When Fran Tarkenton, who normally is a party just waiting to happen, walked into the Stamford, Conn. offices of Exxon Office Systems Co. not long ago, his sunny disposition was obscured by gathering thunderheads. Exxon, claims Tarkenton, had agreed to purchase $1.2 million worth of advertising through one of his business enterprises and now was seeking to renege. As Tarkenton describes the scene, he entered the conference room, opened his plastic bag of chewing tobacco, picked up a porcelain coffee cup, spat in it and observed, “Well, I see the largest corporation in the world is here with their lawyers and one of the biggest advertising agencies in the world is here with its lawyers—and I’m here. Alone. Gentlemen, that’s a fair fight.”
Whereupon—because “I’m not an unbending soul,” Tarkenton explained—he announced he would settle for a mere $600,000. Exxon, he reports, said it would pay only $100,000. Tarkenton spat once more, warned that “You people don’t want to get into an alley fight with me,” and left for California. Next day, he says, Exxon agreed to his terms. “The difference,” Tarkenton concludes, “is they were dealing with Exxon’s money but I was dealing with my money.”
Indeed. Seldom does any professional athlete make the transition from jock to businessman with Tarkenton’s wizardry. In 18 years of professional football (“That’s a gracious plenty,” he says), he set five still-standing NFL records, including most yards gained passing (47,003), most pass completions (3,686) and most touchdown passes (342).
“But all that time,” says Tarkenton, “I was a businessman masquerading as a football player.” In 1978, his final season, he earned $350,000 from the Minnesota Vikings, for whom he toiled 13 years. These days he takes home around $3 million a year (Tarkenton himself won’t divulge figures) and is worth another $15 to $20 million in equity. Among his assets are a $1 million home in Atlanta, where his ex-wife, Elaine, lives with their children, Angela, 17, Matthew, 13, and Melissa, 12; a mountain retreat at Big Canoe in north Georgia; the requisite Mercedes, a Porsche, blah, blah, blah. Yet, he points out not immodestly, “I have never lived up to my income.”
Never mind the chewing tobacco; never mind his joking insistence that he graduated from the University of Georgia with a degree in business administration but “virtually unscathed by education”; never mind that his favorite place to shop is the 7-Eleven a few blocks from his Atlanta condo. Make no mistake: Smooth, articulate Fran Tarkenton is one shrewd businessman—a canny innovator whose little-boy earnestness (also never mind that he’s 42) can charm the spots off of snakes. Simply put, his golden arm, which carried him to All-Pro recognition and made him the NFL’s most valuable player for 1975, according to the Associated Press, is nothing compared with his golden mind.
He is chairman of the board of five companies—all businesses he started himself. The first was Tarkenton & Co., a management consulting firm that he launched in 1972 while he was still playing football. These days clients pay from $50,000 to $250,000 for the company’s help. “I felt,” says Tarkenton, “that marketing was pretty good and financial planning was pretty good, but there was not nearly enough being done about productivity.” Among his other enterprises are Tarkenton Insurance Agency, which deals in payroll-deduction life insurance; Tarkenton Information Systems, which reduces mounds of computer data to usable bites; and Tarkenton Software, Inc.
All his companies are operating in the black, says Tarkenton, with pre-tax profits ranging from 15 to 35 percent. Remarkably, although Tarkenton started two of his enterprises over the past two economically troubled years, he has managed to avoid serious debt. “If you wait for the right time or the good times to start a business,” he says, “you wait all your life. Also, in business, some people don’t take you seriously because you are a former athlete. But that is outweighed by the positive aspect of getting in the door.” Apart from his own companies, he is also involved in a variety of joint ventures, is part of a group that owns 16 percent of Pabst Brewing Co. and commands lecture fees of $10,000 and up. Among his topics: “Team Concepts in Business as Well as Sports.”
As if that weren’t enough, the erstwhile scrambler is one of the hosts of ABC’s That’s Incredible!, which will pay him $800,000 this year for about 25 days on the job, and serves as analyst on 12 Monday Night Football games, which pays him another $250,000. “Television isn’t my career,” says Tarkenton. “Business is. I had almost nothing to do with the success of That’s Incredible! Anybody can read a TelePrompTer. And Monday Night Football was certainly made before I joined it in 1979. But I don’t feel badly about the money I make. You get $5 million and you want $10 million. I like to go first cabin, and money is a score-card. It tells whether you are winning or losing. What’s so wonderful about football and business and show business is that every time I start thinking I’m special, I get knocked on my ass.”
There are those who think he richly deserves it. Some Minnesota fans still haven’t forgiven him for quarterbacking the team to three Super Bowl losses, ignoring the fact that it was he who got the Vikes there in the first place. Others think him not just too negative on Monday Night Football but way too negative. Even his colleague, Howard Cosell, suggests that “Fran’s only problem is over-second-guessing the quarterback, which is understandable because of his unique abilities to improvise.” But if he’s so smart, some people wonder, what’s he doing hanging around a show as witless as That’s Incredible!? And finally, there are snide souls who wrongly suspect that his only involvement with his businesses is to lend his storied name. But most of the criticisms are envy-laced.
