Sports, for some, is the moment when life makes perfect sense.
When body and mind strike the perfect chord to achieve lift or strength or speed. There are rules and measures, and there’s agreement. There are sounds – the swish, the thunk against a board, the smack of a caught ball, the cheers. There are the people – the teammates, coaches and fans.
And at some point, there’s a buzzer. For everyone, there’s the end of a game, the end of a season, the end of an athletic career.
Unless. You find a way to stay.
You move off the court or field or arena to the sidelines or dugout or front office. And you find a new, powerful way to serve your team.
The following five alumni of the Mendoza College of Business — Ted Phillips, Stan Bowman, John Paxson, Brooks Boyer and Ruth Riley — have made that transition with grace and innovation, and now lead successful careers with professional sports teams.
Chicago Bears President and CEO Ted Phillips (ACCT ’79), a business mind who could have undoubtedly succeeded in any number of fields, gets right to the root of the question when asked why he chose a career in sports.
“Well,” he says, before pausing. “It’s fun. You work hard, but you get to have fun.”
In many ways, Phillip’s career has become a means to share that joy. He, along with so many in the sports world, fulfills the adulthood obligation of working while not yet surrendering the childhood prerogative of having a good time.
Phillips entered the workforce as an auditor at an accounting firm, where he spent four years. During his final year, however, a fortunate opportunity arrived with his newest client: the Chicago Bears.
Phillips, an ardent sports fan, worked on the team’s corporate tax and, needing a controller, the Bears eventually reached out to Phillips with a job offer. He accepted in 1983. Moving through the ranks, he became the director of finance in 1987, the vice president of operations in 1993, and finally the president and CEO in 1999, a position he still holds.
“I’ve gotten great opportunities, so I get a lot of thrill out of giving opportunities to other staff here, to challenge them in their jobs,” Phillips said. “You don’t always get that in your corporations, but here I’ve gotten that and I’ve tried to give those opportunities to others as well.”
His aim is to spread joy outside of the company as well, in the way that only sports can — the way that takes a meaningless game and suddenly makes it mean everything.
To Phillips, it’s the people watching those games who matter.
“Sports, the Bears — people gravitate toward it,” Phillips said. “It’s a great rush of positive feelings when you deliver on something that’s so important to so many people.”
Unlike many who work their way into the sports world, Stan Bowman’s path to the front office seems a bit more streamlined, as he was essentially born into the game of hockey.
Bowman (FIN/CAP2 ’95) is the son of Scotty Bowman, the 14-time Stanley Cup champion (nine as a head coach, five as a front office executive) and all-time winningest head coach. He wasn’t simply around the sport his entire life, but raised by hockey royalty. Even his name, Stanley, is based on the game’s highest prize.
“Hockey was what I was passionate about,” Bowman said. “I wasn’t talented enough to make it as a player, but I still wanted to be involved in the game of hockey because I was around it since I was a little kid.”
Joining the sport he was raised in, however, was not exactly a given, and Bowman needed to leverage not his family ties, but rather his computer abilities to finally make his dreams a reality. After graduating from Notre Dame in 1995, Bowman worked with software implementation for several years before he cold-called the Chicago Blackhawks with a résumé and a persuasive letter.
“They weren’t really hiring, I just made a case: ‘I think I can help you out, here’s some things I can do.’ I started doing a little budgeting and computer-related scouting work, and I created some rudimentary computer systems to track prospects. It’s all so advanced now, but at the time, they didn’t really have anybody doing that kind of work.”
The Blackhawks accepted Bowman’s proposal, moving him into the role of special assistant to the general manager in 2000. He climbed the ranks over the next nine years, eventually moving into the general manager role, and has since assembled three Stanley Cup-winning teams (2010, 2013, 2015). He also now works with his father, who is a senior advisor to hockey operations.
“I just wanted to be involved in the game,” Bowman said. “I always had my mind on looking down the road.”
Where Bowman worked diligently to make his birthright come true, John Paxson’s (MARK ’83) attitude toward his front-office career is straightforward: He’s fulfilling the role carved out for him, which he earned long ago at the onset of his playing career.
“It wasn’t my plan,” said Paxson, a two-time Academic All American athlete at Notre Dame and an 11-year veteran of the NBA who played guard for the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls. He served as Chicago’s assistant coach for one season, then tried his hand at radio broadcasting for nearly a decade before settling in as the Bulls’ executive vice president of Basketball Operations in 2003.
“I put all of my effort and energy into my playing career,” said Paxson. “But I felt that the longer I played, the more options I might have.”
Of course, a playing career sometimes sets into motion the sequences leading to a later-life sporting desk job. In broadcasting booths, head coaching positions and front office roles, former players are scattered throughout all professional leagues.
