In 1975, he was cleaning toilets at the Oakland Raiders' training facility. Three decades later, Mike Ornstein has emerged as one of the most powerful forces in sports marketing.
During his improbable rise, Ornstein gained access to the NFL's inner circle – and survived a checkered past.
He's on a first-name basis with NFL owners. He counts among his friends the league's new commissioner. He has represented the likes of Marcus Allen, Tony Gonzalez and Shannon Sharpe.
Now he's at the center of yet another controversy.
A Yahoo! Sports investigation reveals that Ornstein, a marketing representative for Reggie Bush, may have violated NCAA rules by providing extra benefits to the former University of Southern California star and the player's family. The actions of Ornstein and one of his employees could lead to USC facing NCAA sanctions and Bush being forced to return the 2005 Heisman Trophy.
This isn't Ornstein's first brush with scandal.
In 1995, he pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud for his role in a scheme to defraud the NFL. Yet he has reemerged as a major player within the league and in the world of sports marketing, and his relationship with Bush has gained him further attention and notoriety.
"He's a colorful guy," Marc Ganis, a longtime NFL consultant said last week. "He's the kind of guy that you wouldn't be surprised to find on the field before the Super Bowl or in a bar at two or three in the morning.
"I'll tell you one thing: He's done an absolutely phenomenal job for Reggie Bush. Let's be frank about something. Reggie Bush [had not] played a down in a regular-season NFL game, yet he [generated] the kind of revenue and exposure that someone who's been in a half dozen Pro Bowls gets."
First, there was the matter of signing Bush.
With the blessing of USC officials, Ornstein hired Bush as a summer intern to work at his sports marketing company based in Southern California. Ornstein said the internship paid only $8 an hour, but clearly he impressed Bush.
Last November, Ornstein said, he began advising Bush and the player's family on issues such as potential agents. In December, he joined the family at the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York. Later that month, he began negotiating a memorabilia deal for Bush.
The relationship paid dividends. Ornstein eventually pried Bush away from a fledging marketing group that appears to have given the player and his family more than $100,000 in financial benefits, including use of a $757,500 house, where Bush's family stayed rent-free for 12 months, a Yahoo! Sports' investigation discovered.
"Mike has a unique understanding of what motivates star athletes, and how to deliver what motivates them," Ganis said.
In representing Bush's marketing interests, Ornstein has delivered in a big way.
Bush already has landed endorsement deals with adidas, Pepsi and Hummer, and he has also hooked up with Subway and EA Sports video games, with the total package of endorsements estimated at $50 million. That would mean more than $5 million for Ornstein, who said his standard commission is between 12 to 15 percent.
"I still don't make enough money to retire," said Ornstein, 53, who lives in a two-story, four-bedroom house in upscale Westlake, Calif., with his wife and 10-year-old son and drives a 2004 Mercedes 500K.
Not bad for a guy who, by his own account, started his career at the bottom of the bowl with the Raiders.
ENTRY LEVEL WORK
During a recent interview, Ornstein retraced his path from toilet scrubber to powerful sports marketing representative. It started in 1975 when, fresh out of Indiana State University, he took a job as an unpaid administrative assistant with John Madden, then the head coach of the Raiders. Without his own car, Ornstein borrowed a beat-up truck known as the "Raider Mobile" and reported for work at 5 a.m.
Then he pulled out the cleaning supplies.
He said he handled janitorial duties before working with Madden from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Then it was off to the scouting department where he would help break down film and file reports. His workday typically included stops in the equipment room and he rarely left the complex for dinnertime.
Working unpaid for the first 18 months in Oakland, Ornstein said he headed to the Hilton on Monday and to the Hyatt on Tuesday and Thursday to eat the free hors d'oeuvres.
"I can't even look at a little meatball or a little hot dog anymore," Ornstein said. "Still to this day I gag when I see those things."
He became a fixture not only at the hotels' free buffet lines but also at the Raiders' complex, where his climb up the ranks was successful but stormy. He moved on to the media relations department, then into the marketing department and, at times, he proved as tough and unpredictable as those old renegade Raiders and team owner Al Davis.
According to a Los Angeles Times article, Ornstein "won undying fame before the 1984 Super Bowl victory in Tampa by ordering Irv Cross of CBS off the sideline – while Cross was on the air."
In 1986, Ornstein punched his fellow senior administrator, John Herrera, during an argument over who had used a movie projector last. Herrera pressed charges, and Ornstein pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery.
"When you work for Al (Davis), you kind of think you can do whatever you want," Ornstein said. "As a young guy, I was a feisty guy. … I did a lot of stupid things. I try not to do too many stupid things anymore.
"I haven't punched anybody out in 25 years."
But when he was with the Raiders, his fellow senior administrator wasn't the only one with whom Ornstein butted heads. He recalled a rocky relationship with Davis, adding that the owner fired him "three or four times." His association with the team ended in 1989, when Davis learned Ornstein had interviewed for a job with the Rams, then based in Los Angeles.
