Why Silicon Valley misses Coach Campbell

In a new book about legendary Silicon Valley adviser Bill Campbell, former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, along with co-authors and longstanding Google executives, Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle, describe their subject as a salt-of-the-earth, tough-love savant, who came up the hard way from blue collar Pennsylvania to the football fields of the Ivy League and then to Silicon Valley, of all places.

It’s a singular story, and Schmidt & Co. have a world of respect for Coach Campbell as he was universally known. (The book is titled “Trillion Dollar Coach,” alluding to the combined market capitalizations of Google and Apple for which they suggest Campbell was partly responsible.)

Bill Campbell, then chairman of the board and former chief executive of Intuit Inc., smiles as he moderates a fireside chat with Ben Horowitz of Andreessen Horowitz during day one of TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2012 event at the San Francisco Design Center Concourse in San Francisco, California September 10, 2012.

The book is of special interest to me because of what is says about giving and receiving advice in Silicon Valley these days, and because I knew a little bit about the Coach and his story.

First, Campbell’s counsel sometimes seems so, well, obvious, that I wondered how he and his thinking could be considered so special.

His wisdom consisted of: “Pick the right players.” “Be empathetic.” “Celebrate people’s accomplishments.” Not exactly earth-shattering and I said as much to Schmidt in a recent interview.

ANDY SERWER: “Some of this stuff Eric, quite honestly, sounds intuitive.”

ERIC SCHMIDT: “It's obvious.”

ANDY SERWER: “But people don't do it. Why?”

ERIC SCHMIDT: “I don't know. It's a mystery to me. And I can tell you one answer, which is often in our industry, the executives are young. They're not that experienced. All of us went through that. But another possibility is that people just don't have the time. I mean, the pressure on these companies and the startups— and it was bad enough for me. But look at it today with the time critical and compression that people are dealing with.”

Former Alphabet's Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt speaks on the phone during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 24, 2018. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

Ok, I’ll buy that. Silicon Valley executives are too young and too busy to figure this stuff out. But I think there’s another reason why Campbell’s simple wisdom resonated in Silicon Valley. To a certain extent this was about Campbell—who might as well have been from the moon he was so different from many of his mentees—calling out high-flying tech execs on their cluelessness. That sounds like a full-time job to me.

Perhaps like nowhere else on earth, successful young people in Silicon Valley live in a bubble. Surrounded by a homogenous cohort, sycophants, and an endless, closed feedback loop which repeats and recites the siren song of the unfettered benefits of technology, it’s no wonder this class of entrepreneurs, CEOs, and leaders—who have vast wealth and wield unprecedented power—are out of touch and need counsel. Ask yourself if you don’t think Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Evan Spiegel of Snap, and Logan Green of Lyft could use a bit more talking to by a greybeard like Campbell.

Now let me tell you about Coach Campbell — who died at the age of 75 in 2016 — and my small role in how the world sees him today.

‘You threw me under the bus’

It goes back to the days when I was editor of Fortune Magazine, more than a decade ago. Our super-in-the-know tech writer, Adam Lashinsky, first described Campbell to me in 2007, and we both agreed that he had all the elements of a first-rate article. Here’s a 60-something football coach, with an amazing back story, who hangs out in a sports bar and mentors the likes of Schmidt and Steve Jobs. And no one’s ever heard of him. I’ve got to meet this guy, I told Lashinsky. Campbell, who wanted no part of any story, respected Lashinsky enough to agree to have a beer with me (and Adam), at the Old Pro, the Palo Alto bar that he part-owned and where he held court on Friday afternoons.

And so I met Coach. He eyed me warily, but soon enough we were engaged in one of his rollicking conversations. Adam was right, of course. Campbell was a kick, and I was more convinced than ever that we should do a story about Coach and I told him so. He winced and groaned and protested. I told him to think about it and then flew back East.

Back in New York I decided to go ahead with the story and assigned it to a veteran writer, Jennifer Reingold. Coach tried to talk us out of doing the piece. At one point the two of us got on the phone and he said, “You threw me under the bus.” Campbell didn’t like the spotlight. Being behind the scenes suited him and served him well.

Still Jennifer proceeded with the story and began to reach out to sources and Coach’s friends. Meanwhile I went on a vacation with my family to the British Virgin Islands. One morning I was walking to breakfast and my phone rang. The voice on the other end said: “Andy?” “Steve Jobs.” And then he just started in on me: “Listen,” Jobs said, “if you do a story that is harmful to Bill Campbell in any way, I am going to come down there and punch you in the nose.”

I nearly jumped out of my flip flops.

But I gathered my senses and assured Jobs it wouldn’t be necessary or appropriate for him to assault my beak or any other portion of my anatomy, and that our story would be fair and well-reported. Jobs seemed only partly assuaged. His wariness no doubt the result of a story we had recently published about him which raised questions about how and when he disclosed his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

We published Jennifer Reingold’s story in July 2008, and it was everything I hoped for — a fascinating, inside look into an American original, Coach Campbell.

I never heard back from Campbell about the story, but I know it left him unhappy even though his peers thought it was great. I tried to see him several times, once agreeing to meet up at a Columbia University football game — but he never got back to me.

Here’s the thing: That Fortune article remains the most comprehensive and definitive story about Campbell. It was the right thing to do and I’m glad we did it.

Between that article and this new book, you can get a pretty good idea of just who Coach Campbell was and what made him so special. For a certain group of young tech execs, it would make for good reading.

Andy Serwer is editor-in-chief of Yahoo Finance.

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