It has been a hectic time for Jerry Colangelo, 76, who has built an almost 50-year career in sports management, from the youngest general manager in pro sports with the Phoenix Suns in 1968; a former owner of the Suns, Diamondbacks, Rattlers and Coyotes; to chairman of the Board of Governors for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and head of USA Basketball since 2005.
Named manager of basketball operations on Dec. 7 for the Philadelphia 76ers, he spoke with USA Today High School Sports recently in between flying back and forth from Phoenix to Philadelphia and back to Phoenix.
“I just keep rolling along,” Colangelo says, ready to discuss what he is passionate about: encouraging youth as they plan careers in the business of sports. In 2011, the Colangelo School of Sports Business was founded at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, creating the program from scratch. (In 2014, GCU named the entire school of business after him.)
“I think it’s important for young people to have a grasp as to what the industry looks like. When we say sports, that’s very general,” he says. “Back in 1966 when I was part of the Chicago Bulls start-up, professional sports was kind of a mom and pop operation. It wasn’t very sophisticated.
“When you look at where the world of professional sports is today, it’s a multibillion dollar industry. And it’s a worldwide space just in professional sports. Let alone how college sports have become a big business,” he explains. “So I think it’s important for someone to look at that space and say, where do I fit in? Where’s my level of interest? Is it marketing? Public relations? Analytics? On the talent side?”
Colangelo believes in education and development. He advises students to focus on specific areas of interest. “Then it’s a matter of going through programs, hopefully getting opportunities to work in an organization, professional or collegiate, spend some time in the summers in working your way through.”
He recommends students do whatever it takes, even if it’s selling popcorn.
“Get experience in every way you can,” he says. “Be willing to take menial tasks, knock on doors, be aggressive in that sense. Don’t wait for someone to come to you. Get out there and earn your spot.”
Colangelo often speaks to classes. “I try to communicate with them first of all, how does one get ready for life?” he says. “No. 1, learn how to communicate, learn how to relate to people. That goes such a long way.”
He says the business of sports is relational.
“When I see kids with their iPhones or iPads or whatever not really paying attention, I’ll single them out just to make a point. If I’m taking my time — which I consider precious at my age–to come here to talk with you, show respect, pay attention, because that’s why you’re here, to learn something. There are those who all they really want to know is, ‘How do I get my first job?’”
He advises students: “Go through curriculum. You need to do an internship or more. You need to get your foot in the door, you need to take any opportunity you have and make the most of it. It’s very competitive out there, so how do you set yourself apart? There’s no automatics. You need to earn your keep in this life. So I try to educate young people, especially on what it’s like out there, what’s the real world like?”
Though competitive, he believes “it’s a big world” and opportunities exist for hard workers. When asked about a crowded job market, he answers: “I think the job market in the world of sports is something that’s going to vary, and it’s a moving target if you will.” He pauses and considers the positives.
“You’ve got to say that as sports continue to expand worldwide, and we have a global economy, that there’s more opportunities internationally, opportunities that weren’t available 10 years ago. So technology, which has such a huge platform, opened up an incredible number of jobs that didn’t exist 10 years ago.
“Because we’re in a growth mode, and there’s going to be more professional teams and more professional sports and it’s all global, that speaks well to the future and opportunities that might come into play.
“But it also means it’s very competitive, and you need to mind your Ps and Qs and get your work done and learn to compete in the classroom — because that’s going to help.”
After all, suggests the mogul, a sports management career “could be a lot of fun.”