Steve Brener, president of the California-based Brener Zwikel & Associates public-relations firm, had to chuckle at the analogy forwarded by a sports writer acquaintance of long standing. It was part of his job to create public interest in a seeming mismatch between heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and a 42-1 longshot named Buster Douglas. But Douglas shocked the world on Feb. 11, 1990, knocking out the supposedly invincible Tyson in the 10th round in what is widely considered to be the biggest upset in boxing history, maybe the biggest upset in all of sports.
“Sometimes there are surprises,” said Brener, whose firm’s business is about 40 percent boxing-related, with Showtime and MGM/Mirage Resorts among its major clients. “Anybody has a chance to defy the odds. Every football Sunday (in the NFL), with the parity that’s out there, you have a fighting man’s chance to do something that nobody expects.”
But even Buster Douglas’ impossible dream would have seemed a reasonable bet when compared against the latest challenge presented to Brener Zwikel, which involves a new client whose chances of gaining the desired prize would seem to be Powerball lottery-long. But somebody eventually holds the winning ticket after all his or her numbered ping-pong balls come up, and the reality is that you can’t win if you don’t at least attempt to play.
So here, cast in the no-chance role of Buster Douglas to the millionth power, is your Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, ranked No. 23 in the latest Associated Press and Coaches polls, but in reality much further down than that when it comes to gaining serious consideration for the four-team College Football Playoff, the first time there will be an actual tournament to determine a national champion in what is now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
As was previously the case, teams that are not members of the so-called five “power conferences” – that would be the Southeastern, Big Ten, Pac-10, Atlantic Coast and Big 12 – are holding nearly all the best cards in a high-stakes poker game, with even the best-positioned member of a less-influential conference (Marshall is in Conference USA) trying to bluff its way into winning the most lucrative pot with a skimpy hand. One of the factors that will be taken into consideration by the 12-member selection committee is strength of schedule, and despite the fact that Marshall is beating up on the teams it has played, including this past weekend’s 35-16 drubbing of Florida Atlantic, the Thundering Herd ranks just 125th among 128 FBS teams in SOS, ahead of only Georgia Southern, Texas State and Buffalo. Marshall could and probably will lay total waste to its remaining four regular-season opponents – that would be Southern Mississippi, Rice, Alabama-Birmingham and Western Kentucky (combined record: 14-16) – and the likelihood is that it wouldn’t budge the needle even a little insofar as gaining one of the four playoff berths.
But nobody can say that Conference USA, which initiated the contact with Brener Zwikel, isn’t making its very strongest case to have one of its representatives crash a party that almost certainly will consist solely of invitees from the blue-blooded prestige leagues.
“It’s a PR firm that does great work and we thought we really had a great story from a conference standpoint,” Courtney Morrison-Archer, a CUSA associate commissioner, said of the decision to bring in Brener Zwikel. “We’re excited to keep focusing on the great things around the (Marshall) program.”
Brener, whose company is perhaps best known for boxing (it has been a part of nine of the top 11 pay-per-view fights of all time) but which has also drawn assignments for such high-visibility sports concerns as the Super Bowl, soccer’s World Cup, thoroughbred racing’s Breeders’ Cup and various pro golf tour stops, isn’t afraid to get in there and make his pitch, regardless of the circumstances. BZA’s motto says it all: “We don’t wait for things to happen … We make them happen.”
“I wanted to be on the same page with the Marshall SIDs (sports information directors),” Brener said. “I certainly didn’t want to step on their toes, and I don’t think that’s the case. What we’re going to do is to reach out nationally to promote the Marshall football program and to educate folks about Marshall and what they’re doing this year. Bottom line, when those 12 individuals (on the selection committee) get in the room to decide the (final) rankings, we’re going to know we did all we could to provide them with any information about Marshall that can help them make their decision. There really isn’t any more to it than that.”
