Master of the Media, Remembering Mike Moran by Philip Hersh
It was coming up on 1 a.m. on a Sunday in Lillehammer, Norway. The Opening Ceremony of the 1994 Winter Olympics had been over for about six hours, just about long enough for those of us who had covered the ceremony to thaw out.
It was a long day for most of the U.S. media, whose 24/7 focus for a month had been on two figure skaters, one of whom (Tonya Harding) already was implicated in a plot to injure the other (Nancy Kerrigan.) Four hours before the opening ceremony, Kerrigan gave her first press conference of the Games.
It was the last place on earth the media-shy Kerrigan wanted to be: facing more than 1,000 journalists and seemingly as many TV cameras from around the world. Many of us who knew Kerrigan by having covered her for several years were as curious about how she would handle this overwhelming situation as we were about what she might say.
Mike Moran made sure she got through it fine.
For 20 minutes, Moran, press chief of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Kristin Matta, his counterpart at U.S. Figure Skating, lobbed softball questions at Kerrigan. The plan Moran had devised to control the circumstances anesthetized the media so completely that when he threw open the press conference to questions from reporters, there were only a half-dozen questions. Proceedings ended in 10 minutes.
That was Mike Moran, masterfully managing one part of his mandate -- the part that helped U.S. Olympians show themselves to their best advantage.
And then,13 hours later, Moran was sharing a podium with USOC chief executive Harvey Schiller for the announcement that a settlement had been reached to let Harding skate in the Olympics.
Schiller immediately fled the room after the announcement, seizing on the USOC executive board’s request that he not answer questions about a case that still had a zillion unsettled legal ramifications.
Moran stayed some 30 minutes to answer all questions, whether serious or soap operatic. There is a famous picture of him surrounded by dozens of reporters after he left the podium to be in the middle of the media scrum.
Rare Level of Trust
That, too, was Mike Moran, masterfully managing the other part of his mandate, helping the media in a way that created a level of trust rare between a publicist and the press. He came from an era when truth still was the trump card, when the tangled web of deceitful spin was anathema. Those of us who dealt with him for any length of time would eventually call him a friend.
His ability to serve both the athletes (and his USOC bosses) and the media without ever pitting one side against the other helps explain the widespread outpouring of sadness and of warm memories when people learned that Moran had died unexpectedly Tuesday at age 78 of complications from pneumonia.
"He understood the work we did, he respected it, and he respected us. I have not met a journalist who didn’t feel the same way about him," said Vicki Michaelis, former Olympic beat writer for USA Today, now director of the sports journalism program at the University of Georgia’s Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
"He was my friend," said 1984 Olympic swimming triple gold medalist Nancy Hogshead-Makar, now an attorney and a leading advocate for women in sports and for protecting young athletes against sexual abuse. "We were united in doing the right thing, for the right reason."
Moran began working for the USOC in 1978, soon after Congress passed legislation that enfranchised the USOC as a full-time operation rather than what was essentially an every-four-years travel agency that sent U.S. athletes to the Olympics. He became its chief spokesman in 1979.
He would leave in 2003, as he did not gladly suffer fools, and the USOC had become a ship of fools at the helm -- with two CEOs and two presidents resigning for ethical missteps and/or incompetence from 2000 through 2003.
"Can't Do Both"
The downfall of one CEO, Lloyd Ward, began when Christine Brennan of USA Today learned in 2002 he was a member of then male-only Augusta National Golf Club. It clearly was a moral quagmire: the head of the USOC, an organization that has been very pro-active for women in sports, belonging to a club that excluded women.
Brennan called Moran to say she needed to talk to Ward. But she also wanted to get Moran’s opinion.
"Many PR people would have refused to touch this topic," Brennan wrote to me Wednesday. "Not Mike. He had a lot to say, and he said it all on the record.
"I’ll get him (Ward) to call you,’" Moran told Brennan, "but my sense is he’s going to have to either resign from Augusta or resign from the USOC. He can’t do both."
Moran advised Ward to resign from Augusta, but he refused. Barely a year later, in the wake of stories outlining Ward’s ethical lapses by Alan Abrahamson in the Los Angeles Times, he resigned after 16 months as CEO.
Summer Begins; Winter Ends
Moran’s USOC career began with the tit-for-tat superpower Summer Games boycotts of 1980 and 1984. It was bookended by two Winter Olympics in the USA: 1980 in Lake Placid and 2002 in Salt Lake City.
A native of Omaha who had spent all his working life in the mountain west and Midwest, Moran worked for the unsuccessful New York bid for the 2012 Olympics after leaving the USOC. When that bid ended in 2005, he returned to Colorado and became senior media consultant for the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation.
Mike was no-nonsense, outwardly gruff and more than a little prickly at times. You knew where you stood with him.
