Harold Richardson takes on a challenge

Signing on as executive director of America’s longest running college all-star football game, the East-West Shrine Game®, wasn’t a decision Harold Richardson took lightly. “The landscape of all-star games has changed dramatically over the past ten to fifteen years,” says Richardson. “It’s not like the old days when an all-star game only had to compete with a handful of college bowl games like the Orange, the Cotton, the Sugar and the Rose – the bowls we all remember. Last year there were nearly 40 post-season college games. People could watch college football for 35 straight days without getting off the couch. Not a lot of demand for an all-star game,” says Richardson.

Times are tough, but you know what – so is football. Football is built around rising to the challenge, and football is built into Harold Richardson. When representatives from Shriners asked around the NFL for people who could rise to the challenge of growing the East-West Shrine Game, Richardson's name was on most everyone’s short list. Having served as general manager of the Atlanta Falcons from 1998-2002, which included making it to the Super Bowl in 1999; serving 14 years as a coach and administrator for the New Orleans Saints and Denver Broncos, as well as 12 years as a college football coach, Richardson’s football resume is anything but short. His Super Bowl rings are tributes to the years he spent playing, coaching and managing at all levels of game. In honor of brevity, let’s just say Harold Richardson knows a little something about putting on a football game – and leave it at that.

As a man of football, the chance to run the East-West Shrine Game was appealing. Mention many of the greats who have played in the game – Farve, Brady, Staubach, Sayers, Dungy, Elway – and chances are Richardson has played, coached or worked with or against the majority of them. He knows the people, and he knows what it takes to play at that level. Still having been around that much football he had to ask himself, would it really be worth pulling up stakes after 15 good years in Atlanta and moving to Tampa Bay to run the game?

The game breaker for Richardson was the chance to build on the game’s heritage of supporting Shriners Hospitals for Children®. Even with all of the greats who have played over the years he says, “It’s always been about more than the game. It’s about the chance to support what the Shriners make possible through their facilities. I get hung up on the fact that nearly a million kids lives have been dramatically changed by the care made possible by Shriners. Add to that the lives of all the people around them, and that’s making a difference in a lot of lives. There are not many organizations stepping up with results like those,” says Harold Richardson, executive director of the East-West Shrine Game – going on two years now.

“It never hurts to feel good about something you do,” chuckles Richardson. He credits his wife Ramona for framing the opportunity best when she said, “How many times at the end of your career do you get a chance to do something you love – and it actually helps somebody?” That was two games ago. Games 86 and 87 to be exact; and the clock is already ticking on Game 88.

In sports the numbers matter, and the reports on this year’s game show increased attendance, increased exposure, increased community support and a large enthusiastic family-oriented crowd that spontaneously erupted into the Wave. The coaches did a superb job of preparing their teams, resulting in a well played game that was exciting to the end. The players were appreciative of a well-coordinated chance to show their skills to some big name employers. Between 250 and 300 NFL scouts attended practices this year. Over 70 percent of the players in last year's game 86 made it onto NFL rosters. Time will tell how the 110 players who played this year will stack up to that. The scouts gave this year's experience high marks, Overall Richardson says, “This year’s group was of a higher caliber than last. Our goal is to keep improving every year. That’s one of the keys to growing the game.”

In TV talk, Richardson said, “Tropicana Stadium’s seating arrangement, combined with a good sized crowd, allowed NFL Network camera crews to show the game from all angles, without having to worry about a lot of empty seats. Empty seats kill a game on TV.” Instead they were able to show another key to growing the game – a crowd full of young families having fun. “We priced the game so that people can afford to come. We need to attract the young people and establish the tradition in the community,” explains Richardson.

Last, but hardly least, the game kept it interesting by waiting until the last two minutes for a winner to emerge. A great cause, families, fun and an exciting football game – that’s just good product.

Ah, but it’s just a game right? Tell that to the staff and volunteers behind the scenes who tie together all aspects of the game from contracting with the stadium and finding the right sponsors; to inviting, housing, feeding, and transporting 110 players and 20 coaches; moving personnel and equipment to and from practice and the game; hosting a banquet for 600 and giving everybody a chance to buy some swag. Lot’s of to-dos on that list.

Even though it’s on the task list, it’s fair to say that coordinating the players’ and coaches’ visit to Shriners Hospitals for Children – Tampa is more of an opportunity than a task. In the end, the kids do all the heavy lifting and steal the show, while six foot four three hundred and twenty pound football players turn to mush – more than enough inspiration and motivation in the air for everybody. The consensus of those in attendance ran from “It was amazing” to “One of the best visits ever.”

“We just have to keep building on the formula,” says Richardson, who would like to see attendance up over 30,000 before he steps aside. “Growing a game like this is a grass roots effort. It takes time to get the community on board, but we’re headed the right direction.” After being played in five different cities in the previous eight years, Richardson couldn’t be happier with hosting the game in what he hopes is its long term home at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. “With Shriners International Headquarters and the hospital right here, Tampa Bay is a great home for the game. The community is really excited about getting behind us. All in all, we made some big strides this year and there are already some great ideas in the mix for next year’s game,” says Richardson.

There you have it. Thanks to a lot of planning and hard work by Richardson, his staff and a some tireless volunteers, America’s longest running college all-star game – the East-West Shrine Game has new energy, a new home and a brighter future.

Just one last thing. If you are the executive director of America’s longest running college all-star football game, the East-West Shrine Game, how many times at the end of your career do you get a chance to do something you love and it actually helps somebody? “Everyday I go to work!” says Harold Richardson.

You can learn more about East-West Shrine Game at www.shrinegame.com.