When Paxson’s time as a player inevitably ended, he felt that Notre Dame had prepared for the next step. He left college far more intellectually assured than when he entered.
“I always felt from an executive role, you can’t be the one who has all the answers, you have to put good people around you as well, so that where you’re deficient, they are strong,” Paxson said. “I learned a lot of those questions in the classroom and playing basketball at Notre Dame.”
That’s a stark contrast from Phillips and, to an even greater extent, Boyer (FIN/CAP2 ’94), who can’t help but rave about his life’s lot each time he speaks.
“This is great.” said Boyer, the senior vice president of sales and marketing for the Chicago White Sox. “Sports was what I did growing up and what I’m most passionate about. As long as I’m drawing my career path, I’m in sports forever.”
Boyer needed a lucky break to get into the front office, and when it arrived, he grabbed it and has held on ever since.
Boyer got his foot in the door of the professional sports world as a student and the two-year captain of the Irish basketball team. At a Chicago Bulls game, he met the head of business operations and expressed his desire to work in sports. He was offered an internship on the spot and accepted it. He subsequently moved through the entry levels with the Bulls before taking a job with the White Sox.
He is ever mindful of the business of sports. “Wins and losses matter,” he said. “If we lose a sponsor, that’s like losing a game. If we lose a season ticket holder, that’s like losing a game. If you keep them or gain them, it’s like winning. I’m still competitive.”
Still, he’s moved by the transcendentally beautiful moments that sports can offer.
“I remember during an exhibition game in Memphis when I convinced Michael Jordan to do a meet-and-greet with a family whose son was diagnosed with terminal cancer,” Boyer said. “To watch him walk into the room and light it up — just turn it on — it was quite amazing.”
To Ruth Riley (EMBA ’16, ’01), though, it’s even more than that.
Like Paxson, Riley, who was named general manager of the WNBA’s San Antonio Stars in April 2016, had a long professional basketball career. She was drafted fifth overall into the WNBA in 2001, and played two seasons in Miami before the franchise folded, putting her into the dispersal draft, where she was then taken No. 1 by Detroit.
Riley won two championships in her following four years, then went to San Antonio for five years, and finally finished her career in Chicago and Atlanta.
But around 2006, Riley found her way into the WNBA’s humanitarian programs, deliberately straying from the ex-player path paved by so many. Over the final half of her playing career, Riley’s priorities continued to shift until finally, when faced with the decision to leave sports for another industry, she decided to remain and use the resources she had built over her 14-year career.
“In grad school, I really wasn’t sure which avenue I wanted to go,” said Riley. “I was really passionate about the humanitarian work I was doing, and thought I might do that in a corporate or nonprofit setting.”
Riley currently works with NothingButNets, the United Nations Foundation’s Malaria initiative; the No Kid Hungry campaign; and the NBA/WNBA Cares program. In 2012, she cofounded InspireTransformation, which creates sustainable social improvement in South Africa.
To Riley, the reason for staying in sports is not unique in intention, but rather in action.
“A lot of people would probably like to do more. They just haven’t made it a priority,” Riley said. “Over the years, I have learned that while I liked to think of myself as a good person, my life would get swallowed up in a certain level of busyness unless I approach doing good with a similar act of preparation that I did with my basketball and now professional career.”
Of course, finding a way into sports requires not only intelligence and motivation, but also a great deal of luck, either through natural ability, heredity or pure chance.
Staying in sports does not. That’s a personal creed, one developed over time and maintained even through years of ladder climbing and uncertainty.
All five alumni unknowingly agreed that Notre Dame and their business studies played a pivotal role in defining this creed for them and helped shape them for success in a demanding industry that is like no other.
“Whether it be their talent, their competitive nature or their leadership, Notre Dame attracts a certain student-athlete,” Riley said.
Bowman agreed that the University’s culture and values are ideal to shape sports leaders. “You have to be a critical thinker, and what Notre Dame does is train you to be flexible and nimble,” he explained. “You have to work with people, you have to make decisions, you have to weigh information differently and properly, and the training needs to be in a lot of different disciplines, not just one area. I think that’s what you really learn at Notre Dame.”
And, of course, Notre Dame is the ideal place to experience the sheer joy of sports, which these alumni are grateful to continue to experience and give back in their professional lives.
Boyer got to see it because he works in sports, a dream-making industry if there ever was one. Phillips gets to see Chicago come alive on a Sunday afternoon watching his “product” take the field in front of millions. Bowman and Paxson trade, sign and negotiate, all to create that same bliss, and Riley gets right to the heart of it, directly helping people wherever her philanthropic missions take her.
All of them still live and die with wins and losses. All of them still compete.
“It’s kind of a joke,” Boyer said, “but I tell people I’ve never actually worked.”
And to many, that is to live the dream.