For instance, Mike established a policy about awarding Olympic Games credentials: the more Olympic-related events your organization covered, the better chance you had of getting credentials to the Big One. Those who decried itas some sort of bribery missed the point everyone should have understood, because it was spelled out clearly.
Acts of Kindness
"More often, he was a man who really cared about those around him," said Gayle Petty, who worked with Moran at the USOC for 16 years.
Peggy Manter worked on the media services side of Moran’s USOC team for several years. When her father died in 2002, he paid for Manter and her children to attend the funeral in New York, refusing to let her pay him back for many years.
"He had a heart of gold," Manter said. "I feel so bereft."
Miracle on Ice = Baptism by Fire
He was a brilliant storyteller much in demand as a master of ceremonies. He was also the USOC’s institutional memory, his recall of significant events detailed in essays about the 1980 boycott and the Miracle on Ice 1980 hockey team.
That hockey team’s success provided Moran with some unexpected challenges at his first Olympics as USOC press chief.
First he had to come up with more than double the number of media tickets originally allocated the USOC for the game with the Soviet Union. He pulled that off by having built a strong relationship with members of the International Olympic Committee’s press commission.
Then, after the U.S. team’s upset win, he had to contend with coach Herb Brooks’ decision not to make anyone available for the post-game press conference. Moran managed to negotiate an appearance by the backup goalie and an assistant coach.
So it seemed fitting that the cauldron at what would be Moran’s final Olympics, in Salt Lake City, was lit by 18 of the 20 members of the 1980 hockey team.
Legacy in Action Today
Moran had come to the USOC after 11 years as sports information director at the University of Colorado-Boulder. He would eventually call on contacts from the college SID world to change forever the way U.S. Olympians dealt with the media at events like the Olympics as well as the U.S. Olympic Festival, which took place in non-Olympic years from 1978 through 1995.
In eulogizing Moran Tuesday in The Sports Examiner, 1984 Los Angeles Olympic press chief Rich Perelman noted Moran enlisted SID friends to solve the problem of how to connect reporters with athletes at all the events of the 1981 Olympic Festival in Syracuse. This was a time when few of the U.S. National Governing Bodies had anyone handling public relations full time.
Moran decided a college SID would be present at every venue. Out of that grew the idea of having a press officer with U.S. teams in every sport at the Olympics. SIDs were perfect for the role because they handled many different sports at their colleges.
Having a sport-specific, dedicated press officer proved a boon to both the media and the athletes they covered, and it is now common practice among the world’s larger Olympic committees.
"That’s a legacy you can trace directly to Mike Moran," Perelman wrote.
"Too Crazy for Reality TV"
Among the first SIDs whom Moran enlisted was Southern Methodist’s Bob Condron, who later became the USOC’s head of media services, a position he held from 1984 through 2012. He was Moran’s right-hand man through, as Condron said to me in an email, "a series of events so crazy you couldn’t even imagine them being on reality TV."
There were the two boycotts, Tonya and Nancy, a USOC president falsifying her resume, conflicts of interest involving USOC leaders, a potential USOC bankruptcy, drug busts involving U.S. stars, the bombastic George Steinbrenner as a USOC board power, Congress wanting to disband the USOC, now known as the USOPC (U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.)
"None were the same, all were spontaneous, happening at warp speed," Condron said. "But the common denominator in them all was Mike Moran. He was the guy at the podium, answering questions until no more were to be asked. Hanging around for one-on-ones with the Olympic beat reporters. Last guy to leave the room.
"If it was a problem, it was a problem…not some media bias. Mike would be the guy who said, `We need to do things better.’ He believed in the athletes, their dreams. No matter how serious the problem, there was always Mike Moran up there reassuring folks that things are going to work out. The coolest, calmest guy I’ve ever known."
Wise Counsel to be Missed
No wonder the new USOPC chief executive, Sarah Hirshland, had made preliminary contact with Mike about seeking his advice on how the organization might cope with current PR issues related to the Larry Nassar scandal, other sexual abuse cases and growing athlete discontent over the way the organization is run. Then the pandemic hit full force, and the 2020 Summer Games were postponed, so a possible meeting between Hirshland and Moran went on the back burner.
"No one possessed the encyclopedic knowledge of the USOC that Mike had," said 1968 Olympic biathlete Ed Williams, an attorney long involved in USOC athletes’ rights issues. "But more importantly, Mike was the conscience of the USOC when he was there and remained so thereafter.
"Mike had the advantage of not only having had a long tenure at the center of the USOC, which permitted him to view goings on at the 30,000 foot level, he also was blessed with an internal moral compass which always pointed in the right direction."
Sadly, the USOPC – and the rest of us - have lost the chance to seek Mike’s wise counsel and benefit from his unflappable demeanor at a time when we need it most.
Philip Hersh, who spent 31 years as Olympic specialist for the Chicago Tribune, covered 10 of the 11 Olympic Games that Mike Moran worked as USOC press chief.