"Nobody will believe it."
That was the response Bill Schmidt ('70) received when he told a friend he was writing a book about his life and career. After all, going from a coal mining camp in western Pennsylvania to courtside with Michael Jordan is a tale too good to be true.
It happened, though, and much more -- medaling in the 1972 Olympics, directing sports at the World's Fair and Olympics and basically inventing sports marketing at Gatorade. Schmidt chronicles his unlikely life and career in his new book, Southview to Gettysvue. Born in a coal camp in Southview, Pennsylvania, he was one of seven children. His twin brother Bob was his closest companion. When the twins were just 2 1/2, their coal miner father died by suicide, leaving their mother to care for the family. Their future seemed predetermined, but Bill and Bob had no desire to follow in their father's footsteps, so they turned to sports. Bob chose wrestling, and Bill eventually was drawn to the javelin.
"Where you're born determines where you start out in life, it doesn't determine where you end up," he says. "It's about building dreams and having some faith and knowing what you need to do."
With no javelin coach, Schmidt studied his competitors and taught himself. Despite winning district titles, he graduated with no scholarship offers. So, he went to work, first at a small metal and wood fabricator company and then with one of their clients. Meanwhile, his high school track coach looked for colleges that needed a 200-foot javelin thrower. He found one at North Texas.
Schmidt moved to Denton in 1966 as a walk-on athlete. He earned a partial scholarship his sophomore year and a full scholarship as a senior. He recalled driving to competitions with his coach, Winton "Pop" Noah, and how meets became a "family affair." He says he competed for Pop as much as for himself.
"I'll prove myself if given the opportunity," he says.
In college, Schmidt earned All-American status and won some of the top meets across the country. With a business administration degree in hand, he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1970, during the Vietnam War. He continued competing in the javelin and set numerous military records. In 1972, he competed in the Olympics in Munich, Germany, winning the bronze medal. It was the realization of a lifelong dream, although he didn't think he actually could win the medal until the night before his final throw. No American has medaled in the men's javelin competition since.
Next, Schmidt earned a master's in business education from the University of Tennessee and taught and coached around Knoxville and at the university for a few years. Then came the big break that would launch his marketing career: He was hired as sports director for the 1982 World's Fair in Knoxville. With zero budget, he produced 23 events and ended with a $300,000 surplus. Gatorade sponsored one of the events and that led to a marketing position. However, Schmidt was soon asked to run track and field and boxing for the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. He took a leave of absence, accepted the position with no budget, and again ended with a surplus -- this time, $225 million.
"It's not about being in the right place at the right time," he says. "It's expanding on an opportunity that exists and growing it into something more meaningful and results driven."
Schmidt returned to Gatorade as its first vice president of sports marketing. In 1984, it was an $85 million brand; when he left 15 years later, it was $2 billion. He's the reason Gatorade is synonymous with sports. He got the drink placed on sidelines -- setting the stage for the famous Gatorade dunk. He's also behind the brand's iconic "Be Like Mike" deal with Michael Jordan.
"People think it was pretty easy to pick Michael Jordan," he says. "Well, not at the time it wasn't. They'd won one NBA World Championship. But the Michael Jordan deal put Gatorade and me on another level."
Following a stint as the CEO of eyewear and apparel giant Oakley, Schmidt ran a consulting firm before retiring. Today, he lives with his yellow Lab, Sam, in the Gettysvue Golf Community in Knoxville, often speaking at the university and coaching young javelin throwers. Throughout his share of high-profile, high-pressure situations, Schmidt says building relationships has been critical, as has listening to those around him and "knowing what he didn't know." His advice is simple: If you're going to dream, dream big, and if you have a dream, chase it. He also counts North Texas as responsible for his success without question.
"It provided me with the opportunities and experiences that defined who I am today," Schmidt says. "I'm forever proud of the time I spent at UNT and forever grateful for the opportunity they gave me."