Friday, April 25, 2008
With a personal touch, Cornrich represents the best of his business
By Jodie Valade
March 30, 2008
In the beginning, Neil Cornrich wasn't always so smooth or savvy or worthy of the label of superagent to the stars of the football coaching world.
Fresh out of Ohio State's law school, and only a handful of years removed from his University of Michigan science degree, the man who is now praised as profoundly personable hung up on his first client.
It wasn't because Cornrich didn't want to represent Kirk Lowdermilk, the Ohio State center projected to be drafted in the early rounds of the 1985 NFL draft. It was because the Beachwood-born and -based Cornrich simply didn't believe his good fortune. He thought his friend David Medich, another Buckeyes football player, was playing a prank on him when the voice on the phone said it was Lowdermilk, and he wanted Cornrich to represent him.
“Dave, I’m busy,” Cornrich scoffed before slamming down the phone.
It rang again.
“Uh, this is Kirk Lowdermilk,” the voice said again. “I’d like to meet with you.”
Cornrich doesn’t know why Lowdermilk called back after that first hang-up, or why he didn’t hang up on his first client a second time. Or why Lowdermilk wanted to take a chance on an unproven and untested recent law school graduate to manage his life’s worth.
Lowdermilk, as far as he can remember 23 years later, just had a feeling.
Simple as that.
“Neil was young, but you could tell he was a very quality, stand-up person,” Lowdermilk says. “He’s a very trustworthy person, and in this business you’d better have somebody you can count on to give you good advice.”
Lowdermilk might have been the first, but in the years since that signing, the 50-year-old Cornrich has become one of the most coveted sports agents around.
He is particularly sought by college football coaches who seem to pass his name around like a favorite, from one to the other until most of the top names have his number on speed dial.
They want him to tell teams how much money they deserve, find clever ways to earn incentives, and see the whole negotiating process in his fresh, inventive way.
Lowdermilk was the first to put full faith in Cornrich when the agent told his only client not to report to Minnesota’s training camp after the Vikings drafted him. Cornrich calculated that Lowdermilk deserved more than Minnesota was offering, based on contracts others in similar situations had signed.
Cornrich’s first client took his first big gamble in 1985, missing the first 10 days of training camp.
Keeping a close watch on all the negotiations was Ohio State offensive line coach Glen Mason, who was skeptical of Lowdermilk’s decision to hire the inexperienced Cornrich. “Do you know what the heck you’re doing?” Mason asked the agent.
“Trust me,” Cornrich said.
“Neil was right,” Mason says now.
“He’s very smart. I don’t think he blinks easily. He does his homework and has a firm belief of what someone’s going to demand in the market.”
Lowdermilk’s contract when he finally signed with the Vikings included a $210,000 signing bonus, far ahead of other Minnesota draft picks, including second-round pick Issiac Holt, who earned $85,000 for signing.
But the greater impact that signing made was instilling Mason’s faith in Cornrich. The coach then hired the agent to represent him, and that was when Cornrich discovered the untapped market that he has cornered now: agent to coaches.
When Mason needed help with his head coaching contract at Kansas, he consulted with Cornrich. Then, with word-of-mouth recommendations, the snowball began to grow, and coaches — college coaches in particular — began hiring Cornrich to represent them.
“The word ‘agent’ used to be a bad word in our business,” Mason says. “When I first used Neil, I said, ‘I have an attorney. He’s an attorney who represents my legal interest.’ Now, everybody’s got agents — assistant coaches, everyone.”
Almost everyone with any kind of Ohio connection ends up as a Cornrich client, including Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops (from Youngstown), Arizona coach Mike Stoops (from Youngstown), Nebraska coach Bo Pelini (also from Youngstown), Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz (former Browns assistant coach), and on the pro level, the Patriots’ Bill Belichick (former Browns coach).
Cornrich and Memphis-based agent Jimmy Sexton represent the bulk of major college coaches in an era where salaries routinely top $1 million annually, and are as high as the $6 million Bob Stoops will receive this year — with the help of a Cornrich-negotiated $3 million bonus earned for his 10th season coaching the Sooners.
