Tuesday, March 30, 2010
By BILL REITER
March 6, 2010
CLEVELAND | The Mercedes S550 pulls up to the hotel silver and sleek and shining with the gleam of money and power.
The man behind the wheel waves, and this alone is a minor miracle. With his slew of secret clients and the invisible strings he pulls across America’s sports landscape — including negotiating contracts that could cost two Kansas universities as much as $10 million in payouts to its former football coaches — it’s a wonder he showed up at all.
Neil Cornrich jumps lightly from his car, his black bouffant blowing in the wind, his Diesel jeans and sharp-looking black sweater completing the picture.
This is today’s super agent, a hybrid of disparate pieces cobbled together: Part warrior and part Buddha, part loyalist and part cunning adversary, part West Coast and part East Coast, part see-and-be-seen man about town and part mystery man.
Part true friend. Part skilled enemy.
“Let’s go see Cleveland,” the 52-year-old says as he climbs back into his car and hits the road. “Wait. Is that tape recorder on?”
It’s not, but please understand the man’s wariness. Cornrich is the guy who negotiated the contracts for Mark Mangino and Ron Prince, recipients of million-dollar go-away money. He has represented — or still does, because the secrecy makes it hard to know — football coaches Bill Belichick, the Stoops brothers, Jim Leavitt, Bo Pelini, NFL players Mike Vrabel, Dallas Clark and Aaron Kampman, and many, many others.
He’s the most important sports figure you’ve never heard of, which is just the way he likes it. He rarely gives interviews, rarely allows the public to peer into his private world and, for all his cool and calm, seems a little perplexed he agreed at all to this intrusion.
“I don’t want the spotlight,” he says later. “Are you writing that down?”
Of course this is being written down. No one knows anything about Neil Cornrich.
• • •
The man likes control. Control over his career, his car, his adversaries, this drive. He’s gotten where he has by being better than everyone else. That starts by dictating what needs to be dictated.
He hits the accelerator and the Mercedes shoots forward. Then the car slams to a halt, jarringly fast.
“What is this traffic!”
Cornrich swears with frustration. Even traffic jams should bend to his will. The lanes to the right — where he’s stuck — are gridlocked, but the left is a fast-buzzing blur.
The car creeps through bullets of moving traffic, and death seems certain. Finally, mercifully, there is open road.
“This is better,” Cornrich says merrily. “This’ll seem out of the way but don’t worry, we’ll circle back.”
Cornrich possesses a deep and jealous pride of his hometown, and the new route goes through its eastern heart. He fondly cruises through the tree-lined streets of Beachwood and Shaker Heights, where money and family and friends shaped him as a boy.
This is the Cornrich paradox: He is not what you think he is — a shady, slick, untrustworthy sports agent craving credit and the rush of fame — even though he is the things that fill out that caricature.
He is a hard-edged negotiator, he is and has been loathed by those he opposes, he does get better deals for his clients than most and, if you’re not careful, he can have you waking up one day, reading the fine print of a contract, muttering, “How did this happen?”
But in person, he seems more like a mix of a west-coast surfer in rich man’s clothes and an intellectual who spends his time at coffee shops pondering the meaning of man. He’s as likely to quote von Clausewitz’s “On War” as he is to show the shark beneath the welcoming smile.
“I don’t think he ever plays the tough guy,” says Mike Wahle, a former NFL Pro Bowl guard for Carolina and Cornrich client. “Never puffs his chest. Not a peacock. Never been a guy who’s trying to have a confrontation or make enemies. But at the same time, if he has leverage — or he knows he’s in control — he’s going to push the issue. He’s a tiger but he doesn’t often bare his teeth.”
Cornrich’s world revolves around his father and his two sisters and the memory of his mother. So now, as he talks at length about how his father taught him to be good to everyone, always, he does so with heartfelt conviction. Then he’s talking about what happens if peace meets the end of peace, using a theoretical story about a guy in a bar trying to start a fight.
“I’m going to tell the guy, ‘Look, I don’t want to fight. I don’t. We’re fine,” he says. “I don’t want to fight. Why fight? Peace is better. It is.
“I don’t want to go outside with him,” he says. “Even if he insists, I don’t want to. I want to be able to walk away.”
He’s quiet as the car hums.
“I don’t want to have to hurt him.”
• • •
The making of a sports agent from Cleveland goes something like this:
Be born into a close-knit family with wealth and a lot of love. Devour books. Admire unconditionally the father with the Bronze Star from fighting in Korea who became the extraordinarily successful lawyer and the mother who gave up teaching elementary school to be a stay-at-home mom.
Protect your sisters.
Play sports with a competitiveness that borders on obsession, from wrestling to tennis to boxing to football.
Make friends easily. Stay in touch. Go to the University of Michigan for undergrad and then go to Aspen for a few years to find yourself and then return home and enroll at Ohio State for law school. Think about the world deeply and plan with ambition and knowledge. Graduate, join the family practice. Tell your father, at whose law firm you work, that you want to be a sports agent.