Brener makes it sound so simple, but his job and those of his top lieutenants – including BZA vice president Toby Zwikel and account executive John Beyrooty, his point man on many big-time boxing events – is all about the details, and there are quite a few of them that go into the overall fabric of a vast and complicated mosaic.
“Especially on a pay-per-view event, it’s a major undertaking,” Brener said of the task of making a big fight seem even bigger during the run-up stage to the opening bell. “It starts with the announcement tour, then you have the satellite tours, the weekly camp notes … just spreading the word and keeping the fight at the top of people’s minds. You want to maximize the awareness and the visibility of your event.”
Comparatively speaking, that wasn’t quite as difficult some years ago when Brener’s company was hyping PPV shows that were headlined by Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, superstars whose names were instantly recognizable to every fight fan and even non-fans. Sadly, that isn’t the case anymore.
“We’re not having as many major fights as we did in the past, during the Tyson/Holyfield era,” Brener acknowledged. “The heavyweights and the middleweights were getting a lot of attention then. Unfortunately, the heavyweight division has been overseas for several years now, so it’s lost a bit of its shine here in the States. That’s just how it goes sometimes.”
Brener, an inductee into the World Boxing Hall of Fame, didn’t start out in boxing. He was the 24-year-old publicity director of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the youngest person in Major League Baseball history ever to hold a team’s top PR position, and after 18 years there he moved on to horse racing at Hollywood Park, where he was the track’s vice president of marketing and public relations.
He founded Brener Zwikel in 1988 and, fortuitously, was asked by Top Rank honcho Bob Arum to facilitate media coverage of the great Sugar Ray Leonard toward the end of Leonard’s career. That association lasted four fights, including Leonard’s rematch with Tommy Hearns and the rubber match in his three-bout series with Roberto Duran.
Brener’s work with Leonard evolved into a long-standing relationship with Showtime that now has spanned 23 years, as well as a continuing deal with MGM/Mirage Resorts. But when you do something very well and for a very long time, a lot of interested parties will come knocking at your door – including CUSA, which wants more people to take note of a Marshall program that possibly could hang tough with the biggest of the big boys, if only given the opportunity. The idea is that, by banging the drum for the Thundering Herd, a bigger spotlight will be reflected onto the other members of the 14-team league.
It’s not a totally unreasonable premise. Marshall might be known for the worst tragedy ever in college football, the Nov. 14, 1970, airplane crash that claimed the lives of all 75 passengers aboard Southern Airlines Flight 932, including 37 players, an event depicted in the 2006 film, “We Are Marshall”), but hope often springs from the ashes of despair. The Thundering Herd was awful for a long time, with the worst record of any major college program from 1964 to ’83, including one stretch in which it went 0-26-1, but from 1984 to 2005 posted 21 consecutive winning seasons. Marshall – which was founded in 1837 and is named after John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the Supreme Court — won the 1992 and 1996 national championships in Division 1-AA (now the Football Championship Subdivision), and in recent years it has produced such NFL players as quarterbacks Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich, running back Ahmad Bradshaw, safety Chris Crocker, defensive end Vinny Curry and, most notably, wide receiver Randy Moss.
The Thundering Herd’s current star is quarterback Rakeem Cato, who has shattered most of the passing records set by Pennington and Leftwich, and probably would be a Heisman Trophy candidate if he were posting the same numbers at, say, Alabama, Notre Dame or Florida State. He also is the primary reason why Marshall is 8-0, one of only three FBS teams (along with No. 1 Mississippi State and No. 2 Florida State), which is a nice thing to know if only it weren’t for that strength-of-schedule thing and the fact that CUSA’s other 13 members are a collective 0-21 against teams from the so-called power five conferences.
If the College Football Playoff were as inclusive as, say, the FCS version – 16 teams make the postseason field in what used to be 1-AA, as well as in Division II and Division III – Marshall might have a shot at getting its chance to play David amidst all the Goliaths. But even Rakeem Cato doesn’t wield that powerful a slingshot, and neither does Steve Brener.