“He’s had coaches hire him who have never met him, they just hire him over the telephone,” says Sidney Cornrich, Neil’s father and a lawyer who shares their Beachwood office at Cornrich & Cornrich LPA. “He didn’t start writing letters to every coach in the country saying he wants to represent him.”
He collects athletes with Ohio ties, too, though in smaller numbers, including former Ohio State players such as Miami Dolphins receiver Ted Ginn Jr., New England linebacker Mike Vrabel, Buffalo safety Donte Whitner and retired Minnesota running back Robert Smith.
That is in addition to the other Northeast Ohio clients he has, a list that includes Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, Browns defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, and Browns general manager Phil Savage.
The one blemish on Cornrich’s record is a one-year NFL Player’s Association mandated suspension in 2005-06, a year he couldn’t negotiate NFL contracts as punishment for serving as an expert witness against the estate of former Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas.
Cornrich was paid $1,000 per hour by General Motors to testify in a deposition what Thomas’ earning capacity would have been had he not been killed in a car accident in 2000. Another high-profile NFL agent, Leigh Steinberg, testified on behalf of the Thomas estate.
“Simply from the perspective of an agent testifying against a player, a deceased player, there are some issues there,” NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw said then. “It is upsetting that he got paid $1,000 an hour to do it.”
Cornrich says now that he learned from the experience, and is particularly more aware of how consideration of the NFLPA must influence his decisions.
“In retrospect, I wish I would have spoken to the NFLPA once General Motors requested my expert opinion. . . . I should have been more sensitive to the Association’s views of my involvement as an agent,” Cornrich says.
Despite the transgression, players and coaches alike, from Ohio and outside the state, continue to seek out Cornrich because of his undeniable results. His contracts — like the recent extension making Indianapolis tight end Dallas Clark the highest paid at his position — are consistently among the top paying.
“He has a very unique approach and thinks about things differently,” says Smith, a former OSU star. “His creativity and intelligence are why his contracts end up being better than anybody else’s.”
Smith’s rookie year in 1993 was the first of a new collective bargaining agreement for the NFL. Smith says Cornrich’s understanding of the CBA led to both him and another client — San Francisco defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield — signing two-year contracts instead of longer-term deals that would have locked them into their original deals — a move that was innovative at the time.
“That’s something that the union didn’t even consider,” Smith said. “It was an unprecedented deal, an unprecedented change in the collective bargaining agreement.”
Cornrich is more proud of his successful challenge of Smith’s “franchise player” designation by Minnesota in 1997, a challenge that allowed the running back to become a free agent after two years instead of chaining him to the Vikings.
“There were some anxious moments negotiating that,” remembers Jeff Diamond, then the Vikings general manager and now CEO of the Ingram Group, a consulting firm in Nashville, Tenn.
“[But] whenever I dealt with Neil, it was never antagonistic. He was always creative, he was innovative, he was willing to work with me on different ideas.”
Once, Diamond says, Cornrich even negotiated from a prone position — stretched out flat in a hotel after his back went out. Diamond laughs at the memory.
“He keeps things at an even keel, and it doesn’t get overly intense,” Diamond says. “He’s the kind of guy you can have some fun with when you’re talking to him.”
Athletes and coaches also praise Cornrich’s personal touch, an approach that leads him to call his clients “friends” — a sentiment they echo.
For instance, former Ohio State linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer stopped playing football after suffering a neck injury with the Patriots in 2001, but his mother, Diane, still calls Cornrich a couple of times a month.
“When you meet somebody exceptional and you find that you have a great deal in common with that person, and you agree on a philosophy of life, that person needs to be a friend,” Diane Katzenmoyer says.
And when Sidney Cornrich threw his son a surprise 50th birthday party last year, coaches and athletes from across the country flew to Cleveland to celebrate. “A lot of guys need a friend when they hire an agent,” Vrabel says. “I knew I had enough friends, and I needed a really good agent. But that said, we are friends.”
Clients as friends isn’t always unique among agents, but Cornrich’s clients still say there is something different about their agent.
Smith also serves on the NFLPA’s committee for agent regulation and discipline, and has seen first-hand other issues with agents. “We’ve had cases where agents are the worst stereotype,” Smith says, “and he’s about as far as you can get from that.”