcers Chris Colinsworth and Al Michaels. Responding to all of this with instantaneous decisions, Esocoff tells the technical director, who is sitting next to him in the mobile control room, to switch from one camera to another, insert graphic overlays, go to an on-field reporter, and replay a pass. Although the instructions are rapid, so brief as to be indecipherable to the unknowing, his tone is calm and the directions are invariably precise.
The product of Esocoff’s orchestration can be seen on the program monitor, which is in the center of the wall. It shows what the rest of the world knows as NBC’s Sunday Night Football. For the last 14 years, Esocoff has directed the show.
He took a job on Wall Street after graduation but knew almost immediately that it wasn’t for him. After leaving Wall Street, Esocoff found a series of part-time jobs announcing games, but full-time positions were rare. Eventually, in 1983, he landed a production assistant role at ESPN, the then fledgling network that was founded just four years earlier.
Esocoff is among the expanding group of alumni who have found careers in the sports world. Each alumni story is unique, but interviews reveal a number of common themes, starting with a lifelong love of sports. And, more so than most, their careers are marked by serendipity. Unlike jobs in finance or the corporate world, there are no training programs or established paths.
Can You Believe It?
Joe Castiglione ’68 has been the radio voice of the Boston Red Sox for 37 years. As a kid, he enjoyed playing every available sport, but at age 10, he realized he would never be good enough to play for the New York Yankees. So, he hatched a new plan: He would announce their games.
At Colgate, Castiglione announced football and basketball games for WRCU. After graduation, he worked for radio and TV stations in Syracuse; Youngstown, Ohio; and Cleveland, where he became the Indians’ announcer. In 1983, he was offered the same job by the Red Sox. “If I couldn’t do the Yankees, it was the next best thing,” Castiglione says. Broadcast by 60 radio stations, his voice is so well known that people overhearing him on the street frequently turn their heads with varying degrees of recognition.
His exuberant reaction to the team’s 2004 World Series victory is particularly well known. “Can you believe it?” he declared repeatedly. Those words have since become a personal trademark. Castiglione is often tempted to redeploy the phrase, but he does his best to save it for “really big moments,” not more than 10 occasions a season.
Castiglione’s most important tool is the ultimate in old school: a large, plastic-covered book in which he records batters’ and pitchers’ performances with different-colored pens. Strikeouts and walks are marked in red, hits in blue, homeruns in green. “You can’t fake baseball,” he says. “Everything that happens builds on what happened before, so I need to understand the players inside and out.” Castiglione creates a new book for every season; the earlier volumes can be found in the New England Sports Museum.
But he acknowledges that technology, in the form of his iPhone, has changed the way he does his job: He uses it to mine rich statistical databases and identify human-interest stories. Given what seems like an ever-expanding length of games, background information is more important than ever before. “That 5-and-a-quarter-ounce sphere with 108 little red stitches is only in play for 8 to 10 minutes in the course of the game,” he says, “so I have to find other ways to sustain the broadcast.”
“I’ve always had the view that sports is a uniquely powerful form of entertainment,” says Chase Carey ’77, whose meteoric career is deeply rooted in sports. “In a world where more than 500 scripted television series are competing for audiences, the drama and emotion that comes from sports is unique. There’s only one Super Bowl, one World Cup, and one World Series.”
At Colgate, Carey joined the rugby club; he continued to play while a student at Harvard Business School and a few years afterward. His confidence in the commercial appeal of athletic competition helped to propel a steady advance at Rupert Murdoch’s sprawling media empire, which Carey joined in 1983. He negotiated for the rights to NFL games, helped launch Fox Sports, and ran Fox Broadcasting, among other responsibilities. In 2011, Murdoch named Carey as his probable successor.
In 2017, Carey became the CEO of Formula One, in which the fastest road-course race cars compete in 21 cities worldwide.
Until Carey took over, Formula One was run by its founder, Bernie Ecclestone, who saw no need for marketing, research departments, or a digital operation. Because Carey knows how those functions have fueled the growth of other sports franchises, he’s done a lot of hiring at his London headquarters. Carey attends every race and travels constantly, recently attending meetings on five continents in a single week.
Each race is a major event, and the participants move around the world like a modern-day circus. On the Monday before a race, eight 747 cargo planes descend upon the host city bearing cars and equipment. The days preceding the main race on Sunday are filled with preliminary competitions, concerts, children’s activities, merchandising, and celebrity-studded parties. The final race, says Carey, “delivers a combination of shock and awe, technology, and sporting competition that is like nothing else.” Afterward, everything is loaded back onto the 747s and, by 2 a.m. Monday, the circus is on its way to another city.
