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PORTRAITS / JOSEPH N. BELL

Tom Starr's Game Is Bowl-ing

December 04, 1987|JOSEPH N. BELL

On Dec. 30, when Arizona State and Air Force square off at Anaheim Stadium in the fourth annual Freedom Bowl game, Tom Starr's football season will come and go in the space of a few hours.

As executive director of the Freedom Bowl, Starr's schedule consists of one game. But a whole year of preparation goes into that game. And even the excitement of knowing it is all going to come together in a few weeks doesn't obscure the slogging months of pursuit that went before.

Like the Saturday last October that Starr found himself in State College, Pa., scouting Penn State as a possible Freedom Bowl contender. Starr isn't sure which Saturday because he was doing the same thing in another town the week before and the week before that and the week before that. So memories of stadiums, and especially stadium parking lots, tend to get a little blurry.

On this day, he had done his usual fraternizing after the game before heading for his car. Only after hitting the parking lot did he realize he hadn't the foggiest notion what kind of car he had rented--and the keys gave him no clue.

"That's happened before," he recalled over lunch last week, "but usually by the time I get out, the parking lot is almost empty. But at Penn State, the fans have tailgate parties after the game--and all I saw was a maze of cars."

It took him almost an hour to find his car by trying his key endlessly until it finally fitted a lock. But he's not complaining. Far from it. Probably no one in the nation enjoys his job more than Tom Starr. When he took off Thanksgiving Day--his first day of rest in almost two months--Starr spent it on the couch in his bachelor apartment watching the Texas-Texas A&M football game.

Starr's problems in putting together a postseason football game that will pack Anaheim Stadium and draw national attention--possibly via network television coverage--to Orange County do not arise just from the relative youth of the Freedom Bowl. ("We can't use that excuse much longer," Starr said.) Mostly they arise from money--or the lack thereof. In order to be officially sanctioned, a bowl game must guarantee each participant $500,000. And that's what the Freedom Bowl guarantees: the minimum. By contrast, its competitors all offer more--up to $6.1 million for the Rose Bowl.

The Anaheim businessmen--notably Joel Rothman (Anaheim Marriott), Karl Wray (Anaheim Bulletin) and Bill Snyder (Area Visitors Bureau)--who were the movers and shakers behind the Freedom Bowl--knew going in that money would be a problem. So they needed to do two things up front: offer extra perks to attract teams and put in charge a skilled professional who knew the bowl game business.

First things first. The man they chose was Tom Starr, who at 36 had already put on five successful Sun Bowl games in El Paso, Tex. He also had a long history of athletic administration--mostly in the Midwest.

About the only thing Starr knew about Orange County was that it practically never rained on an athletic event here. So naturally, the first Freedom Bowl in 1984--a surprisingly good match-up between Texas and Iowa--was played in a torrential downpour that started several hours before the game and never quit. Starr was also looking over his shoulder because of several dozen death threats from supporters of Cal State Fullerton, who thought their team should have been invited to play.

Since then, it has all been downhill for Tom Starr.

That is, if traveling 40,000 miles a year to scout football teams, attend athletic meetings and glad-hand college administrators can be regarded as downhill.

It is to Starr, an unabashed football aficionado who glows when he talks about his job. He remembers vividly, for example, the first time he was ushered into the presence of Van Gordon Sauter, then the director of CBS Sports.

"I was waiting for him in his office in New York," said Starr, still a little awed, "and I looked around and saw 25 TV monitors, and I thought, 'That's more TV sets than they have in the whole town I grew up in.' "

That town was Newton, Iowa, and Starr's childhood was spent watching the prodigious athletic feats of his older brother. "I was little and I was slow, and I knew I could never make it as an athlete, so I looked to the other side of sports--the business and media side. That's where I found my heroes."

He got a BA in journalism at the University of Iowa and a master's degree at Iowa State before he was detoured to Vietnam, where he was decorated three times. After his return from the military, he worked his way up through steadily better jobs in athletic administration. They won him enough attention to be named an Outstanding Young Man in America in 1980 (by the U.S. Jaycees) the year after he took over the Sun Bowl.

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