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DIANE PUCIN

Croce's the Man to Put Mouse's House in Order

July 28, 2001|DIANE PUCIN

Michael Eisner, call Pat Croce.

Now.

Please.

Actually, Mr. Eisner, you'd be returning a call.

Croce once bombarded your office with phone messages. Croce formed, as he said, "a deep relationship" with your secretary. Croce wanted a meeting. He wanted to pick your brain, Mr. Eisner. He saw your picture on the cover of a news magazine, he read about you at Disney. "Michael was my hero," Croce says. "So I tried to get a meeting, just to talk and to learn. You know me. I'm persistent."

There was never a meeting. Croce didn't get through.

Now there should be a meeting. Eisner needs to pick Croce's brain. Then he needs to hire Croce.

Croce is unemployed. He is at his summer home in Ocean City, N.J. He is staring at the Atlantic Ocean and pondering his future.

Thursday, Croce quit his job. He had wanted to oversee the Philadelphia 76ers and Philadelphia Flyers, two sports teams owned by a media-entertainment conglomerate, Comcast-Spectacor. The man who already has that job, Croce's boss, Ed Snider, said no. So Croce quit as president of the 76ers.

"I thought Ed was dangling the keys to the kingdom," Croce said Friday. "I was wrong. But I couldn't be standing still. I need something else."

His work with the 76ers was mostly done. Croce didn't just turn them into a winner, he made them the smiling face of Philadelphia. And he wanted more from his job. He wanted to be in charge of the 76ers, of the Flyers, of the whole shebang. That wasn't going to happen. So Croce quit.

Here in Southern California there are a couple of teams owned by an entertainment-media conglomerate--the Angels and Mighty Ducks. Croce is looking for a new challenge. Does anybody else see the beauty here? Does anybody else think that Croce, the most enthusiastic, charismatic, smart, frantic, earnest, caring president any team has had, might be able to help the Angels, the Ducks, Disney?

"Yep, I'm unemployed," Croce said Friday, as he looked ahead to nothing more than another month at the shore.

He giggled at the idea of running the Ducks and Angels. Here was an option even he hadn't thought of, as perfect as it appears to be.

Croce made his fortune in physical fitness. He was an athletic trainer and then the owner of a sports medicine/fitness club empire. Nowhere in the world is physical fitness treasured more than in Southern California. Croce loves riding big, noisy motorcycles. He wears casual designer clothes proudly but not flamboyantly.

He has that God-given self-confidence that allowed him to tell a recently retired president of the United States that, no, Mr. Clinton, you can't sit in my box during the NBA Finals against the Lakers because, Mr. Clinton, my friends were already invited and I'm not kicking them out for you. They've been here all year.

You go, Pat.

When Croce became president of the 76ers five years ago, the team was dreadful, and the fans didn't even care enough to be mad. In Philadelphia, it's way worse when people don't care enough to boo.

During his first year as president, Croce held a meeting with season-ticket holders, the few that were left. For more than an hour Croce stood in the arena and listened to how these most treasured fans hated the coach they thought was overmatched, hated the attitude of the team, hated the feeling of being taken for granted, hated pretty much everything about their NBA experience.

"I'm standing in that meeting," Croce said, "thinking that I could be on any beach in the world instead of here and what was I doing."

Bring Croce to our beach.

Croce's willingness to stand and listen, to not make excuses or apologies or to brush off the concerns, to not walk out of the room and immediately forget everything he heard, is exactly what made him a great president of the 76ers and would make him a wonderful master of the Ducks and Angels.

He is not just the voice of the fans. He is a fan.

But Croce is much more. He is smart and interested.

Croce knows little about the Ducks and Angels, so he asked what Disney wanted from its ownership of the Ducks and Angels. He wondered if Disney wanted the teams as an entertainment entity, as broadcast programming, as sports teams. He wanted to know how the teams were run. He very much wondered to whom it was the fans complained. He wanted to know who spoke for the fans.

Nobody.

That's the problem.

Listen to Croce.

"There are no teams without fans," he said. "It all starts with the fans. And the fans need to be empowered in good times and bad. Teams have to get involved in their community. You have to listen to them. I think there's an arrogance that permeates all of pro sports."

Would he consider moving to California?

"Oh, sure," Croce said. "I'm looking at this as . . . a clean slate. When I started my sports medicine and fitness centers, they were a great success. The 76ers, a great success. Whatever I touch, I want to turn to gold. So now I'll do it again. It's a great opportunity."

There have been lots of calls.

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