Steve Mariucci walked into the room. He sat down at the table. He blinked.
“Wow,” Mariucci said to himself.
Which, coincidentally, was the exact same word that Al Guido was thinking at the exact same time as he gazed around the exact same table.
“I even said it out loud,” Guido recalled. “Wow.”
Mariucci is the former Cal and 49ers head coach. Guido is the 49ers’ team president. They are used to being around famous people. But this was different.
The Table of Wow, for the record, was located in a Bay Area hotel and conference center. It hosted the first meeting for the Bay Area 2019 executive board.
Essentially, the board is the welcome committee for this season’s College Football Playoff (CFP) National Championship at Levi’s® Stadium.
Except that Mariucci and Guido didn’t feel as if they were part of a mere welcome committee. It felt more like a blockbuster movie. It felt as if they had been invited to a gathering of the Justice League or the Avengers – and they had been charged with organizing the biggest event in America’s most popular college sport.
It’s quite a bunch,” said Mariucci.
“I’ve sat in on many NFL meetings,” said Guido. “But, I don’t know if, from a local perspective, I have ever sat down with a more powerful group.”
The group intends to use its power for good and use it wisely. This is fortunate for Bay Area civilization. Because the Justice League of CFP includes:
- Condoleezza Rice, a Stanford professor and former U.S. Secretary of State. She also previously served on the CFP selection committee.
- Former All-American college players John Lynch, Ronnie Lott, and Steve Young. The last two are in the
Pro Football Hall of Fame.
- Larry Scott, commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference.
- Tyrone Willingham, a former College Football Coach of the Year with tenures at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington. Also, a former CFP selection committee member.
- Bay Area college athletic directors Jim Knowlton (Cal), Bernard Muir (Stanford) and Marie Tuite (San Jose State).
- Jed York and John York of the 49ers’ ownership family.
- Daniel Lurie, the CEO of Tipping Point, a prominent philanthropic organization that raises millions to fight Bay Area poverty.
- Matt Prieshoff, senior vice-president of Live Nation, the concert and events promoter and venue operator.
- Mariucci, now an analyst for NFL Network, an unabashed Bay Area booster and unofficial proclaimer of the initial Executive Board mission.
“First and foremost,” Mariucci explained, “we are ambassadors for this event.”
Ambassadorship is indeed the starting point. But, the board positions actually have a broader scope. When Guido began making phone calls to prospective members, he made it clear: This is no gig for figureheads.
After all, it doesn’t do much good to assemble an impressive team of influential names unless they can be, you know, impressive and influential.
That will happen with the Bay Area 2019 Board -- if the game plan comes to fruition.
“Even before anyone said anything at our first meeting,” Guido said, “I think it was pretty clear how each person on the board could help.”
He’s right. This isn’t nuclear science.
The two participating CFP title game teams will practice at Stanford and San Jose State, so the athletic directors can be on top of that.
Willingham has stayed in touch with college football since leaving the coaching profession and still loves the game. He can be a consultant on many levels for the committee.
Rice, in addition to her former work with the CFP Selection Committee, is a longtime Bay Area resident and scholar who can be sought for advice on building relationships with key folks in the academic world.
Scott will ensure that Pac-12 schools will make their fans aware of the game.
And so on.
But serving on the Bay Area board is more than just a checkmark-for-this-and-that operation. If you ask the board members why they volunteered to join the effort, their answers are roughly the same. They believe the Bay Area will be a great host for the championship weekend. They also believe it will benefit the region in multiple ways--not the least of which is raising money for the CFP Foundation’s designated charitable beneficiary, Extra Yard for Teachers.
This explains Lurie’s presence. In 2016, he spearheaded the philanthropic component of Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s® Stadium. He’s eager to put that experience to use one more time for Bay Area 2019.
“My role on this board,” said Lurie, “is to push to ensure that we leave the region better off after the game than it was before the game . . . In 2016, I learned what I always believed – that our community has the ability to come together to support our most vulnerable neighbors. We set out to be the most philanthropic Super Bowl in history.
