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Back in his days as a high school teacher, there were times Bob LaMonte could barely afford a couple of 50-cent Budweisers after a hot day of football. He and friend Mike Holmgren, coaches and history teachers at rival San Jose high schools, would occasionally meet at a bar after practice to talk football and the future. But by the end of the month, with their paychecks gone on bills and family, even the 25-cent beer nuts looked pricey. And $2.50 for a pitcher was out of the question.
At the time, these two 30-somethings scraping for change wouldn’t have been anyone’s bet to become kingmakers in the National Football League, the 800-pound gorilla of American sports. But a generation later, Holmgren is the dean of NFL coaches, having led three teams to the Super Bowl, including the victorious 1997 Green Bay Packers. LaMonte, meanwhile, has become an institution in his own right, quietly establishing himself as the dominant coach’s agent in the NFL, with a client base of more than 40 coaches, coordinators, and general managers at 24 of the league’s 32 teams. The heap of talent is topped by seven head coaches— double his nearest competitor.
LaMonte’s clients rule the sidelines of the Carolina Panthers, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Minnesota Vikings, the Denver Broncos, the St. Louis Rams, the San Francisco 49ers, and the Seattle Seahawks—as well as Notre Dame and Texas A&M in the college ranks. Not bad for a guy who didn’t represent a soul until he was 36.
“Looking back, it all happened at such a pace you didn’t have time to recognize it,” he says. “I feel very blessed.”
Indeed, since his late start, the once cash-strapped teacher has negotiated more than $800 million in contracts—a Disneyesque turn of events built on luck, pluck, and hard work. But at root, LaMonte’s evolution into the man BusinessWeek credited for setting a “new gold standard” for his clients goes back to the Santa Clara classroom of Associate Professor of History George Giacomini ’56.
"Had I not learned the lessons of diplomacy from George Giacomini, I would never have been able to become the agent that I became,” LaMonte says. “All negotiations are diplomacy.”LaMonte had come to Santa Clara primarily for two reasons: football and fun. Studying only figured during frantic cram sessions to rescue his grades. Otherwise, the 6´2˝, 225-pound nose tackle would rather take his bulk to Santa Cruz than to class. The spring of his sophomore year, however, he walked into Giacomini’s Western Civilization class and the lights went on. He’d taken history classes before, but Giacomini’s passion and analysis transformed the subject—and school in general, LaMonte says—into something wondrous. He dropped football and picked up the books.
“He just changed everything in my life,” LaMonte says.
LaMonte took Giacomini for a halfdozen courses, lapping up lessons on figures like Otto von Bismarck—the 19th-century Prussian political and military leader whose ruthlessness earned him the designation “the Iron Chancellor,” and who secured Germany’s place atop Europe by winning at negotiating as well as at war. Bismarck’s dictum that every treaty has its horse and its rider—its leader and its follower—has stayed with LaMonte ever since.
“When you’re negotiating a contract, you better get ‘the horse and rider,’” he says, adding that which side is which can pivot on the smallest detail. “Just when you think you have everything right, one little thing can make it go wrong.”
The full effect
As a student, LaMonte had no notion of applying the lessons as a sports agent, a profession that then barely existed. Giacomini’s immediate influence was to inspire LaMonte to get his master’s in diplomatic history from San Jose State University and to begin teaching. It was a career LaMonte felt made for. With his football player–size frame, his coat-andtie formality, and insistence on never wearing socks, he stood out on campus on appearances alone. But he prided himself on his kinetic, pacing lectures that he’d punctuate by asking his students if they were getting “the full effect,” the kind of “aha!” moment Giacomini had inspired in him.
“Everything was about energy and passion,” he says. “I wanted to know that you were learning.”
And that’s what he might have done— happily—for the rest of his working days. But in the late 1970s, LaMonte’s career hit a snag. With two kids, he was relying on summer and night-school jobs to stay afloat financially. But that extra income evaporated almost overnight in the wake of funding cuts caused by voters’ approval of Proposition 13 in 1978.
LaMonte scrambled to work part-time as a real estate agent, selling his first home on behalf of the parents of one of his former students—Rich Campbell, a football star at Santa Teresa High School, where LaMonte taught. Soon LaMonte was making as much as a part-time real estate agent as he did as a full-time teacher.
But the much bigger deal would turn out to be Campbell himself. A hulking quarterback, top student, and campus leader, Campbell’s brawn, brains, and arm had seemingly come from the football gods, throwing college coaches across the country into a tizzy. His decision had come down to two local schools: Stanford, which was his father’s choice; or Berkeley, his own, which rankled his dad, a military man suspicious of the school’s radical reputation.
It was a tough decision, and for help the teenager turned to LaMonte—his football coach and history teacher. It was the beginning of a bond that would change LaMonte’s life well beyond the home sale.
