by By TIM TUCKER
Growing up in Liverpool, England, the son of a hard-working insurance salesman who hated his job, young Bernie Mullin did not dare dream of a career as exciting as, say, running the local pro sports franchise.
"I would never, ever, have given the slightest thought to being chief executive officer of the Everton football club," he says, referring to the Liverpool soccer team he has cheered since childhood. "It would have been . . . unattainable."
Decades later, despite a Ph D in business and the experience of high-powered positions in every major American pro sports league except the NFL, Mullin remains convinced that a big job with his beloved Everton team was beyond him. The "lid on my own thinking," he says, would have been insurmountable in England. Only by coming to America, he figures, could he have exceeded his dreams.
The Englishman who grew up playing soccer but never dreamed he could run a pro soccer franchise now runs the Hawks and Thrashers as president and CEO of Atlanta Spirit, the basketball and hockey teams' new owner.
"Bowls me over, Bernie occupying this position," Mike Dickinson, Mullin's friend since age 4, says from Liverpool.
"It has been a wonderful, wild and wacky road," Mullin, 55, says of his Liverpool-to-Atlanta odyssey, chatting over hot tea after dinner at a downtown restaurant. "I'm living proof that the American dream still exists."
He had just finished his freshman year of college in England when, on a tour of the Heineken brewery in Amsterdam in 1969, he struck up a conversation with a girl named Elizabeth from Ypsilanti, Mich. She asked, of course, if being from Liverpool he knew the Beatles. He lied, of course, and said he knew them well. In truth, he didn't know them at all, although his sister's best friend once dated Ringo Starr and his sister once got a kiss on the cheek from Paul McCartney. Anyway, Bernie and Elizabeth became pen pals. She sent him a book listing summer camp jobs in the United States.
He landed one as a soccer coach at Camp Takajo in Naples, Maine, in the summer of 1970. After he returned to work there two more summers, the camp owner gave him a $5,000 scholarship to put toward graduate school anywhere in the United States starting in fall 1973.
Mullin has lived in this country since. Got three degrees from the University of Kansas, where he attended his first basketball game at Allen Fieldhouse. Did his doctoral dissertation on a topic that should be helpful in his new job: stress management. Taught sports management and marketing at the University of Massachusetts. Ran the business operations of baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates and Colorado Rockies. Ran the International Hockey League's Denver Grizzlies and the University of Denver's athletics program. Went to New York as a senior marketing and business executive for the NBA. Came to Atlanta this spring, taking Stan Kasten's old job over the Hawks and Thrashers, when the Atlanta Spirit group closed its purchase of the teams and signed him to a three-year contract.
"A magical mystery tour, in the Beatles' parlance," Mullin says of his career.
A gregarious man with an elegant British accent — his mother enrolled him in elocution classes as a teen to turn his Liverpool dialect into the Queen's English — he is "proud to be the first Englishman to run not one, but two, American major-league sports franchises." He has begun to make his mark on the Hawks and Thrashers, consolidating the teams' business operations, dismissing three Hawks department heads and leaving no doubt, in an organization with nine engaged but far-flung owners, who is in charge at the office.
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Born in Liverpool on May 3, 1949, Bernard James Mullin began playing soccer at age 5. "My dream was to, you know, score the winning goal in the FA Cup final for Everton and to win the World Cup for England," he says. Soccer "is all I cared about, all I thought about."
He and his chum Dickinson would go to Everton games — Everton is one of Liverpool's two teams in the English Premier League — and scream their lungs out in the rowdy "boys' pen." That was a fenced-in, standing-room-only area reserved for boys under age 15. It cost the equivalent of a dime to watch a game from there, Mullin recalls.
Even little Bernie's birthday parties revolved around soccer, Dickinson remembers. Every year, the party would be scheduled when the FA Cup final was on television so Bernie and pals could watch together.
In his early teens, Bernie would say goodnight to his mother, lock the door to his bedroom, turn up the volume on his radio and climb out the window to meet some buddies for soccer under the streetlamps at a nearby school.
He became good enough at the game to play on a semi-pro team during college, but not good enough to play beyond that. And that was the end, he thought, of a career in sports.
An executive career was inconceivable to the Liverpool lad, the first in his family or his parents' families to attend college. "Soccer player, musician or comedian . . . those were the three ways out of Liverpool," Mullin says. His route: turning his soccer skills into the coaching gig at Camp Takajo.
He has impressed upon his three children, all born and raised in this country, all in their 20s and living in Colorado, that wide-open opportunity is a precious thing not to be taken for granted.
"In Liverpool, he felt there was very much, hate to say, a caste system, whereas coming to the United States he felt the opportunities were without bounds," says his 26-year-old daughter, Lara Mullin. "Growing up in a working-class family in Liverpool, he felt there were tracks people could follow and that you couldn't deviate much from those."