Prior to 2016, Super Bowl cities typically raised $2 million for local nonprofits as a result of hosting the game. I was blown away by our community’s generosity. We raised more than $13 million.”
Matching that windfall this time would be difficult. But everyone believes the board will be an important component of the entire operation.
Here’s why: The Bay Area 2019 bureaucracy is not massive. It is headed by Executive Director Patricia Ernstrom and Director of Marketing & Strategic Partnerships Ryan Oppelt. There are a handful of other employees, including interns. And there is the board.
That’s it. So the board may have to do some heavy lifting.
For the CFP National Championship to succeed on its first journey to the West Coast, the mechanics and logistics must succeed – and so must the overall feel of the weekend. That includes all the off-field events that will largely be centered in downtown San Jose.
Logistics will be handled smoothly. The stadium will be ready. The locker rooms will have hot water. The security will be effectual. The seats will be sold. At a Bay Area luncheon in June, CFP chief operating officer Michael Kelly told attendees that more than 400,000 ticket applications for January’s game had been submitted.
Kelly has since left the CFP to become Athletic Director at the University of South Florida, with former Big Sky commissioner Andrea Williams coming aboard as his replacement. She will inherit those ticket reservations, which presumably will increase as the college season progresses. Filling up Levi’s on game night should not be an issue.
But what about those other weekend activities? What about the major concerts in downtown San Jose’s Discovery Meadow? What about the 5K run? Or the open-to-the-public media day? Those will be the trickier elements, owing to the Bay Area’s wildly diverse attractions that are available on an average weekend – plus the dominance of professional sports in the region, with six teams in the four major pro leagues. Cutting through the clutter to gain traction for the Bay Area 2019 festivities will be a significant task.
And, yes, this topic was definitely discussed at the Table of Wow during the initial board meetings.
“The Bay Area is predominately a pro sports mecca, so to speak,” Mariucci said. “And I think it’s important for us to show the country that we are much more than that. We’re diverse and creative and interested in all sorts of things. We want to show the country that this is the sort of place where so many different ideas and events can thrive.”
Scott, as the Pac-12 commissioner, has been an advocate for bringing the national championship game to the Pacific Time Zone. He now has his wish. Yet Scott admits that the competition with pro sports presents tremendous challenges.
“The culture of college football on the West Coast isn’t the same as in the rest of the country,” Scott said. “As one of the elite conferences in America, the Pac-12 certainly has major support. And the hard-core fans of our schools are always there for us. What’s harder for us is to capture the casual fan. Stanford and Cal have very loyal fan bases but those are smaller than they’d like them to be.”
One of Scott’s ideas is to have the Bay Area 2019 board members featured in a strategic series of speaker events around the region. He also hopes a delegation can pay visits to various television outlets and various newspaper editorial boards. Lott and Young, who make regular broadcast appearances, can also talk up the CFP on the air. So can Mariucci.
“I think CFP will help bring the Bay Area focus of attention to college football in a different way than before,” Scott said. “There’s going to be a drumbeat through the college football season about the game being in the Bay Area and on the West Coast. And when it gets here, I think people will see the fervor that exists for it.”
If he could wave a magic wand, Scott said, he would order up great weather for the weekend of the title game and a matchup involving one of his conference teams that draws record television ratings. Guido’s wish is that the Bay Area 2019 possibilities manage to attract volunteers who will staff the local airports and hotel lobbies. Those volunteers will be as important as anyone to the cause.
“I can give you a specific example,” Guido said. “I asked Secretary Rice what her biggest takeaway was from the previous national championship games she has attended. She said it was that when she got off the plane, she was immediately greeted by volunteers who asked how they could help her. And it carried through the weekend. It’s about what you sense in the community around you as you experience everything, from the time you arrive until you leave.”
This leads to the Bay Area 2019 ulterior goal. Guido wants to keep the board members together to help facilitate future bids for major events such as the World Cup and Super Bowls. It could and should give a leg up to the region when those bids are submitted.
But first, there are the tasks at hand. For the Table of Wow. In the room of heavy lifting.