Attempts to reach the Raiders for comment were unsuccessful.
INSIDE THE NFL
Instead of working for the Rams, Ornstein landed a job working for NFL Properties, the league's licensing division. NFL Properties and the NFL Players Association were engaged in a vicious competition for the licensing rights of players, and in time Ornstein found himself on the frontlines of the battle – and later, in the middle of a scandal.
An investigation uncovered an embezzling scheme in the NFL's licensing division, and Ornstein was one of three men convicted. In 1995, he pleaded guilty to one count of mail fraud. A federal judge sentenced him to five years of probation, four months of home confinement and ordered him to pay $160,000 in restitution plus fines.
"I was kind of caught up in something that somebody else did and I kind of took a fall for it," Ornstein said. "… Anybody who knows the true story knows I was more of a victim than the cause. But to be a good soldier, I took a bullet for the NFL and didn't make a big issue of it. Just faded away from it. I think the fact that happened to me shows the kind of person that I am."
He declined to elaborate on who was behind the scheme to defraud the NFL and who he protected. But he soon reentered NFL circles. He spent three years with Integrated Sports International, and at the firm worked on behalf of former NFL stars Howie Long, Warren Moon and Aikman. Ornstein bought into a company, CWC Sports, that published yearbooks for most of the NFL teams, and after selling the company two years ago, he focused on sports marketing.
During that period, Ornstein continued to cultivate his network within the NFL. As a consultant to Reebok's football division, he helped broker an exclusive deal between the apparel maker and the league. He also signed dozens of players to individual deals with Reebok and began showing up on the sidelines during NFL games. He even served as a Super Bowl consultant to the Green Bay Packers in 1997 and to the Baltimore Ravens in 2001.
Acknowledging the roles Ornstein has played in league-related business, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said, "We don't have any issue with that involvement. That's the extent of what we have to say."
Of Ornstein pleading guilty in a scheme to defraud the league, Aiello said. "That's history."
No one in the NFL appears to hold a grudge against Ornstein based on his access and friendship. In fact, Scott Miller said that's in large part why he brought in Ornstein last year as part owner of MOVES magazine – a lifestyle publication directed at professional athletes and sports executives and unavailable by subscription or at public newsstands.
Bush appeared on the cover of the 2005 winter issue, said Miller, the magazine's publisher and CEO who said he's worked with Ornstein for almost 10 years.
"He's probably as well-connected, certainly in the NFL, as almost anybody I've ever met," Miller said. "I'm constantly amazed. There's virtually no one I call in any sport that doesn't know him."
Ornstein's vast network includes relationships with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
"I have seen him talking with Tagliabue," Miller said. "I'm not going to tell you what was said in the conversation. But, yes, I have certainly seen him talk to Paul Tagliabue. … I've seen him talk to the commissioner many times.
"Paul Tagliabue. Mike Shanahan. Bill Parcells. They all know him. They all call him Orny."
But, noting Ornstein's preference to work behind the scenes, Miller suggested another nickname.
"Call him the Godfather," he said.
Responded Ornstein: "The Godfather, I don't know about that. But I've been doing it for 30 years. If you don't know everybody after 30 years, you must be doing something wrong.
"Whether it's the equipment managers, the trainers, the coaches, the players, the general managers, they know me. And most of them I have a pretty good relationship with. They know me as a guy that can get something done. …
"Now my cause is New Orleans, and Reggie and I are tackling all the problems there."
Since the April 28 draft, according to a story in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Bush and his sponsors have donated more than $50,000 to Holy Rosary Academy to help keep the special-needs school operational; funded an $86,000 installation of a new playing surface at a stadium used by many of the area's high school football programs; and arranged for Hummer to donate a dozen of its vehicles to the police department in a city adjacent to New Orleans.
His charitable efforts also have included partnering with the international hunger relief organization Feed The Children, the NFL Players Association and Urban Impact Ministries to help deliver food and toiletries to needy families in New Orleans.
"What they did in New Orleans, to have both Reggie and his sponsors do highly visible Katrina-related civic good was a stroke of brilliance," Ganis said.
But while tackling New Orleans' problems, Ornstein and Bush might face problems of their own stemming from Yahoo! Sports' investigation. If the NCAA finds Bush or his family received extra benefits and declares him retroactively ineligible, the Downtown Athletic Club could strip Bush of his Heisman Trophy and the Bowl Championship Series could take away USC's 2004 national championship.
Ornstein vehemently denied providing any extra benefits to Bush before the player declared himself eligible for the NFL draft and signed with the agent. He said the media's focus should be not on potential violations, but on all of the good his star client is doing in New Orleans.
"If you want to talk about Reggie Bush, you've got to talk about me," Ornstein said. "Because I've been right there helping him."
- Reggie Bush