By David Pickle
The launch of Dennis Cryder’s career could hardly have been less auspicious.
The young cinematographer was camped out with his business partner in a smoky eating establishment in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1974. To call the two “business partners” was a bit of a stretch. They were more like two Mississippi hippies with an interest in film production.
On the black-and-white television during halftime of the Monday Night Football game, Howard Cosell was describing a little-known football player who was beginning to attract attention at Jackson State University.
The thought came suddenly to Cryder: That football program needed a coaches’ television show.
That flash of inspiration eventually led Cryder to a 19-year career with the NCAA national office, which will conclude next Tuesday when he steps down as senior vice president for branding and communications.
Back in 1974, Cryder and his associate hustled across town to Jackson State, where they pitched the idea of a weekly show that would promote coach Bob Hill -- and rising star Walter Payton. To their astonishment, they got the contract -- $60,000 for 13 30-minute programs.
“During the course of that presentation,” Cryder said, “the university CFO turned to me and said, ‘Do you think during the course of this 30-minute football show we can work in a little time to talk about our strong music department, about our business school and other aspects of our campus life at Jackson State? And, lo and behold, many years later, I feel like I’m doing the same thing at the NCAA on a national basis.”
Cryder’s efforts at Jackson State and stringer work as a sideline cinematographer at football games in the Southeast caught the attention of NCAA director Richard Giannini, who recommended Cryder as a possible candidate when he himself left in 1977. Cryder spent seven years building NCAA Productions, the Association’s film/video wing of the time, before leaving in 1983 to serve as vice president of marketing and broadcasting for the Kansas City Royals, where he remained for 13 years.
The Royals proved to be a good experience, but after two strikes, he was out. Baseball’s labor unrest of the 1990s left him longing for something more. When NCAA Executive Director Ced Dempsey approached him in 1997 with the concept of creating a new NCAA marketing, licensing and promotion wing, he was hooked.
One of Cryder’s greatest successes after returning to the NCAA was an early one: serving as lead negotiator and strategist in 1999 in crafting the NCAA’s $6 billion, 11-year bundled rights agreement with CBS.
“I’ve never been a student-athlete,” Cryder said, “but that experience was as close as I’ll ever come to the feeling a team has after a big game. It was a true team effort in every sense. I negotiated a lot of contracts in my career with the Royals and Major League Baseball, but the 1999 bundled rights agreement was special.”
It was, however, only the beginning in a series of changes that led to greater understanding and appreciation of intercollegiate athletics, both among the public and the membership. In some ways, though, the hardest work came before any changes were made.
“We had to define and assess the understanding of the NCAA, and that was rather painful,” he said. “What came back 10 years ago was that the public was saying that the NCAA only was about big money, that they don’t have the student-athlete interest at heart, that they don’t do what they say they’re all about. So the painful part was coming to the reality of how bad bad is and then moving from there in a strategic fashion to start chipping away and putting branding and communication initiatives in place.”
But when the Association did get around to the initiatives, they were good ones.
Perhaps most notably, the NCAA tightened its messaging and created a series of public service announcements that concluded with the now-familiar line: “There are over 400,000 NCAA student-athletes, and most of us will go pro in something other than sports.”
NCAA Interim President Jim Isch said the messaging reflected in those ads and elsewhere will be Cryder’s greatest legacy.
“The ‘going pro in something other than sports’ line reflected Dennis’ ability to pack powerful messages into small spaces,” Isch said. “His contributions to the NCAA go well beyond the PSAs – for example, he did excellent work on behalf of Divisions II and III and played a key role in the production of most major NCAA event over the last 13 years – but I believe his main contribution had to do with achieving a better public understanding of what the NCAA is about.”
John Berg, president and CEO of Y&R San Francisco, saw the same skills.
“Dennis saw and keenly understood the value of proactively driving the NCAA’s brand reputation,” Berg said. “Through the PSAs, the NCAA’s mission as an advocate for the student athlete became clear and salient. Moving forward, the foundation Dennis laid for the brand’s image will continue to serve the NCAA and its membership well as the driving force behind all communications strategy.”
In assisting Divisions II and III, Cryder helped develop strategic-positioning platforms and visual collateral that both divisions now use to craft their own identities. Division II’s platform was implemented in 2006; Division III followed in 2009.
Charles Ambrose, University of Central Missouri president and former chair of the Division II Presidents Council, underscored Cryder’s contribution.
“The membership of Division II owes Dennis a large debt of gratitude for his groundbreaking work with our strategic-positioning platform,” he said. “He advised Division II presidents of the need for the platform and was a creative and driving force in its development. We have used the platform for four years now as the compass for every significant move we make in Division II, which speaks well for Dennis’ foresight, engagement and effectiveness.”
Not every success was a happy one.
Last October, Cryder and his staff were called upon to produce a memorial tribute for NCAA President Myles Brand. It was an ambitious undertaking that involved bringing in people from across the country, securing Indianapolis’ Conseco Fieldhouse on short notice and arranging for a national television production.
“Dozens of attendees continue to comment on the professional, yet highly personalized, nature of the memorial,” said Brand’s widow, Peg. “One friend called it ‘breathless.’ People learned so much about the fuller life of Myles through the careful selection of speakers and settings, and Myles was truly honored in the process.
“Working with Dennis this past year turned a sad process of immense loss into one of heartfelt celebration. We are grateful to Dennis and his staff for his sensitive crafting of Myles’ ‘Legacy of Leadership.’
Cryder would be pleased with the success and even more pleased with the acknowledgement of the staff.
“I’ve had a chance to work shoulder-to-shoulder with many talented people – and that’s the key word: ‘with,’ he said. “I’ve been blessed to recognize talent and work with talent.
“Every time I do a new-employee orientation in the national office, I always tell the folks in that room, the reason I came back is because the NCAA is loaded with very talented individuals – and if you want to learn, and you want to contribute and you want to grow, this is the place to do it.”
It’s been a long, twisting route from that night at the restaurant in Jackson, but Cryder said it has been a rewarding journey.
“Little did I know in 1974 with the coaches’ highlight show at Jackson State that many years later, in 2010, I could look back and say, yes, that’s what I did for the lion’s share of my career: Tell the story.”