Sunday Conversation: Doug Barnette

Sunday Conversation: Doug Barnette

Danville radio personality Mike Hulvey calls him “Forrest Gump.” He has been to the White House and hung out with Warren Buffett and John McCain. But when it comes right down to it, he is just “Doug from Danville.” Doug Barnette has built an impressive career in sports management. The 43-year-old’s company, Player Management International Inc., is a major player in auto racing. One of the drivers it worked with, Tony Kanaan, is the defending Indy 500 champion. At this year’s race, he will work with driver Sebastien Bourdais. Staff writer Bob Asmussen caught up to the busy guy at his place in Hoover, Ala. The former Viking always will call Danville home.

Tell me about your involvement with the Indy 500.
I represent Geico. I’m GEICO’s agency in NASCAR and IndyCar. We’ve had a deal since 2008 with Jimmy Vasser’s team.

How is that working?
Well, we won the Indy 500 last year, so I’m going to ride it out and see where else it takes us. We finished fourth in 2011, third in 2012 and won it in 2013.

That was a special day for you beyond the race.
It was our 13th wedding anniversary. It’s a great way to celebrate. Win the Indy 500 on your anniversary and you’ll never forget it.

When was the first time you attended the race?
I was 11 or 12 years old. My Little League coach took our team. That was the only time I had ever been to the race. When I got into auto racing back in 2001, Indy meant a lot to me because of the obvious reasons. I grew up an hour from the track. I refused to go as a fan. I felt like if I went to Indy, I was going to go because I had a deal put together. It was something I worked on a lot. I came close on a couple of deals, and they fell apart. Finally in 2006, I put together a deal for Max Papis  to run the Indy 500. I did the deal with Eddie Cheever as a team owner. I worked on it all night. I finally got it done at 3 or 4 in the morning, and we practiced the next day.

Have you driven one of the cars?
I haven’t driven one or been in one, nor do I have any inclination to. I’m a businessman, and I do really good at that. I let race car drivers drive, and I put deals together. It’s a lot safer that way.

Where will you be watching the race?
I stand right in our pit stall. I’ll be there with Jimmy Vasser and the engineers. Before the race, I’m on the track, in the pit stall and praying.

What happens if your guy wins?
I think I get another ring, so that will be cool. I’d be thrilled to death for Jimmy Vasser. Jimmy is a racing legend. He has put his heart and soul and blood and sweat into that team and into racing in general. I’ve been friends with Jimmy for 11 years.  We’ve done a lot of cool stuff together. It would be cool to see him come out on top again.

What is the financial impact of another win?
All these things have a financial impact. Mine’s different than Jimmy’s is. He gets $3 million or whatever. I get money from negotiating a deal. Of course, the next year it’s always easier to get the deals buttoned up when you won the Indy 500 the year before.

How did you first get started in the sports management business?
I bounced around playing basketball. I spent a year with the Harlem Globetrotters, playing the team that played against them. The guy who was my agent, who helped me out with my basketball stuff, just gave me the idea. He told me what to do. I’m good with people, and I hustle and work hard. I have that personality.

You started with the NFL.
I had about 45 NFL players at one point. My first 11 players came out of Nebraska. My personality lended itself to being in that business. It made it easier for me to get clients. I played basketball. I knew the lingo. I understood the business. I didn’t have a problem working hard. I would work some days 18, 19 hours, hustling and putting deals together. My NFL guys, they are all pretty much retired.

The business has changed.
It’s not an industry where you have clients anymore, per se.  What I do is I will run out and put sponsorship deals together. That’s kind of where it’s going now. For example, I can represent Casey Mears. But if Casey Mears doesn’t have a sponsor, Casey Mears doesn’t have a job. Jimmy Vasser called me up and said, ‘Hey, we want to do the Indy 500.’ I said, ‘Great, I’ll go find the money.’ I spend a lot of time raising capital. I’ve represented GEICO for 14 years. I brought them in in 2000, and they had never been in NASCAR before. That was really cool.

So, you were not the inspiration for “Jerry Maguire”?
No, but that movie actually inspired me to start the company. I saw it and said, ‘That’s me.’ I said, ‘I can do that.’

What’s a part of your job that surprises people?
The personal side of it. Having to deal with people’s issues and problems. What people don’t realize is that all these athletes deal with stuff just like you and I do. They get in arguments with their wives just like you and I do. It’s a challenge because who do they go talk to? They can’t just go talk to their buddy about it because then it will end up on ‘TMZ.’ It’s a very tight circle of folks. You just don’t trust very many people. It’s the most challenging part of my job, but by far the most rewarding. You really get to make a difference in people’s lives. They listen to you. It’s pressure because you hope you give them good direction. I have a great faith in Christ and a close relationship with God. A lot of that goes into my conversations with people in terms of talking them through issues and problems. I just love the problem-solving side of it.

You have stayed active in Danville. Why?
My wife and I grew up there. We were both in the Class of ’88 at Danville High School. That’s just who I am. Paul Tracy has been to my house in Danville. Artis Gilmore has been to my house. They’ll go, ‘Why do you live here?’ To me, this is who I am. I love being able to walk down the street to Custard Cup. I love being able to go to Monical’s. I go to the Moon-Glo.

You can be yourself.
It’s just in my heart. I can live this lifestyle. But when I go home, I’m just Doug Barnette. I see my world history teacher at breakfast. They don’t give a darn who I am. They still treat me like I’m 16. It leaves you so grounded.

You donated a big chunk of money to have the Y gym named for Gene Gourley.
He was like, ‘Why in the world would you do this? You didn’t even like me.’ I said, ‘That’s the point. Because of everything you taught me in practice, those are the lessons that have really served me for a lifetime.’ My junior year in high school, I was academically ineligible going into the regionals. I will never forget the look on (Gourley’s) face. I knew he had the eligibility list. He just shook his head and said, ‘Doug, you let your team down, you let your school down and you let yourself down.’ He didn’t get mad at me. He didn’t yell. I wish he would have yelled. That has never, ever left me.

Did you enjoy playing for the Washington Generals?
It was a good time. You play 87 games every 90 days, and you lose all of them. It’s not that easy. We never won. Not by definition.

Do you still play basketball?
No, I’m a runner now, which is funny because I got kicked off the cross-country team in high school.

Tell me about your family.
My wife’s name is Teresa. Our oldest son is J.D., he’s 23. Our 12-year-old is D.J. for Doug Jr. Our daughter is Lauren, and she’s 10.

What went wrong with Keon Clark?
I spent a lot of time with Keon. At first, I was a little apprehensive to meet with him. After I met with him, I said, ‘My gosh, this guy is one of the smartest people I ever met in my life. He was on top of everything financially. Obviously, there was a side that he was dealing with things. The side I knew was not the side that everybody else sees. He was not that person. Here’s a guy who read the Wall Street Journal every day. He knew how much money he had. He knew what stock prices were.

There are a lot of famous folks from Danville, the Van Dykes, Gene Hackman, Bobby Short. Do you someday want to be on that list?
I don’t know that I will ever be on that list. Everything in society has changed. I think we all define success differently. I think I would want my legacy to be what it is: One, that I did become very successful and didn’t leave Danville. I do everything I can for that town. I contribute heavily, and that’s fine for me. In terms of being on a list, I don’t know that I’m interested in that. My involvement is much deeper than that.