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Published: Sunday, 4/27/2014 - Updated: 2 months ago

SPORTS COMMENTARY

Hall honor long overdue for Lessig

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Glen Driscoll of the University of Toledo chaired the Mid-American Conference’s council of presidents in late 1982, so he did the honors introducing the league’s new commissioner, Jim Lessig, at a news conference.

Driscoll ran through Lessig’s professional history, from his days as an assistant basketball coach at Bowling Green, then Minnesota, then with the NBA’s expansion Cleveland Cavaliers. Lessig had been an assistant athletic director at BG and the school’s director of alumni and development — all the while mixing in radio and TV commentator duties on Cavs’ broadcasts — then was the AD at both Bowling Green and, most recently, the University of Kansas.

Lessig’s daughter, Andrea, sat in the front row and listened to all of this. Suddenly, she turned to her mother, Margarita, and in something above a whisper asked, “How come dad can’t hold a job?”

Even Driscoll had trouble keeping a straight face.

Lessig held on to this job for about eight years and they were eight of the most pivotal and progressive years in the MAC’s history. Among many accomplishments was creating the first Hall of Fame for any collegiate conference in the nation.

And, on May 13, the 78-year-old Lessig will become a member of that hall.

“One of my big projects as commissioner, in 1986, was celebrating the MAC’s 40th anniversary,” Lessig recalled. “Each school picked 25 of its greatest contributors among athletes, coaches, and administrators and we had a three-day affair at the Holiday Inn French Quarter in Perrysburg.

"There was a tremendous turnout, and I looked around at all these greats and it hit me that we should start a MAC Hall of Fame.”

Jim Lessig Jim Lessig
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The first class was inducted in 1988, and it was an annual event through 1994, when for some reason the whole process ground to a halt.

“Somehow, it just got lost,” Lessig said. “A couple years ago, [current commissioner] Jon Steinbrecher called me for some input because he really wanted to start it up again. I’m very pleased he did that and now I’m very honored to be asked to join it.”

Among league administrators few have deserved it more.

Lessig moved the league office from Columbus, where it was centrally located but otherwise lost amid Big Ten sports, to Toledo. He was on the ground floor of establishing and then expanding women’s sports in the league at the time they moved under the NCAA umbrella. And when television paid short shrift to mid-major college athletics, he aligned the MAC with the regional Sports Channel network to give the conference far greater exposure than perhaps any of its peers enjoyed.

And Lessig was the one who made the presentation to the NCAA council as the MAC began a hard but successful fight to keep its seat at the Division I-A football table. All along, he helped nurture what was then the league’s lone postseason bowl opportunity, the California Raisin Bowl in Fresno.

Earlier, he spent four years as AD at his alma mater, Bowling Green, where he can claim hiring Jerry York, who built the Falcons’ hockey program into a national power. Between that stint and his time as MAC commissioner, Lessig has a lot of stories.

Some of the best ones, though, came earlier in his career when he was an assistant coach under Bill Fitch at BG, Minnesota, and during the first year of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ existence.

Like this true story. Little information was made available to teams from Buffalo, Portland, and Cleveland before the preseason expansion draft of veteran players in 1970. This was pre-Internet and before statistics services that are now commonplace.

One day, Lessig was shopping with his son, who spent 25 cents on bubble gum that came with NBA trading cards that had players’ career stats printed on the back. Lessig mentioned it to Fitch, who had his assistant coach return to the store and clean the place out of gum and cards. And that’s how the Cavs’ coaches prepared for the draft.

“We swore we’d never tell anybody,” Lessig said, “and we kept it quiet for about 10 years before a sports magazine got hold of it.”

Of course, the Cavs, who lost their first 15 games, went 15-67 during that 1970-71 season and often looked like a team built out of bubble gum cards.

That one season was enough for Lessig. He was also the advance scout, so he’d sometimes be hopping five or six flights a week. He figured it couldn’t continue to work with a young family.

So he returned to Bowling Green and resumed a college career that followed a path to the MAC commissioner’s office.

And now a Hall of Fame he founded will rightfully add him to its roster of stars.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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