Last Monday, Western Illinois University students were able to meet—and learn from—one of Western’s many accomplished legacies.
Conrad “Connie” Kowal, who was named one of Western’s “Distinguished Alumni” in 1992, traveled back to his alma mater to attend the third annual Western Illinois Baseball Lead Off Dinner Sunday, Feb. 8.
Although he’s a busy sports marketing executive—Connie is currently the director of the Libertyville Sports Complex & Recreation Department (he also served as a sports executive with the Chicago Cubs for 14 years, 1985-98, and was the senior director of marketing and business development/business chief of staff for the NFL’s New Orleans Saints from 2003-05)—Connie stayed over in Macomb through Monday in order to share his 30+ years of experience in the sports marketing/management industry with many soon-to-be fellow Leatherneck alumni.
WIU Management and Marketing Assistant Professor Cathy Onion “booked” Connie—who graduated with his bachelor’s degree in 1974 and, that same year, played on Western’s baseball team, which was one of the most successful baseball teams in WIU history—to speak to students taking courses in business communications, management principles, direct marketing management, marketing management, and recreation sport principles, as well as to members of the Marketing Club and Sport Management Association student organizations.
While many Western students didn’t get to meet Connie last week, Professor Onion shared some nuggets of Connie’s wisdom (and stories about his career and WIU experiences) below.
Q). Why do you feel it’s important to invite successful alumni back to talk with students?
Prof. Onion: It’s one thing to hear tips and advice from your advisers and professors, but when an alum speaks to students, he/she lends credibility to what a professor is saying. In my experience, the alumni who return to campus to speak typically share three traits:
- They love the institution and value the education they earned at WIU.
- They want to offer advice and expertise in their markets (areas of work or study).
- They want to help students. As Connie says, “Leathernecks Help Leathernecks.”
Q). What was his presentation about?
Onion: He talked about his experience with the Cubs and his good friend Ernie Banks. He also discussed his work with the National Football League’s New Orleans Saints in 2003, 2004, as well as in 2005—the Hurricane Katrina year.
In April of 2005 (draft day), he established the marketing theme “Ya Gotta Have Faith.” As he shared his experiences with WIU students, he noted: “Little did we know that just a few months later, when Katrina hit New Orleans August 29, our marketing campaign would have two meanings.”
“We evacuated New Orleans and moved our operation to the San Antonio’s Alamodome. Our operation was set up in the basement of the Alamodome with piping and drapes. We were a glorified trade show. We put in 23-hour days, and I grew a beard because I simply did not have time to shave. We were managing our jobs, but we were also managing lives of players and personnel. Everything they had was eight hours away. The NFL season—which was only two weeks away—was not going to wait on us. We had to do whatever it took to be ready. We had guys (players) practicing in parking lots and just anywhere they could find a space. When we won that opening game September 11 by three points (23-20) against the Carolina Panthers, there was not a dry eye in the locker room—not one. It was the most emotional win I’ve ever experienced. I’ll never forget it.”
When a student asked Connie: “Can you tell us a story of compassion shown after Hurricane Katrina?” He replied:
“All of America reached out to us. Everyone. Everywhere. Whatever they could do to help, they did.”
Below are some of his Connie “isms” he shared, too:
- Mind your ABCs — Be Accessible, Be Reliable, Be Credible
- Be the #1 fan of your own fan club
- Work hard, do your job, work hard, do your job, work hard, do your job. Grinders win in life!
- If I can do it, you can do it. I’m not that good. I just out-hustled people
- Sports is a perishable product. If you don’t sell the seat today, you can’t resell it tomorrow—game over. Do your job.
- The smallest task can lead to the biggest accomplishment.
- Business is a contact sport. Learn to talk to people. I’ve never hired thumbs. I hire people.
- Never pretend to be someone you are not.
- This is not a one-and-done relationship. You have my contact information. If I can help you in anyway, please get in touch with me and remember: Leathernecks Help Leathernecks!
Q). Anything else you want to highlight about Connie’s presentations to students?
Onion: Just one of the stories he shared… His freshman year, Connie tried out for the WIU baseball team. He was cut.
“I didn’t blame the coach or say I got a bad deal. I worked at it and came back the next year,” he explained.
He watched every WIU baseball game from the stands and played in a summer league. The next year, he went back to the tryouts and introduced himself to Coach Pawlow again. He made the team. He was a utility player—until his senior year. Then the coach put him in as a back up at third base, and he went 4 for 4 at the plate. He never came out of the lineup again.
“I’m 5’5, my name is Connie for goodness sake, I have an overbite, and I’ve lost my hair,” he told students. “I had a lot of things to overcome, but I did it.”
The 1974 team he played on was one game away from the College World Series, when they lost in the bottom of the 11th inning, 0-1, due to a walk off.