Read the fine print, all the fine print, and understand better than your adversaries the nuances of the law and the rules and the bargaining agreements that will dictate the flow of money.
Hang up on your very first client, a promising Ohio State lineman named Kirk Lowdermilk, because you’re convinced it’s your friend Dave playing a joke on you. First, though, snap at Lowdermilk by saying something like, “Look, I just started for my dad’s firm and I have stuff I’m expected to do and I don’t want to get fired.” Then hang up.
When Lowdermilk calls back and insists he is, in fact, Lowdermilk, take the call.
With that client and the clients to come, see the negotiations like another wrestling match, a battle that if they take it personally afterward, well, hell, that’s on them. Fair is fair, even when one guy is beating the snot out of the other.
Have a handy response to the complexities of your makeup that goes like this: “Don’t confuse a person’s pleasant demeanor with a lack of resolve.”
Think to do things like include a clause in Dana Stubblefield’s contract that bars his team from designating him with the franchise tag, setting up a financial windfall and that leads Len Pasquarelli to gush you look “like the smartest man in America.”
Make Mike Wahle the highest-paid interior lineman at the time with a $28.5 million deal. Land $42 million — including $27.5 over the first three years — for the Colts’ Dallas Clark, making him the highest-paid tight end ever, two years before he becomes a Pro Bowler. Point out to people this is 50 percent more money than the next closest player at that position.
Outmaneuver schools like Kansas State, so much so that a head coach with a 17-20 record is given a secret $3.2 million buyout.
Watch your business explode.
• • •
Kirk Ferentz wanted to be a head coach.
The Cleveland Browns were moving to Baltimore and his boss, Bill Belichick, was out of a job. Ferentz asked for advice and Belichick, before he left, told his young assistant: This is business. Get an agent.
Belichick gave two names. His own agent and Neil Cornrich.
Cornrich’s name stopped Ferentz cold. Was Belichick kidding? That guy was often loathed within the Browns organization, so much so they had an unprintable nickname for him.
“I’m kind of surprised you picked him,’” Ferentz remembered saying. “He said, ‘He’s one of the smartest guys out there.’ ”
Until then, Ferentz had intentionally kept Cornrich at arm’s length during his time in Cleveland. The agent, to put it bluntly, had handed the organization its lunch on several occasions.
Not so great if he’s the enemy. But not so bad when he’s your agent.
“His passion is negotiating,” says Ferentz, who two years later became the football coach at Iowa. “He is always on the cutting edge. Back in ’93 when free-agency began, he understood the way (it) was going to work and the bylaws of the NFL probably better then a lot of coaches and NFL executives did.”
That Ferentz started as a Cornrich adversary only to become a client and close friend is a telling transition. Cornrich says he wants peace but promises to win if there’s war, and it helps explains the love and hate surrounding the man and the pickle Kansas State — and many other institutions and teams who have sat opposite Cornrich at the bargaining table — finds themselves in.
During Cornrich’s negotiations last year with then-Kansas State athletic director Bob Krause, there were pleasantries by e-mail that masked the coming fury of lawsuits, accusations and counter accusations.
In the end, though, the e-mails read like not only a polite groundwork for negotiation but a carefully constructed effort to document Prince’s buyout. The e-mails are, many observers agree, a very smart tactic by a sports agent schooled at making people comfortable while getting what he wants and ensuring there’s proof of the agreement.
When Prince was fired, he was due a $1.2 million buyout. But K-State officials then discovered a “secret” agreement that outlined an additional $3.2 million in buyout payments and the school headed to court to challenge it. The school’s lawsuit alleged Cornrich had acted in bad faith and deliberately excluded K-State officials from the negotiations. It’s a claim Prince’s countersuit, which asks for an additional $3 million in punitive damages, denies.
At Kansas, Cornrich represented coach Mark Mangino, who after being forced to resign received a $3 million buyout.
In 2005, the NFL Players Association suspended Cornrich for a year after he testified as an expert witness against the estate of the late Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas, which was found to be a violation of the association’s conflict of interest policy.
There’s also the general fact that many people view Cornrich as a shady character, views that sound similar to those of Ferentz in 1996.
Nonetheless, Cornrich has landed huge contracts for many athletes and coaches, a fact his Web site can be quick to point. As he can be, if you can get him to talk.
In his very first negotiation, a young Cornrich convinced Lowdermilk, the third pick of the third round the 1985 draft, to hold out for a better signing bonus. Lowdermilk was skeptical. Some of the people who cared about him were skeptical (including Glen Mason, then an Ohio State assistant and a one-time KU coach, who tried to have Cornrich fired but later became his client).
Cornrich held firm, and had his first client hold out.
“They’re offering $65,000 to sign and a $70,000 signing bonus,” Cornrich said proudly. “He ended up getting a $251,000 bonus, which was basically three times the 30th pick. That was pretty good for my career.” Oh, and one more detail. “No. 30 was Isaac Holt (at) $80,000 and $75,000. So we crushed them.”