Part of a Family
Growing up in San Francisco, Kate Bergstrom ’11 started playing soccer not long after she could walk. She switched to lacrosse in high school and proved to be a quick study. She was recruited by the coach at the University of California, Berkeley, but just before a firm decision was made, her mother met Gary Ross ’77 — Colgate’s Jones and Wood Family Vice President for Admission and Financial Aid — at a college fair. He talked about Colgate’s new lacrosse coach with so much enthusiasm that the family scheduled a campus visit. Afterward, Bergstrom was sold. “Having grown up in a big city, it was a bit of a culture shock,” she says. “But the privilege of being an athlete is that you are immediately part of a family.”
Following graduation, Bergstrom became a paralegal in Boston. But she missed her life in athletics, so she started looking for entry-level sports jobs — few of which were available. Thanks to an introduction by Vicky Chun ’91, MA’94, Colgate’s then athletics director, Bergstrom met the commissioner of the America East Conference — a collegiate league with nine member schools, most of them in New England — which hired Bergstrom in 2015. She’s now the associate commissioner, in charge of finance, human resources, and several championship competitions.
“The number of people it takes to run successful athletics programs has expanded tremendously.”— Kate Bergstrom ’11
“The number of people it takes to run successful athletics programs has expanded tremendously,” she says. Bergstrom attributes this to the unending quest to improve performance, particularly the greater emphasis on nutrition and conditioning, as well as the increased importance of social media–based marketing.
“It’s incredibly satisfying to put on a successful tournament, and the people who work here have such a passion for sports that it makes it easy to come to work,” she says. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
From Student-Athlete to AD
Vicky Chun’s career spans the gamut of college athletics. Like Bergstrom’s, it began with youth programs in California. Chun and her parents were convinced she should go to an academically rigorous, Division I school in the east to play volleyball, and Chun chose Colgate. Her team won the Patriot League’s first championship in 1990, and, one year later, Chun was the league’s player of the year.
After graduation, she became Cornell’s assistant volleyball coach. Then, at age 24, she became the head coach of Colgate’s team, where she accumulated a coaching record of 67–27. In 1996, Chun was named coach of the year; she is believed to be the first person in NCAA history to win both player and coach of the year awards in the same conference. She left Colgate to work for the NCAA and a college athletics league, but later returned to become an associate athletics director. In 2012, Chun became Colgate’s first female athletics director. She left Colgate to become Yale’s first female athletics director last year.
Chun has always liked organizing teams. As a Colgate student, she started and coached a club volleyball team that’s still active. She claims to be an introvert, but most people would describe her as gregarious.
“I’m not your typical athletics director, and that’s not just because I’m an Asian woman,” she says. Chun adds that she stands out mostly because of the emphasis she puts on communicating, which includes frequent social media posts — everything from amusing photographs to articles about the nature of leadership. “You can’t just communicate,” she says. “You have to overcommunicate.”
Her commitment to transparency is well suited to what she views to be a major change in students’ expectations of coaches. “There was a time when coaches could compartmentalize their lives,” she says. “[But] today’s kids want to really get to know you, and they want to understand the whys. If you tell them to jump, they want to know why they’re jumping. If you trust them, they’ll go through a wall for you.”
Welcome to the NFL
One of Chun’s predecessors, Mark Murphy ’77, was recruited to play football at both Brown and Colgate, but he chose Colgate because it would allow him to also play a second sport, which turned out to be basketball his first year and baseball for the next three. But football was his main event, and he was a star. Murphy was captain his senior year, a season that was 8–1 going into the now legendary Thanksgiving night battle against Rutgers that was broadcast on national TV. (Colgate probably would have won if it weren’t for a call by one of the officials that was later determined to be erroneous.)
After graduation, Murphy became a professional athlete, and before his career even began, he learned a searing lesson on the downside of going pro. Washington Redskins coach George Allen told Murphy he was so eager to sign him up that he wanted to be with him on the day of the draft. Flying to D.C. that morning, Murphy was met at the airport by a Redskins staffer. But rather than delivering him to Allen, the staff member took him on an hours-long tour of the nation’s capital. By the time Murphy was finally brought to Allen, the coach said the draft was over and Murphy had gone unselected. In a world without cell phones, Murphy wasn’t able to talk to representatives of several other teams who had tried to reach him in Hamilton.
