The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, January 26, 2021 1:00 am

Super Bowl challenges his forte

Snider graduate spent 26 years in charge of game

BLAKE SEBRING | For The Journal Gazette

Could there be anyone sweating more nervously than the NFL person in charge of presenting next month's Super Bowl? The game is scheduled for Feb. 7 at Tampa's Raymond James Stadium pitting Kansas City against Tampa Bay. Some 22,000 fans will attend, but other activities surrounding the game are in question because of the continuing coronavirus pandemic.

“The toughest thing they have is the total uncertainty going through it,” said the one man who knows every angle of putting on a Super Bowl. “The uncertainty of it is just crazy.”

For 26 years, Fort Wayne native Jim Steeg was in charge of the country's biggest annual game as the NFL's senior vice president of special events. From 1980 to 2005, he organized it, presented it, controlled it and did everything to turn it into the world's premier sporting event.

The 1968 Snider graduate was responsible for all aspects of the Super Bowl, including stadium and practice site preparation and build-out; pregame and halftime shows, national anthem performers; team, media, corporate and fan accommodations; corporate hospitality; television broadcasting; telecommunications; transportation; security; logo design; decorations and signage; ticketing; the NFL Experience; the NFL Commissioner's Party; the Super Bowl Concert Series and the oversight of the local community's Super Bowl Host Committee. He never got to take a deep breath.

One year in Miami, he got up early one game day to run around town buying up raincoats because the forecast was for a heavy downpour. The rain stopped two hours before kickoff, but Steeg was prepared.

One of his favorite stories involves Super Bowl XIII when the theme was the Caribbean. There was a large tarp map on the field with musical representatives from each island and a small boat traveling between the islands.

“The Haitians came in early and went to our party on Friday night, and we never saw them on Sunday,” he said.

There were also a million details and events away from the Super Bowl he was in charge of such as the Pro Bowl, the NFL draft, the international games and being the league's chief liaison to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Running a 25-person department, Steeg was always busy, and he even faced similar Super Bowl challenges to this year a couple of times.

In 1991, the Gulf War broke out 10 days before the game in Tampa, Florida.

“That was the first time where you had to enter a stadium going though patdowns and metal detectors, and you didn't know whether you were going to play the game or not,” Steeg recalled. “Tampa was the command center for the war, and there were all these rumors of attacks. That was a different one to go through and we got rid of parties and stuff like that.”

But Whitney Houston sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the New York Giants edged the Buffalo Bills 20-19 as Scott Norwood's last-second field goal sailed wide right.

Steeg's second major Super Bowl challenge came in 2002 after the 9/11 attack.

“Even though it was 100 and some days later, nobody was flying or going to events,” Steeg said. “Everybody was afraid if there was one event somebody would attack, it would be the Super Bowl. We had the Secret Service handling our security and concrete barriers around the stadium.

“I actually think it's the most important event in the NFL era since we weren't traveling and we were afraid to go to events. The fact that we succeeded and then the Olympics were two weeks later in Salt Lake got everybody moving again.”

The game was not a sellout, but New England won in New Orleans by beating the St. Louis Rams 20-17. The Patriots' Adam Vinatieri kicked the game-winning 48-yard field goal as time expired.

“You had to make it look as normal and whatever as you could,” Steeg said. “It worked out great. People got to the stadium early and nobody complained about the lines getting in.”

The last Super Bowl Steeg was in charge of was in 2005 with the Patriots playing the Philadelphia Eagles in Jacksonville.

“To give you an idea of how valuable he was to the league, losing him is like the Patriots losing Tom Brady,” said longtime Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt on, foreshadowing something else that happened 15 years later.

Steeg left to become executive vice president and chief operating officer of the San Diego Chargers. The goal was the convince the community's political figures to collaborate on building a new stadium.

The Chargers went 68-27 during those six seasons, winning five division titles and selling out 48 consecutive home games. The talks about the new stadium never got too serious.

“I always thought we could get it done, but there wasn't a will,” Steeg said. “The antagonism that was created between ownership and the political community was almost impossible to overcome.”

Steeg retired in 2010 to become a consultant on various sporting projects. He helped set up the first Pac-12 football championship game, helped the NHL set up outdoor games in Chicago and Los Angeles, worked on the renovation of the Los Angeles Coliseum for the Southern California football team and helped pull off a huge snowboarding/concert event at the Rose Bowl for Shaun White.

“What I really wanted to do was things that were different,” Steeg said. “I was fortunate enough that I found a number of projects that were different.”

Continuing to look for something different, Steeg and his wife of 15 years, the journalist Jill Lieber, moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in 2016. Now 70, he golfs often and loves attending minor league baseball and college games when they are open to the public. They had tickets to the Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament before it was closed down in March. He's also become a consultant to the powerhouse University of North Carolina women's soccer team, trying to boost attendance.

Now, like everyone else, he's waiting for what's next and hoping for a great game that might provide a needed distraction.

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