The man behind the recent escalation of the basketball-shoe war on the nation's college campuses is Sonny Vaccaro, who has had previous experience in sports wars involving big money. He was a player agent when the American Basketball Association tried to break the NBA's dominance of that sport.
At stake this time are millions of dollars worth of sales in basketball shoes in a market dominated by Converse for 50 years and, in the nation's current jogging craze, the resulting spinoff generated by the built-in advertising of distinctive logos on each brand of basketball shoe.
So Vaccaro, most recently known for his promotion of the Dapper Dan high-school all-star basketball game in Pittsburgh, which led to a slew of similar promotions across the country, went to the Nike shoe company with an ideas give college and high-school basketball teams all the shoes they need and pay the college coaches some personal-endorsement fees.
Like the ABA, Nike is a new kid on the block. And Converse's original canvas Chuck Taylor All-Star shoe still is the nation's best-selling basketball shoe, at about 9.9 million pairs last year.
Converse's sales last year were approximately $150 million, with about 70 percent of that coming in the basketball-shoe market.
Converse promotions official Joe Dean said yesterday, "They (Nike) have kind of gone out and bought the business. If you're behind that's the approach you'd take. At this time, we do not plan to pay coaches."
A group of University of Oregon graduates began the Nike company in 1972 and it has become a leader in the jogging-shoe field. Nike's sales last year were $71 million. Basketball shoes, however, accounted for only 10 percent of the revenues, according to Vaccaro.
So, Nike gave Vaccaro two years to try his approach to marketing. Already he has signed the University of Maryland's Lefty Driesell and 16 other major college coaches to personal-endorsement contracts annally worth up to $10,000 each. He expects to receive signed contracts soon from another 15 coaches.
Some big-name coaches have remained loyal to Converse. Dean Smith of North Carolina turned down a reported $20,000 offer by Vaccaro, Joe Hall of Kentucky, the defending NCAA champion, and Eddie Sutton of Arkansas, an NCAA semifinalist last season, also kept their allegiance.
Bill Foster of Duke, the NCAA runner-up and the team ranked No. 1 in most preseason polls this year, decided to join Nike's "Coaches' Club." Foster reportedly was paid about $8,000, the same as Driesell.
"It's a dollar society," Vaccaro said yesterday from his home in Las Vegas. "I'm not trying to hide that."
Vaccaro said all the coaches signed thus far have agreed to endorse Nike for at least two years. About six or seven of them, he said, signed four-year contracts, with an escalating pay scale.
In the future, Vaccaro said, he intends to get the company to include the coaches in the same incentive setup as the 80-odd NBA players who have signed contracts to wear and endorse Nike. The players' contracts give them a percentage of any increase in total sales of basketball shoes.
It is quite different from Converse's near-monopoly days. When the St. Louis Hawks moved to Atlanta, the team called up Converse and ordered 240 pairs of basketball shoes. The Hawks paid full price. A college coach used to be happy if he and his aassitants got a free pair of sneakers. Some of the bigger schools were given two-for-one deals when they bought shoes. The top coaches also got clinic fees, with expenses paid, sometimes for their wives.
Last season 1,150 four-year ccolleges fielded basketball teams. Eighty percent of them wore Converse, according to Converse. But many of the Division I schools were shoed in Pro-Keds, Adidas, Pumas and Nikes. Pro-Keds started its own advisory staff and seemed to be getting a hold on the college game.
Mike puts nicknames on the backs of the shoe. At Duke, according to Vaccaro, Eugene (Tinkerbell) Banks, a sophomore and All-America candidate, has "Bell" on the back of his sneakers.
"It's like the NBA and the ABA, and I'm so familiar with the thing," said Vaccaro "I could go out there and get them and treat them right . . . I realized it was an open market; I did my homework.
"Nowhere in the contract does it say you have to wear them. No coach in the world can force and Albert King to wear a shoe if he doesn't want to. The coaches are contracted to speak at two clinics and we take care of them comfortably. It's a way they can make a few bucks."
Actually, Vaccaro says, he is somewhat amazed at the way his marketing idea took off. At first, he said, he planned to concentrate on high-schools and "the young coaches who would be the Leftys 10 years from now."
Then, he said, he realized he could go for the big-timers, too, and, in less than three months, he has 17 coaches, including Driesell, Foster, Jerry Tarkanian, Frank McGuire and Norm Ellenberger.
As for the competing brands, especially Converse, Vaccaro said, "We caught them asleep at the switch. They should have never let it happen."