The two stayed in touch during Campbell’s time at Cal, where the football star grew only brighter. By the time Campbell graduated, he was the most sought-after quarterback in the college draft. And now it was the entire family that was turning to LaMonte for advice. He told them they needed someone they could trust above all else. They asked him if he could fill the bill.
There was no shortage of naysayers. Sports agents had really only come into their own in the 1970s, but by 1981 they were the rule, and almost all of them were attorneys, LaMonte says. The idea of a high school teacher moonlighting with the big boys drew snorts of derision.
But Campbell, now a journalist in Florida, wanted someone he knew and could trust. And LaMonte exuded a competence that made him a natural choice, Campbell recalls.
“Anybody who has met Bob knows that he’s just really a lot bigger than what he was doing then, teaching and selling real estate,” Campbell says. “I saw a depth to Bob that gave me a lot of confidence in his ability to jump into this new arena.”
It was a prescient choice. However inadvertently, LaMonte says he had arrived at the perfect résumé for an agent. As a diplomatic historian, he knew negotiations; as a coach and athlete, he was accustomed to pressure; as a teacher, he was comfortable as a mentor; and as a real estate agent, he was already a dealmaker. By his own estimation, he had certainly never lacked for swagger.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that he was representing Campbell, who Sports Illustrated had once dubbed the “Golden Bear with a golden arm.” LaMonte was either about to throw a touchdown— or fumble in a very big way.
“Had I ever screwed that up it would have been the shortest career in sports agency history,” LaMonte says. “Campbell was as close to a ‘can’t miss’ as they come.”
LaMonte’s leverage only increased when the Green Bay Packers selected Campbell. The year prior, the Packers had lost their first-round pick to the Canadian Football League and were in no mood to risk a repeat performance. It didn’t take a Bismarckian negotiator to end up as the rider in this deal. Still, LaMonte played the strong hand to perfection, securing Campbell a $1.25 million contract with a $500,000 cash signing bonus, the largest in league history to that point.
“That’s a great way to break into the business,” LaMonte acknowledges.
Two years later, LaMonte would show that the success wasn’t just dumb luck. Again fate all but handed him an A-list athlete. This time it was baseball pitcher Dave Stieb, the young ace of the Toronto Blue Jays who wasn’t happy with his pay or the agents who negotiated it. He turned to LaMonte, who had been a coach on his brother’s high school football team.
As with Campbell’s contract, the deal proved a microcosm of LaMonte’s career to come. Luck blessed LaMonte with a mouth-watering opportunity that he took for everything it was worth.
LaMonte recalls walking into the Santa Clara Marriott, playing the local yokel with three reps from the Blue Jays, and walking out with a sixyear, $6 million contract—eye-popping money even then for an athlete, especially one who had earned $250,000 the year before.
“Bob LaMonte was the straw that stirred the drink,” one reporter wrote, as fans whistled at the outsized “Treaty of Toronto.” LaMonte was officially someone who could turn his clients into riders.
X’s and O’s
LaMonte’s early success helped him accumulate a roster of mostly homegrown talents: Mervyn Fernandez, a football standout from San Jose State who played in Canada and the NFL; the late Nick Vanos ’85, a Santa Clara center drafted by the Phoenix Suns; Don Beebe, a wide-receiver for the Buffalo Bills; and tennis player Robin White, who won the U.S. Open doubles title in 1988.
Even then, LaMonte was strictly a part-timer, keeping his agent’s duties for after the dismissal bell. He maintained a loyalty to teaching that puzzled even some of his fellow educators. LaMonte, though, says he wasn’t tempted to leave. Expanding his work as an agent would take him from home too much.
“My dream then was to teach high school history and to raise my family,” he says.
In 1992, though, LaMonte got the opportunity that would vault him to the upper echelons of his profession, thanks yet again to another high school teaching connection: his old friend and fellow teacher Mike Holmgren. Since leaving high school coaching, Holmgren had gone on a coaching tear that made even LaMonte’s accomplishments look paltry. In just six years, Holmgren had shot from high school through the collegiate ranks to the top of the NFL, landing with the San Francisco 49ers as quarterback coach and, shortly thereafter, offensive coordinator.
By 1992, with two Super Bowl rings to his name, Holmgren was hot property. He tapped LaMonte to negotiate with the Packers for their head coaching position in talks so hush-hush that the two men checked in to their Green Bay hotel rooms under aliases.
Holmgren emerged with the job and LaMonte emerged with a new focus. At the time, coaches were just beginning to use agents, and LaMonte saw the sea change coming. The men who orchestrated the plays were overdue for the kind of money that players were getting. Holmgren’s invitation had put him in the position to take on the new field.
With his youngest child graduating from high school, LaMonte retired from teaching after nearly 25 years, moved to Reno with his wife and business partner, Lynn, shed his football players to avoid any conflict of interest, and began to grow his new niche.
Dealing with referrals only, the business grew slowly. But Holmgren was like the Johnny Appleseed of coaches, mentoring assistants who went on to become head coaches in their own right, often taking LaMonte as their agent.
