Remembering A Sports Business Pioneer…Mike Cohen…25 Years After His Passing…

It is amazing that it is 25 years this month that the sports business world, just growing at the time, prematurely lost a legend, someone who set the tone and helped create the sports and entertainment communication industry as it exists today.

His name was Mike Cohen and some called him “Inky,” because throughout his career that is what Mike got for his clients. Whether he was a Jewish publicist for a Catholic university (Manhattan College) or if he was pioneering the part of the publicity industry that dealt with announcers, directors and TV shows (when he was head of publicity for NBC Sports) there was no one better than Mike.

Cohen’s  life was based on the relationships he had in the media, and how he was able to take those relationships and make “name clients” bigger or rising clients  important.  Mike took the time to listen, strategize and plan the careers of people like Bob Costas, Spencer Ross, Marty Glickman, Steve Sabol and Marv Albert, as well directors like Michael Weisman and a seemingly neverending list of boxing promoters  and businesspeople,  and come up with unique human elements about their style that he could take and work his relationships with the media to make them into stories themselves. He also had a flair for the underdog as well, working with jockeys and trainers at places like Yonkers Raceway as well as baseball scouts, finding media opportunities for all along the way through his never-ending and always overflowing rolodex. Mike was the quintessential relationship builder, and his legacy lives on today in the form of some of the great professionals in this country who worked for and under him. His company, Mike Cohen. Communications, became part of industry leader Taylor Communications following his untimely passing that September of 1988 and that company, with many of the people who learned directly from Mike, is now Taylor, one of the world’s most elite brand strategy firms specializing in sport.

I had been in the business a few years after interning with Mike and his able bodied right hand man, Bryan Harris, while I was a senior at Fordham. Mike taught me how to find a story, how to cultivate relationships and how to build a network. As was the case every few months, he would check in, or I would call him to talk about what I was doing and to get a critique on how to improve my work, which was then as Assistant Director of Marketing and Public Relations at SportsChannel America, the precursor to what are now the myriad of regional networks across the country. Mike had brought me not one, but two opportunities…Sports Information Director at both Manhattan College and Fordham University. He had called me before he left his Rockland home that September morning to talk about which option would be best for me as a career move. We had a quick conversation because he was heading off to support one of his biggest pet projects, the Baseball Scouts, and his never-ending quest to get scouts who had signed thousands of players recognition not just by the media but by the Hall of Fame. They were having their annual softball outing that day. We agreed to talk after the outing and after I was done with work on Long Island that day. I came home to Brooklyn that night and immediately called Mike’s house, eager to get his advice for what would be next. What Mike said, I, and many others did.

Even 25 years later I remember it very clearly. I was in my basement calling and a young boy…one of Mike’s sons (who have gone on to amazing careers) answered the phone. I asked to speak to Mike and there was silence and a woman got on the phone. I eagerly explained why I needed to talk to Mike and again…silence. She then said that Mike had a heart attack and passed away that afternoon.  At a relatively young age I had suffered some personal losses, but none as shocking and sudden as this. I thanked her, she was staying with the boys as Mike’s wife Linda was out of the house, and hung up the phone.  I had lost my mentor…one that has never really been replaced…and the industry lost one of its guiding hands, a man whose impact could never be overtly measured by the public but who’s behind the scenes influence spoke volumes.

I remember going to Mike’s funeral with one of my bosses, Mike Lardner and his wife Leandra Reilly (Mike had a great influence on their lives as well, as Leandra was a finalist to be the first woman to call an NFL game on NBC, a spot which eventually went to Gayle Sierens). The room of course was packed not just with famous faces but with people from the neighborhood, coaches and scouts who Mike influenced. He had also passed during the Seoul Olympics, meaning that so many of his NBC family were a world away, and if they had been back in New York, the crowd would have needed its own stadium. Of all the people that spoke that day, the one I remember most was the legendary Marty Glickman, who looked at Mike’s two sons and said simply in closing his remarks…”Your old man was a mensch, someone who would do anything for anybody…it’s not something that can be measured sometimes in dollars but it can be measured in character and the impact he had on others, and that impact will never be forgotten.”

Mike’s impact is still felt today in a media industry which he helped shape and would still be loving, even though he was with us for less than 45 years when he passed. The luminaries of the business are people he was there with at the beginnings of their careers, especially in broadcast and boxing, two areas which he excelled in. There is also “The Mike Cohen Award,” given out to the MVP of the Fordham-Manhattan basketball game when it is played at Fordham’s Rose Hill Gym every other year. Most years some of Mike’s friends and family will gather for dinner and the game and to present the award after the game, and the brief introduction tries to amplify the impact of a man in the industry which, frankly is hard to explain in just a few words. Regardless it is still a very nice gesture and a chance to pay homage to one who deserves it.

I still think about what Mike taught me almost every day…work hard, be honest, don’t betray your sources, listen to people, write well, help others, and tell good stories…they are the basis for what I think has been a pretty good career thus far, all influenced by a bear of a man who took me under his wing, someone we lost just over a quarter century ago. Gone but never forgotten, Mr. Cohen. Your influence, both overt and subtle, will never be lost.