Says Bernie Mullin: "Zig Ziglar, [the motivational speaker and author] whose tapes were a great influence early in my career, calls it 'flea training,' where you put a lid on your own thinking. The concept is that a flea can jump out of a jar but if you put a lid on the jar the flea jumps up and hits the lid, hits the lid, hits the lid. The flea learns to jump just high enough to not hit the lid. And then, if you take the lid off, the flea still can't jump out.
"My whole career has been taking the lid off jars in my own thinking."
His career also has been a response to something his father, a butcher-turned-insurance salesman, told him when he got home from work late on a cold winter night in the early 1960s.
"My dad was tired, had had a long, tough night trying to sell life insurance," Mullin says. "He said to me, 'I hate what I do, son. Do what you love, and you'll love what you do. Don't ever forget it.'
"The best advice I ever got," Mullin says four decades later. "As such, I don't feel like I've ever worked a day of my life in sports."
"That," says his daughter Lara, briefly a sportswriter and now in law school, "is how he has managed to work 70 hours a week."
• • •
Mullin was senior vice president of business operations for the Colorado Rockies when, in a 1993 meeting, he expressed reservations (correctly, it turned out) about a trade of young catcher Brad Ausmus to San Diego for veteran pitchers Bruce Hurst and Greg Harris.
"What do you know about baseball?" an assistant general manager shot back. "You're English!"
That's the one time in his career, Mullin says, that someone tried to use his British background against him. He isn't complaining that it happened once. He is marveling that it has happened only once.
"I find it hard to imagine," he says, "that an English [soccer] team would hire an American to run it. But the opportunity in the United States is just incredible. People take you for who you are, what you are, what you're able to do, not where you're from."
After getting an MBA and a PhD at Kansas, Mullin joined the faculty of a fledgling sports management program at UMass. "A university job was the easiest way to get a green card and stay in the United States," he says. He is still here on a green card -- a permanent resident card -- and plans to become a U.S. citizen. "It's something I should have done a long time ago."
He taught for nine years at UMass while also doing consulting work and writing a book on sports marketing. "He was very creative as a teacher," says Dennis Mannion, a student of Mullin's in the early 1980s and now a senior vice president of the NFL's Baltimore Ravens. "He stressed asking questions to become an expert and impressed upon [his students] to constantly gather lists of best [marketing and business] practices."
The Pirates lured Mullin from the classroom in 1986 to run the business and marketing operations of a downtrodden franchise. Success there led to a similar position with the expansion Rockies, which led to a job as president and general manager of Denver's IHL expansion team, which was so successful the NHL came to town.
Mullin then spent three years as the University of Denver's vice chancellor for athletics before NBA commissioner David Stern hired him as senior vice president for team marketing and business operations in 2000. His NBA job included consulting with all of the league's teams, and with prospective new owners. That's how he met the people who would hire him as Atlanta Spirit CEO.
All aspects of the Hawks' and Thrashers' operations, including general managers Billy Knight and Don Waddell, report to Mullin. The GMs had to be under his purview, he says, because "how can you run a brewery and not be in charge of the beer?"
But the owners, who also have regular contact with the GMs, see Mullin's main mission as improving the team's off-court, off-ice performances in marketing, sales and business efficiency. He made time recently to record promos for the Thrashers' new flagship radio station, bringing the elocution of the BBC to 680 The Fan.
• • •
Despite career successes in baseball, basketball and hockey, Bernie Mullin's favorite sport remains no secret.
"Oh, yes, absolutely, soccer," Lara Mullin says. He always coached her soccer teams when she was a kid. "I think now he's hoping his grandchildren will fulfill his dreams of having professional soccer players in the family."
(Mullin's scouting report on his 8-year-old grandson: "Phenomenal little soccer player!")
Despite his lifelong love of soccer, Mullin thinks he's better suited to run teams in other sports. He says he'd be dangerous as a soccer CEO. "I'd have delusions I could judge player talent rather than trusting my general managers," he says.
At least once a year, Mullin returns to Liverpool, mainly to visit his mother and see Everton play. Last summer, he went to an Everton-Newcastle game with Dickinson, his long-ago soccer teammate who spent 26 years as a teacher before getting the job of his dreams as education director for the Everton team's youth academy.
"Bernie met some of our marketing officials," Dickinson says, "and they considered him a serious celebrity. But Bernie only talks about what goes on [in US sports] when we quiz him about it. He always wants to talk with us about [soccer].
"He listens to Everton matches on the Internet. He can tell me some things I don't know are going on with Everton, and I work for the team."
Dickinson took Mullin into the Everton dressing room, where the Liverpool lad re-emerged in the US sports executive.
Mullin: "Funny thing is, after all these years in sports, I can stand next to Shaquille O'Neal and have a conversation and it doesn't even faze me. I go back to Liverpool and talk to [Everton star] Wayne Rooney and I'm like a dribbling idiot."