During the wooing process, Cornrich has presented at least one prospective client with articles and evidence that show other agents they’re considering are less than stellar. He plays hardball.
Given Cornrich’s love for Eastern culture and his propensity to mix bits of Gandhi and Buddha with sports stories and out-loud love letters to Cleveland, it is appropriate that his Yin and Yang are so starkly at odds: Loved by so many, loathed by so many, and totally at peace with the difference.
• • •
The Mercedes rolled through downtown Cleveland and into a cavernous concrete parking garage nearby Quicken Loans Arena.
Cornrich backed up his car very slowly. He got out. No other cars were even remotely near his vehicle. His Mercedes looked appropriately spaced between the lines but he didn’t think so. He pulled out, reversed again, looked again, and again was displeased.
He asked his passenger to get out of the car and indicate how he should maneuver the car. His passenger didn’t see how Cornrich could park any better — particularly in an empty garage. Cornrich proceeded to park until the Mercedes was perfectly aligned. This took a very long time.
Then, with such courtesy that it seemed disingenuous — though two days with him would show such grace that are a staple of his dealings with everyone he encountered — Cornrich walked toward the parking attendants to ask if it was OK that he’d parked where he had.
The two people, a man and a woman each wearing bright vests, looked at Cornrich as if as he were the strangest sight they’d ever seen — someone driving a sleek Mercedes asking their permission for anything.
Once inside the arena, Cornrich stepped into the luxury suite of Dan Gilbert, who owns the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Oscar Robertson was visiting in the corner. Bernie Kosar made a beeline for the food. Jerry West walked in looking decades younger than he is, which made Cornrich point and say, “Man, he looks good.” All-Star Antawn Jamison, who Cleveland had acquired in a trade the night before, sat in one of the red seats with worn wooden armrests. He was close enough to touch.
Cornrich pointed toward the crowd in front of him. “My sister’s at the game,” he said. “So is my nephew. So is my brother-in-law.”
He pointed straight ahead. “There’s Michael Milken.” Milken, the billionaire Cornrich had had dinner with a short time earlier. An appropriate dinner companion, given his dual reputation as a villain (for financial crimes that sent him to prison) and hero (for his philanthropic efforts and willingness to spend his fortune in the fight against cancer).
Outside the suite, people walked down the bowl of the arena to their seats and back again. People continued to spot Cornrich and shout to him, and vice versa.
One man gave a thumbs-up and waved.
“I saved that guy’s life,” said Cornrich, who as a child yanked his friend out the path of a speeding bus.
Another guy yelled out “Neil!”
“I just got that guy two tickets to the Super Bowl,” he said.
As the game wore on, Cornrich grew disinterested. He disappeared for a long time. When he returned he was ready to leave.
Cornrich, who is single but has a girlfriend who lives out west, wanted to go home. His dog needed to be let outside.
“This is what he does for a living, but he’s not caught up at all in it,” his sister Karen Hess said later. “He leads a very simple life. He’s not in this at all so he can be like, ‘I was at a Super Bowl party’ or the other lists and glitz of the sports world.”
As the game headed to overtime, Cornrich slipped out, unseen and unnoticed.
• • •
The people are beautiful. The instructor once walked the catwalks of America’s modeling scene. Cornrich, contorted and focused, scrunches himself into a position that does not look humanely possible.
The yoga studio is close to his work, and this place, too, mixes the many parts of the man. His sister is across the room. His mother is buried nearby, and during the drive over he stopped his car despite the traffic and pointed out her grave. She died four years ago, four months after a being told she had cancer.
The yoga, punctuated by music, is intense and brutal and strangely peaceful. The routine drives sweat to the mats beneath, and it is a battle between oneself. Cornrich, unlike some others, doesn’t falter.
Afterward, he drives to his country club, showers, throws on Kansas State warm-ups and has a quick lunch before driving to his office. There are dozens of signed footballs and pictures of clients, including one from Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli. Both men say he is a Cornrich friend but not a client.
“What else do you need to know?” Cornrich asks.
There’s so much. His successes and failures, his friends and enemies, his life as a sports agent and his attempts to stay rooted in his hometown. Why he keeps his clients secret, whether he’s the shark of the sports world or the Teddy bear of Cleveland. How a kid from here so ably learned the skill of shifting millions of sports dollars out of the pockets of some and into the bank accounts of others.
His answer is a parable about Gandhi during the revolution.
“People said, ‘We need violence,’ ” Cornrich says. “He said, ‘No we need to go do this, but we must do it right.’”
Cornrich leans forward.
“So Gandhi went on a train and traveled all over to spread his message. And one day a woman gets into to see him somehow. She asks him, ‘What is your message?’ ”
The woman wants something concrete, something to grasp on to, to explain away the great man and what he intends for India. She wants to know who Gandhi is, what he intends and whether it is his enemies or his friends who know him truly.
Gandhi answers, “Come back tomorrow.”
The next day, Gandhi hands her a tiny piece of paper.
Cornrich smiles: “She says, ‘Is this it?’ And he answers, ‘My life is my message.’