“They had no intention of drafting me,” he says. “And they were trying to hide me so no one else could either.”
All was not lost. Allen made it clear that he still wanted Murphy on his team; he’d just wanted to eliminate the need to use a draft pick. He offered Murphy a one-year contract to play for $21,000, more than the $18,000 that General Electric said it would pay Murphy to join its management training program. But then, in another twist, Allen imposed a condition: He needed an immediate decision, saying he was thinking about offering the position to a prospect from Oklahoma. “That,” Murphy says, “was my welcome to the NFL.”
“The relations we have with our players now are much different than when I was playing.”— Mark Murphy ’77
Murphy went on to have a successful career with the Redskins. The 1982 season ended at the Super Bowl, during which he made an interception that played an important role in his team’s defeat of the Miami Dolphins. During the 1983 season, he led the league in interceptions, was selected for the Pro Bowl, and, once again, the team made it to the Super Bowl.
But one year later, Murphy’s playing career ended. He believes it was because he had been a member of the players union’s bargaining committee during negotiations that led to a strike and the cancellation of seven games in 1982. After Murphy sprained his knee, the team’s then owner, Jack Kent Cook, asked him about the injury. Murphy started to say that he was close to a full recovery, but Cook cut him off, declaring, “You will never play again.” He was right. Murphy was released from the team and no other NFL team would talk to him. “If you were a players rep, you were usually cut,” Murphy says. “They viewed you as a radical.”
Fortunately, Murphy had started making plans for a different career, earning an MBA from American University during the off season and applying to Georgetown Law School. After graduating from Georgetown, he worked for the Justice Department as a trial lawyer. “I really enjoyed the work, but I missed athletics,” he says. So when he heard that Fred Dunlap ’50 — his football coach senior year and mentor — was retiring, he applied for the job.
“Colgate took a chance on me,” Murphy says, noting that he didn’t have any experience in sports administration when he was hired in 1992. But there were challenges. Early in his tenure, the football team posted a record of 0–11. For that, Murphy devised a solution: He recruited Dick Biddle to be the new head coach and brought Dunlap back to spend a year working as the offensive coach, which he did without pay. One year later, the team made it to the Patriot League’s championship game.
Murphy was not looking to leave, but in 2003, he was offered the athletics director position at Northwestern University. Four years later, he received an even more irresistible offer: to become the Green Bay Packers’ chief executive. The coach, the general manager, and the head of administration all report to Murphy. And because the team is owned by fans — 370,000 of them — he represents the team with the NFL. When team owners gather for meetings, he is the only former player to have a seat at the table.
Murphy says he frequently speaks up for player interests, but adds that he isn’t the only one. “The relations we have with our players now,” Murphy says, “are much different than when I was playing.”
The Next Best Thing
Dave Denenberg ’88 was barely 5 feet tall his first year in high school, but he never let that get in the way of basketball. “You can make your mark in other ways,” he says. Throughout his four years at Colgate, he was the team’s manager. He filmed games and practices, assisted with travel logistics, and, along the way, developed friendships with team members that have continued ever since.
Even at Harvard Law School, basketball remained an important part of his life. On more days than not, he’d play a pickup game that began at 4 p.m. and carried on until dinner. As he reminisced about those games recently at his office in the NBA’s Manhattan headquarters, where he is a senior executive, Denenberg had a cast on his right hand and arm — the result of injuries from the pickup games he still plays.
The games at Harvard were particularly competitive. One of the other regulars was a classmate from Hawaii with an unusual name: Barack Obama. “He was a very good slasher,” which is to say he frequently found a way to get the ball close enough to the net for a layup, says Denenberg. “He called some really cheap fouls, but he was a great guy and he ended up being the leader of whatever team he was on.”
After graduation, Denenberg took a traditional path, joining the Manhattan-based law firm Paul Hastings, where he spent much of his time preparing commercial aircraft leases. But a few years later, after he met a colleague’s husband who was the NBA’s general counsel, a new idea was born. In 1995, he went to work for the league. He started out handling contracts for the NBA’s expanding array of entertainment businesses, but he later moved into an executive role. He now manages media distribution partnerships and negotiates the league’s multi-billion-dollar contracts with major networks.
“I deal with 20 issues every day, and they all have something to do with basketball,” he says. “Not many kids get to play sports professionally. Working here is the next best thing.”