Tarkenton doesn’t think that they should be. “The pro athlete is a sad tale,” he says. “He signs a big contract and thinks he’s set for life. I didn’t think I was set for life, and I don’t now. As athletes, we are important, celebrities, in demand and rich. Then we are out of the game and we are not important, not celebrities, not in demand and not rich. So we struggle emotionally and financially. In my case, I didn’t want the ax to fall on me in training camp and have to walk out the door, look around and say, ‘Where do I go and what do I do?’ Yet for 95 percent, it’s a horrible transition.”
But not for Tarkenton. Born in Richmond, Va., the son of a Pentecostal minister who earned $50 a week, Fran went on to be an All-America at the University of Georgia before being drafted by the Vikings in 1961. From the beginning, he was preparing for life after football. After Tarkenton’s first year with the Vikings, he got an offseason job hustling new business for a trucking company in Sioux Falls, S.Dak. “The main thing I learned was that my personality was not enough to win anybody over,” he says. “I found that the best way to get business was to give the shipping clerk on the dock the best bottle of booze I could find.” Later he worked off-season for a printing company, an advertising agency in Atlanta and New York, and for Coca-Cola. Says Fran, “I love all games, and business is a game.”
Viking General Manager Mike Lynn recalls that Tarkenton was never content to be merely a quarterback. “Fran wanted to know all about me and my business,” he says. “He also made suggestions on trades and told me how much people should be paid. It was outlandish. He was like an owner.” Outside of football, though, Tarkenton’s acumen was not so well known. Philip H. Prince is a senior vice-president at American Express, which hired Tarkenton & Co. to carry out management training and development. Prince admits he first wondered if Tarkenton was “a pretty face and a false front,” but says he found immediately that Fran “knows how to plan and strategize and execute.” Tarkenton bristles at the suggestion that he might not know much about subjects like payroll deductions or computer software. “I’ll bet Roger Smith [chairman of General Motors] doesn’t know how to build a car, either,” he snorts.
Tarkenton’s management style is a winning one, but it probably wouldn’t go over at, say, American Express or Exxon. For openers, he is an enthusiastic delegator of responsibility with no paranoia about people blind-siding him. Once he asked Chuck Watkins, president of Tarkenton Insurance Agency, to go on a vacation with him. When Watkins said he was too busy, Tarkenton complained, “If you can’t be gone for two weeks you’re not doing a very good job of running that company.” Watkins went.
Which brings us to another aspect of Tarkenton’s management technique: lots and lots of time off. Over the last year he spent two and a half weeks at Sea Island, Ga., two weeks in Santa Fe and Jackson Hole, another two weeks in Canada, 10 days golfing in Scotland, two weeks in Hawaii after announcing the Pro Bowl, two more weeks on Maui, a week at Pebble Beach, and a lot of long weekends. “I don’t get stressed out and I don’t get overburdened,” he says. “I’m interested in production, not hours spent.”
To travel the country with Tarkenton during a typical week of, yes, business as usual, is to be with someone who loves what he’s doing. Here he is in Los Angeles, sitting cross-legged in his room at the Hotel Bel-Air, chewing and spitting and watching football and saying, “I don’t know anybody with the diversity in their life that I have.” Then he’s on the set of That’s Incredible!, on which he replaced Baltimore Oriole pitcher Jim Palmer after the pilot in 1979. Tarkenton got the chance after being given good marks as a guest host on Saturday Night Live.
While in California, Tarkenton sometimes pals with his That’s Incredible! co-host John Davidson. Spotting his buddy early one morning at the studio, he hollers at him, “You look like Tarzan without the body.” Davidson grins. He regards Tarkenton as an easer of tension. “I tend to take myself too seriously,” Davidson says. “Fran just has a locker-room way of being loose.” And that is his business style, too. Tarkenton misses the guys and the locker room, so he creates his own locker room wherever he goes. If it happens to be in a boardroom, so be it.
Rushing from That’s Incredible! to the airport, he grabs the red-eye back to Atlanta—a necessity if he is to watch son Matthew play his first football game the next day for Westminster Junior High School. Matthew—a quarterback, of course—is gang busters, running for a touchdown and passing for two extra points, all the while licking his fingers and looking confident. A chip off the old-you-know-what. Tarkenton and Matthew’s mother, Elaine, were divorced in March after 20 years of marriage. Fran says enigmatically, “I love her, but I couldn’t live a lie. Why put up with the bullshit if the relationship isn’t substantive?” Now he lives alone and finds it agrees with him. “It gives me a chance to see how I like myself,” he says. “I find I’m fun to be with.”
On Sunday, the day after the game, Fran goes to the grocery and spends $55 for taco makings. A business associate, Marvin Bluestein, makes the tacos, then comes the NFL (pre-strike) on TV. The second-guessing is rampant, the channel-switching crazed. Come Monday, three-piece Fran is back in his office, then on to Buffalo for a football telecast where he offers the astute, keenly felt observation, “Unfortunately, the fans don’t care about courage. They want completions and touchdowns.” Fran, booed furiously in his last Viking season, understands that glory is fleeting, but he doesn’t let it ruin his day. “I just don’t think I know depression like other people must know it,” he says. “I do know the richest things in life are the experiences we share. I can lose my money, but my experiences are inside of me where they live, and I love ’em.”