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MSA Alumni Q&A: Basil DeVito

Wednesday, March 22 2017 12:00am

Darryle Bajomo (MSA ‘17) spoke with Basil DeVito (MSA ‘78), who was in Athens for a special screening of the 30 for 30 documentary of “This Was the XFL.” Here is an excerpt from their conversation before the screening:

Q: How does it feel to be back in Athens for the screening of “This Was the XFL”?

It’s fun. This entire aspect of the last couple of weeks with all the promotion on ESPN and people hearing about it and then old acquaintances and friends texting and emailing. It’s a lot of fun. So this is a pretty good way to cap it all off. It’ll be the last time I probably look at it for a while (laughs), so no, it’s great. 

Anytime I have a chance to come back to Athens and do stuff with the program and with the students, I’m very excited.

Q: Could you talk about your experience with the XFL?

In 1999, Vince McMahon called me in his office and told me he had this idea for a football league. He had a very strong vision of when it would kick off. I spoke to him in October of 1999 and he wanted to kick off on the first Sunday after the Super Bowl in 2001, which was February third. A small group of us put together a business plan and six weeks later, we had a business plan. On February 3, 2000, we announced we were going to kick off in a year and then we had at it. The film will tell you the rest of the story. But it was a tremendous experience. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever been involved in.

Q: How did this experience help you get to where you are today?

If you talk about the arc of my career, it’s really not so much where I am today because I’m still at WWE and we still do a lot of great stuff. One of the things about WWE is that it’s a team-orientated situation. At the XFL, for example, I was clearly the executive in charge with executing the plan– with the WWE Network, there were a dozen of us all working. 

I did an internship at the NFL office with Pete Rozelle, so what am I, 24 or 23 years old, I’m doing that and 25 years later I’m putting together a football league. So when you stop to think, internships or what you’re doing at 23 or 24 may or may not have much relevance on what happens one way or the other. I worked at the Indiana Pacers, I worked in television, I produced the Bob Knight show, I worked on the 1984 Olympic basketball team, I worked at WWE for 15 years before the XFL, so the XFL was really a culmination of all my work experience and it all came together with the XFL. 

So, rather than propelling me further, it was more of the combination of all the relative experience I had. It was a unique experience, we had a very strong relationship. Obviously, we had a partnership with NBC, so I had to understand how to work with a television network, and from that it helped over the next 15 years. The XFL was more of an example of all of my career more than propelling me forward.

Q: What advice would you give specifically to someone who wants to work in professional sports?

Well, there was an article written today after reviewing this film and, obviously the XFL failed spectacularly. TV Guide one time named it the second of the 50 worst shows in television history. It failed spectacularly and, the fact is, as I look through my career, I think what the XFL points out to anybody is: you need to be willing to fail. You need to be willing to take chances and, if it happens, fail. 

But that doesn’t mean you aren’t moving forward. The advice I have, in this business, it took me two or three times to get accepted to the OHIO graduate program and I finally got accepted. If I had given up the first time they said, “no,” I would have failed at getting in! 

I would just say you have to be willing to take the risk. Be prepared to fail, and keep moving forward. But, I think we know, it’s going to take two or three moves and not every one of those moves might be smooth. Like, in my case, it might be backwards; it might be sideways or different. You know, my move from the Pacers to television was natural for me and it fit with everything I did. So I think that’s the thing. Being willing to take the risk, be who you are, bring forth whatever it is your strengths are, do the best you can and you may fail. But you’re not necessarily failing individually. It’s more in how you deliver for your organization and hopefully you’re a valuable contributor and there will be a place somewhere. I always believe that.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your professional career and how has it affected you?

Well, through the years, you get a lot of advice and the best is hard to decide. But I will pull out one that is connected to the XFL and this story, so it might make pretty good sense. While it may not be the best advice I ever got, it was really good advice for the time. When I started doing the XFL, it was myself and Vince McMahon. He charged me with putting together a football league with eight teams in eight cities. 

You had eight sets of officers and general managers, head coaches, public relations, marketing, accounting and technology (which wasn’t what it is today) personnel. I had to do that in eight cities, plus the league office in 12 months. It was pretty daunting. It was a challenge because you can’t take that much time to vet every single hire. I mean, you can’t take three weeks to make every decision and triple check. 

Vince said to me, “While you’re going to be doing this, let me just tell you: don’t hire anybody you don’t want to have dinner with.” And it was funny in the XFL situation, because it was 24/7. We all know it wasn’t 24/7, but it was many weeks and days that we were just going from sun up to sun down and later, and it was just an interesting point because we were joined at the hip. To tell you the truth, in hindsight, I look back – you know – we didn’t make all good hires, not everybody was great. I can think of the three or four guys or people who didn’t make it, didn’t fit, didn’t do a good job, I didn’t want to have dinner with any of them (laughs). So that was a really good piece of advice for that kind of aggressive short-term project.

Q: What do you think is the most beneficial aspect of the Ohio Sports Administration program? 

Today it might be different. I graduated in 1978, so what is that, 39 years ago? I caution to say that it might have changed in four decades. But to me, the things that were most important then and I think that it may still be the case, was the process by which the class came together. 

The very disciplined and thorough process by which students are accepted… it’s a challenging process. I’ve hired probably a dozen graduates, I’ve mentored students, I’ve been involved in a lot of projects, and I’ve never had an interaction with a sports ad student that wasn’t positive. 

The two elements are number one, that process, once you’re in here, you’re surrounded by like-minded people in a unique setting. This is Athens, Ohio. It takes 90 minutes to get to Columbus. You’re not going anywhere. You’re interacting together. You’ve got to live and get along and do a project and in a setting that was quite different than most people have grown up in. 

No matter where you’re from, what age you are, no matter what you’re interests are, you’ve all made the same sacrifice to be here and to go through the process. The people involved and truthfully the reputation and the community of alumni. There isn’t anybody I run into that when they know that you’re an OHIO grad, doesn’t immediately have that strong recognition that this is something special. So those are the two things– more so than a particular project or a particular thing I learned. 

You look to the left and you look to the right and these are, all three of you might be really successful in ten years. That’s the difference to me and, it gave me a lot of motivation and has always served me well. And I was here as an undergrad, so I understood the culture of Athens. The people and the 50 years of positive reputation of this program and everyone really trying to keep it number one.

For more information on the OHIO program, click HERE.