Again LaMonte was lucky. And again, he proved himself worthy of the opportunity, earning a reputation for grooming lightly regarded clients for jobs they might otherwise have been passed over for. Repeatedly, LaMonte helped darkhorse candidates nab the top jobs: Andy Reid with the Philadelphia Eagles, Mike Sherman with the Green Bay Packers, and John Fox with the Carolina Panthers.
In part, the secret was realizing that the owners of the teams were more fluent in business than in football. They wanted someone who spoke their language. The most important letters for aspiring head coaches, according to LaMonte, aren’t the X’s and O’s of playmaking, but C.E.O.
“They already know you can coach,” he says. “We want to prepare you to be a CEO.”
LaMonte used that insight to compile “The Notebook,” a thick three-ring binder of trade secrets he arms his clients with in preparation for their interviews. The binder covers basics like how to dress and what to ask, and then goes into more sensitive material whose importance tells in LaMonte’s reluctance to talk about it. Normally a garrulous interview, LaMonte gives few details on the binder’s contents.
“You have to pay for that,” he says.
Lynn, who runs the business side of their company, Professional Sports Representation Inc., says the binder reflects LaMonte’s past as a teacher and their mutual obsession with process and details. The couple is in the fourth of five five-year plans, in which they long ago laid out their goals for their lives.
Jon Gruden, who led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to Super Bowl victory in 2003 and who now sits in the announcers’ booth for Monday Night Football, says that such preparation and thoroughness define LaMonte. Gruden values LaMonte’s advice not just in negotiating a contract, but also when it comes to investing his money or even buying a new car.
“He’s got tremendous vision,” Gruden says. “Like any great corporation or any great business, people want to be associated with him.”
While Gruden paints LaMonte as his courtly counsel, he knows full well his agent’s willingness to go to war, a side that was never more public than during Gruden’s exit from the Oakland Raiders in 2002. According to LaMonte, he and the Raiders had a contract extension worked out for Gruden, another Holmgren protégé who had joined the Raiders in 1998 and was one of the youngest, most sought-after coaches in the league. But at the last minute, the Raiders reneged on the terms, LaMonte says.
The breakdown spawned an ugly war of words. LaMonte abandoned his usual approach of being heard but not seen and publicly announced to reporters that there was “zero percent” chance his client would return to Oakland after his contract expired.
“When I fired that missile, I knew the reaction was going to be nuclear,” he says. “If I am going to come out, believe me I come out. Never take a knife to a gun fight.”
The hardball tactics ruffled feathers, with some saying the agent had become the problem.
“He’s an angel with me to my face, but he’ll come off and pop off and say something somewhere else,” Raiders owner Al Davis told the San Jose Mercury News.
LaMonte says he was just being honest. Either way, the tactic resulted in Gruden’s trade to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nobody was smiling wider than LaMonte a year later as Gruden’s new team crushed the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII.
“It was one of the five best days of my life,” he says.
“10 bucks and a 12–pack”
LaMonte and Giacomini stayed in loose contact after LaMonte graduated.
Giacomini, who at 75 is in his final year of teaching at Santa Clara, remembers the bulky nose tackle’s transformation into an increasingly serious student. LaMonte once showed up for an exam as white as a sheet of paper, barely able to speak through a migraine caused by staying up all night drinking coffee to tutor a less prepared classmate.
“For three hours, I waited for him to pass out,” Giacomini says. “He got an A in the class.”
But Giacomini had no idea how profound an influence he had on his former student until the 2004 publication of LaMonte’s book Winning the NFL Way, in which LaMonte describes Giacomini’s role in his awakening as a student.
“He was so excited about history that I figured if anybody can be so enthusiastic, so committed, and so passionate about something, I’ve got to know more about it,” LaMonte wrote in the opening of his book.
“I was embarrassed to tears,” Giacomini says of his initial reaction. “Then I couldn’t get enough copies to send to my kids and to my close friends. It’s the kind of thing you expect when you die.”
Giacomini was just as shocked when LaMonte and his wife subsequently endowed a scholarship in his old professor’s name to benefit a scholar/athlete majoring in history. For LaMonte, whose involvement in education includes serving on the advisory board of New York University’s Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management, the scholarship is a chance to make the kind of difference that Giacomini did in his life.
“I firmly believe I would not be who I am today without him,” LaMonte says.
Riches, though, haven’t been the main reward of his success, he says. LaMonte remembers the limo ride back to the hotel with his old friend Holmgren hours after the Packers’ Super Bowl victory.
“You know, Bob, as great as this moment is,” Holmgren said, “is it that much different than when we used to get on the bus after we won a championship game in high school?”
LaMonte concurs. He is happy as an agent. And he was happy teaching. In both cases, he was following his dreams. Just now he doesn’t have to worry about beer money.
“I always felt that if I had five bucks and a six-pack, I owned the Bay Area,” he says. “Now I’ve got 10 bucks and a 12-pack, and I am in great shape.”