Squash Lessons Comcast chief Brian Roberts owes his success partly to an old college coach

Dec. 04, 2000
Dec. 04, 2000

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Dec. 4, 2000

Squash Lessons Comcast chief Brian Roberts owes his success partly to an old college coach

The father, the loving father--the man who started Comcast and
built it into a cable TV giant with 25,000 employees and a market
capitalization of $40 billion--used to call his son Bree-oh-nee.
This was a term of endearment. Bree-oh-nee's college squash
coach, Al Molloy, born in Brooklyn, raised by the Marines, used
to call his worst player Muscles. This was a term of motivation.
As a freshman at Penn 23 years ago, Brian Roberts was 6'2" and
125 pounds. He had a pretty stroke, but an opponent could get in
his head and provoke him to the edge of tears.

This is an article from the Dec. 4, 2000 issue Original Layout

Today Roberts is 41 and president of Comcast, a
Philadelphia-based company that is the majority owner of, among
other things, the city's pro hockey and basketball teams and the
arena in which they play. When Roberts enters the First Union
Center to take in a Flyers or 76ers game, nobody calls him
Bree-oh-nee or Muscles.

He is starting to make a name for himself, as his legendary
father did, as his legendary coach did. After a tour of Microsoft
in 1997, Roberts found himself seated next to Bill Gates at a
small dinner. While other guests peppered Gates with questions
about Amazonian birdlife, Roberts asked him to make a significant
investment in the cable industry--and got $1 billion for Comcast.

Roberts learned about familial love from his father, Ralph, and
about earned love from his coach, Molloy. Both men shaped him in
enduring ways. Ralph's fingerprints are all over Comcast's annual
reports. (He's 80 and still chairman of the company.) Molloy's
fingerprints are all over them, too, but only the father and the
son know they are there.

To bulk up the kid, Molloy had him lift weights with the track
team. To toughen him up, Molloy had him play matches against
Richie Ashburn, the retired Phillies centerfielder, who played
wily, physical squash. On the locker room chalkboard, Molloy
wrote, NO PAIN, NO GAIN. Roberts adopted those four words as a
code of life.

By his sophomore year Roberts had moved up from 18th to ninth on
the Penn squash team. Against Harvard that year, the outcome
turned on how Roberts did in his match. All through Molloy's long
career, the team he wanted to beat most was Harvard. Between
games, he didn't bog down Roberts and his other players with
technical advice. He said, "This is the Harvard match. You'll
remember it the rest of your life. Do whatever you have to do to

Roberts won. Penn won. Molloy bought his players champagne. Two
weeks later, Penn was playing Princeton for the national title,
and the hero of the Harvard match was sitting. After Harvard,
Roberts had lost a challenge match to Penn's 10th player and lost
his starting spot. That was it. No argument.

"Aside from my father, no man has influenced me more than Al
Molloy," Roberts says. "If you're going to accomplish something
in business, you have to be tough, physically and mentally. Al
gave me that. When I asked Bill Gates for that money, that was Al
whispering, 'Go for it, take your shot.' When Al said, 'Do
whatever you have to do to win,' he was empowering his players to
play their way. I do that today with our company presidents. Pat
Croce's title is president of the Sixers. But he acts and is
empowered as the owner.

"When I sat for that national title match, I was devastated. But
now I know that Al was just being fair to the guy who'd beaten me
in the challenge match. In business I've learned you can never
judge fairness from one perspective. Al took a group of
individuals and made them into a team." Roberts's greatest
teamwork has been with his father. Since 1990, when the son was
named president, Comcast has grown tenfold.

Molloy didn't treat squash as a genteel, elite game. He treated
it like Big 10 football. Roberts responded to that. As a senior,
Roberts was Molloy's No. 1 player, a co-captain and an
All-America. After graduation, he was on the U.S. team that won
the silver medal at the 1981 and 1985 Maccabiah Games in Israel.
In '97 he was on the team that won the silver in the 35-and-over
division. Molloy was with him, in spirit, on every point.

In June 1999, at Roberts's 40th birthday party, Molloy gave him
the framed scoring sheet from that cherished victory over
Harvard, taken right off the coach's office wall. A year later
Molloy died unexpectedly of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 72.

In matters of death, the father is far more experienced than the
son. "You were lucky to know him," Ralph told Brian, hugging him.
"You were lucky to have known him for as long as you did."

"When I asked Bill Gates for a lot of money, that was Al
whispering, 'Go for it, take your shot.'"