SAN DIEGO — The hard sell starts at the top these days, with guys such as Lee Iacocca and Frank Borman. Whether it's a car, an airline or even an electric shaver, the chief executive isn't afraid to come out of his office and do some shilling.
In the case of Fred Miller, who's peddling an athletic program, he's probably only too happy to get out of the office.
The man's office is a dead giveaway to the ennui and the starvation budget gripping San Diego State University sports.
Miller's work space has the feel of a mid-level civil servant's office--cramped and spartan, not even a couch.
Apart from a couple of uninspired prints on the wall, the most prominent feature is an oval table piled high with typed documents and legal pads. Hardly a typical athletic director's office.
But let's not be too quick to judge. A year from now, Miller may may have talked himself into an office as colorful, expansive and unconventional as Horton Plaza.
Miller's words have a way of solidifying into bricks and mortar.
He wheedles, cajoles and massages the titans of capitalism, and before you can invoke the name of Donald Trump, stadiums swell in capacity. Arenas and tracks materialize after the shortest possible period of gestation.
The question before the house is whether this silver-tongued salesman can do for SDSU's downtrodden athletic program what he did for Arizona State a decade ago. But without the catastrophic consequences.
New facilities, new sources of revenue, new image. They're all contained in Miller's mental blueprint for the future.
His plan is easy to capsulize.
"We want to become a national-class program," he said, fully cognizant that he's working with middle-of-the-road Western Athletic Conference material.
Naturally, he has dreamed up a doozy of a marketing plan, designed to whip a few gung-ho boosters, borderline fans and the idly curious into a frenzy of ticket-buying.
"We need quick fixes," he said. "We're broke."
He forecasts a tripling of 1985 football season tickets, from 8,000 to 24,000, by the 1986 season, and never mind that the school record of 21,000 came after back-to-back 10-1 records in 1976 and 1977.
He expects to wipe out a $750,000 deficit in one broad stroke by forming a Golden Aztec Circle. The idea is to induce 60 well-heeled believers to spend $10,000 for a package of 18 prime seats on the press level at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium.
"Look, if we're content to just screw around for four or five years, we might as well fold our tents," he said.
Miller clearly isn't afraid to throw a little reality in the faces of Aztec fans, many of whom seem stuck in the past, in the Don Coryell era, which ended before the Vietnam War did.
If he is to have credibility, Miller can't stray too far from the facts.
The man's record is hardly unblemished. In fact, when the 1980s began, it seemed his career might be over. Phoenix beheld the death of a salesman.
He had enlarged Arizona State's football stadium to 70,000 and filled it to overflowing with idolatrous fans.
Through his alliance with a powerful booster group called the Sun Angels, Miller made the campus bloom with athletic facilities, and still kept the budget on solid footing.
Then he fired a coach who was a father figure, and watched a mushroom cloud darken the Valley of the Sun.
The fallout brought allegations, investigations, death threats, lawsuits and the termination of his job. By the time it had all settled, Miller wound up in a forced retreat.
For five years, he took refuge in a classroom, emerging only to serve as a consultant for a cable TV sports operation.
"It got quiet," he said. "Too quiet."
Now, arising from the ashes of Phoenix, he has migrated west, to a desultory athletic program. It may be he wants to restore his own good name almost as badly as he desires to make San Diego State a national-class power.
A beach bum from Venice who spent the prime years of his career in an arid environment, Miller has returned to Southern California with plans to live as close to the water as he can get in Pacific Beach. At 54, he's primed for one last big charge.
"I'm more cautious now," he said. "I've been bruised. I have some scar tissue. But I know college athletics pretty darn well. I know where you can get blindsided.
"Can I fall flat on my face here? Sure. But behold the turtle: He sticks his neck out. So do I."
His plan is part patchwork and part guesswork. And the outlook is mixed. There is no compelling reason, aside from Miller's zeal, to think his scheming can wring passion and commitment from a largely indifferent city.
"It's ridiculous this town doesn't have a strong, viable major-college athletic program," said John Reid, executive director of the Holiday Bowl and a man who worked in proximity to Miller in Phoenix.
"A lot of people feel the odds are insurmountable, but I can't think of anyone with a better chance than Fred. He's not afraid to step on toes or try crazy things that come to fruition."