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Patt Morrison Asks

The go-to guy: Peter Ueberroth

From managing the 1984 Olympics and running Major League Baseball to his current gig as chairman of the Newport Beach investor company the Contrarian Group, Peter Ueberroth is a part of L.A.'s fabric. Next week he receives the John Wooden Global Leadership Award from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA.

May 21, 2011|Patt Morrison

So here's Peter Ueberroth, L.A.'s Olympic champion, chairman of the Newport Beach investor company the Contrarian Group, sharing his office with someone else -- his border collie, Koot, for Kootenai, the Idaho county where Ueberroth found him abandoned. Koot can be regarded as a small-scale version of the rescues that Ueberroth has been called on to make in his career. Besides formidably managing the 1984 Games, he has ridden to the help of South Los Angeles after the 1992 riots, run Major League Baseball and arranged the buyback of the Pebble Beach golf course from the Japanese. Ueberroth's a Californian by choice, not by birth, like another eminent Californian, John Wooden, whose name is on an award Ueberroth receives next week, one he regards more as encouragement than reward.

You're not much for interviews, and you're doing this because you're receiving the John Wooden Global Leadership Award next week from the Anderson School of Management at UCLA.

I have an aversion for [interviews]; I'll grow up one day! We do owe UCLA a great debt of gratitude for the Olympics because they provided us so much to allow us to be effective. And John Wooden deserves to be more like Alfred Nobel: He's not a sports figure; he's an integrity figure. That's why I'm doing this. Think of the people he helped and directed and influenced. I'm not in the first 1,000 [of those], but I had a personal relationship with him and he made a huge impact.

Has Major League Baseball called to ask you to put on your white hat again to help sort out the Dodgers mess?

I enjoy being friends with the commissioners of baseball, football and basketball, and I want to keep that relationship [so] they can call me from time to time and I can privately give them [my] thoughts. It's the old thing; I haven't been asked, and if I was asked, I wouldn't serve. It wouldn't be a good role for me.

You once said baseball is a kind of public trust; can you say anything about the Dodgers and their future?

All baseball teams are private sector investments, but they are individually and as a group, unofficially, public trusts. They have a responsibility, like a private hospital. [Baseball] belongs to the fans, and there's a great equity in the fans and the community, [and] commissioners in all the sports take that seriously.

Los Angeles voters were determined not to foot the bill for the 1984 Olympics, so you led the way to make them privately funded, and in L.A. they even turned a profit. It's a model that changed the Olympic Games.

Our group changed the Olympics. To single out one person -- it's a long list. I was selected as the leader, but I wouldn't have had the opportunity if it weren't for [Mayor] Tom Bradley, [L.A. Olympics committee founding Chairman John C.] Argue, a bunch of others. And then the [more than] 20,000 volunteers who gave us a big part of their lives, and the institutions that came forward, like UCLA.

At San Jose State, you tried out for the1956 Olympic water polo team. If you'd made the team, you might not have had as big an impact on the Games as you did out of the water.

That's right, but failure is always a good lesson. There's lots of good lessons in there. My teammates, those who made the Olympic team and those who didn't, are still good friends. I think that's a good omen.

After the Olympics and Major League Baseball, you headed Rebuild L.A. as a co-chair, to put South Los Angeles on its feet after the riots. What's the legacy there?

We did a private sector initiative. As I drive through the areas that were most affected, we take pride that there's been improvement almost everywhere. If you look at the murder rate in that year in Los Angeles, it was over 1,000, and [in] 2010, it was around 300. You keep making improvements in a community. History is forgetful that Rebuild L.A. was financed by the private sector. It was a fresh start [for] areas in L.A. The companies stepped up, individuals stepped up, the private sector was really the only [one] who came to the party. They didn't ask for anything back; they just wanted to make it better. So I think the legacy is, when the private sector comes together, you have a tremendous force. You needed some reason to have people quit shooting each other. It was thrown together in 24 hours, and Rebuild L.A. had in my view real success.

Some business pledges went unfulfilled, and neither federal nor state commitments to help came through. And there are still not enough grocery stores, laundromats and the like in South L.A.

Although twice as many [now], and doing a good job and better than the case was.

You lost in the governor's recall election in 2003. Do you think, "Boy, I dodged that bullet" or "I really could have done something''?

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