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Not Your Ordinary Joes

If we’re lucky, we all have a few important mentors in our lives.

People who have a huge influence on us, help launch and shape our careers, and provide ongoing counsel and wisdom. If we don’t get too proud or too successful to listen, they can help us become better people as well.

I’ve been fortunate to have several mentors who’ve had a tremendous, positive impact on me. I’ve written previously about one of them, the great Stanford icon Bob Murphy.

Today I recognize two others, two guys named Joe. My high school English and journalism teacher, Joe Stottlebower, and the man who hired me as sports information director at Stanford, athletic director Joe Ruetz.

I went to Homestead High School in Cupertino, where I was a few years ahead of Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. It was a great school, way ahead of its time with flexible scheduling and a faculty comprised of the best teachers in the district.

Joe Stottlebower was my sophomore English teacher. He told me late in the school year that he thought I had a natural talent for writing and should try to develop it. He suggested I join the staff of the student newspaper, the Epitaph, my junior year.

I did so, and through a fortuitous set of circumstances, immediately became sports editor. So I worked closely with him that year. Then, I was elected Editor of the paper for my senior year and worked even more closely with him on a daily basis.

Joe had so many great qualities that it would be hard for me to list them all. But I would, in particular, honor his kindness, patience, humility, optimism, knowledge, wisdom, and sense of humor. Throughout my career, the writing ability that he nurtured and honed was a huge part of any success I had.

His humility was really quite astounding. He told me he’d played high school basketball. Little did I know that his Bremerton, Washington, team had won the state championship his freshman year, finished second his sophomore year, would’ve won the state championship his junior year if the tournament hadn’t been cancelled because of World War II, and reached the semi-finals his senior year. He was second team All-State.

I didn’t know that he played at the University of Michigan after the war, where his team lost in the NCAA East Regional Finals to a Holy Cross team led by Bob Cousy.

I also didn’t know he was a war hero. Joe was in the Army’s 42nd Infantry Division in Europe in WWII and then was recalled to military duty for the Korean War after graduating from Michigan. While in Korea, he and another soldier rushed into an ammunition bunker that caught fire and doused the flames before the ammo could explode, saving hundreds of lives. He was awarded the Soldier’s Medal for his bravery.

Two of the things Joe taught me about mentoring—things I later utilized in my own career—were that you have to give young people authority as well as responsibility, and that you have to have their back.

When I became editor of the paper, I was the decision maker. Joe gave me advice, lots of it, but the decisions were mine. I didn’t just have the responsibility of running the paper, I had the authority to make personnel moves, assignments, story revisions, editorial opinions and news judgments.

We had a student teacher named Dan come in for a couple of months, a young eager beaver anxious to throw his weight around and second guess me. I asked Joe how to relate to him,

“It’s your paper,” he said. “Feel free to accept or reject anything he says.”

So I did. My typical response when I got one of Dan’s critiques was to say, “thanks for the input.”

At the time I was also writing sports columns for the hometown weekly, the Cupertino Courier. One week Dan clipped out my story and laid it on my desk, marked up with dozens, if not hundreds, of corrections and suggestions all marked in red.

I showed it to Joe and asked what I should do. “Just ignore it,” he laughed. So I did.

The other Joe, Joe Ruetz, took a chance on me when the aforementioned Bob Murphy left his position as Stanford Sports Information Director to run the East-West Shrine Game, and subsequently, Jack Nicklaus’ new Memorial Golf tournament in Columbus, Ohio.

He would leave very big shoes to fill, and the job opening attracted interest from SIDs from all over the country, as well as several pro league publicists.

I had worked part-time for Murph during my undergraduate years, then moved over to Stanford Medical Center to become Assistant Information Officer because I was getting married and needed a full-time job.

Joe Ruetz had played football at Notre Dame and coached at Stanford under Chuck Taylor. He had to give up coaching after a long battle with cancer and was working as a development officer when President Dick Lyman tabbed him to become AD.

When Title IX came along, most athletic directors tried to find a way around it. Not Joe. He called a meeting of the senior athletic staff and said Stanford would not only comply with Title IX, but develop the nation’s best women’s athletic program. And so we did.

Ruetz offered me the SID job on my 25th birthday, making me the youngest SID in the country. Like Joe Stottlebower, he understood the need to give me authority and to have my back.

In my first year, 1974, Stanford football was embroiled in a big quarterback controversy. To say it dominated the media would be a huge understatement. Head Coach Jack Christiansen made the decision to start the three candidates in the early games and then name a starter for the rest of the season. Only problem was, the guy he picked, Mike Cordova, had been outplayed by the two other QBs, Guy Benjamin and Jerry Waldvogel.

Understandably, Stanford fans were unhappy with Christiansen’s choice. And the outcry from the media was unrelenting, particularly from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Glenn Dickey, who seemed to relish any opportunity to offer searing criticism of Christiansen.

So one day Jack stormed down to my office, came right up to my desk chair, stood over me and began yelling. “Cavalli!” he screamed (he always called me by my last name), “that sonofabitch Glenn Dickey can’t come to our practices, our games, or anywhere near our team. Now he’s even affecting my family. I don’t want to see him. I don’t want him around. Do you understand?”

I looked up at Christiansen, an NFL Hall of Fame defensive back and kick returner who’d won several championships with the Detroit Lions. I’d never played football. He towered over me. His face was bright red. I was sweating.

“Chris,” I said in a voice as strong as I could muster under the circumstances. “I’m sorry, I can’t do that. The Chronicle is the biggest paper in the area. He’s their lead columnist. He has every right to be there. We may not like what he writes, but we can’t kick him out.”

This wasn’t what Christiansen wanted to hear.

He pounded my desk with his fist and said, “then I’m going to get your ass fired.” Then he marched upstairs to Ruetz’s office and demanded that Joe fire me.

Instead, Joe calmly explained that I was the SID, I had the authority to make those decisions. I was the expert in PR, and just as I wouldn’t tell Christiansen what plays to call (or which quarterback to start), he wasn’t going to tell me which writers could cover our games.

Ironically, after that very shaky start, Christiansen and I became good friends. When he was fired a couple of years later, he came down to my office, closed the door, and sobbed uncontrollably. I put my arm around him and comforted him as best I could.

Glenn Dickey was long forgotten.


Gary Cavalli - Bowl and League co-founder, author, speaker 

Gary Cavalli, the former Sports Information Director and Associate Athletic Director at Stanford University, was co-founder and executive director of the college football bowl game played in the Bay Area, and previously was co-founder and President of the American Basketball League.

Get in touch//@cavalli49//

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