Sunday February 26, 2023 Mike Sautter was the keynote speaker at the annual Nebraska Prospects banquet. Sautter shared his pillars, some notes on the changing landscape of college athletics and the similarities between travel baseball and AAU basketball.
Below is the speech in it’s entirety.
I’m a husband to a superwoman named Katie, the father of two beautiful girls — Leighton, age six, Lilly, age three — and the cutest bulldog you will ever meet named Jet.
I don’t know anything about baseball other than balls, strikes, outs, singles, doubles, triples, home runs, the occasional triple play, exit velocity, throwing heat, Uncle Charlies, and the occasional golden sombrero.
If you look at me, you can see that I’m incredibly athletic. Remember that one time I won a wrestling match at age 43 and was outweighed by 40 plus pounds by someone that was nine years younger than me?
What I do know is that sports can change your life. They did for me.
Tonight, I will share with you my three pillars.
I’ll talk about the changing landscape in college athletics and how to be different in those areas.
If you know me, you know basketball is my thing. We will talk about how Travel Ball and AAU basketball mirror each other.
A Pillar is what defines us; it’s our character, our personality and what fulfills us.
Sports have defined my life from an early age. Whether it was growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma and being a part of a youth football team that saw names like Jason Lohr and Rocky Calmus go on to play college football at the Division I level and later in the NFL.
Or during my football playing career, only losing two games until I officially retired after my sophomore year in high school when I was just too big and strong for the other players.
Or in elementary school watching endless reruns of SportsCenter each day, resulting in my older brother nicknaming me “SportsCenter.”
It could have been watching my brother coach different levels of college basketball for what is now 20-plus years. Maybe it’s the fact I couldn’t cleanly field a ground ball from second base as a seventh grader like my favorite Cub Ryne Sandberg could.
My pillars are an acronym that doctors are familiar with: PHD.
The P is for Passion. I found mine in 2009 when my brother, the men’s basketball coach at Western Texas College in Snyder, Texas at the time, asked me to go see a basketball player at Omaha Central named Deverell Biggs. That resulted in me going to every single one of Biggs’ games his senior season. It also resulted in me getting to know Akoy Agau, becoming his mentor and watching one of the most dominant high school basketball teams the state has ever seen win four straight titles.
My Passion for what I do every day started as wanting to be a conduit to help kids from Nebraska get recruited through the media. It’s evolved from a twitter account that was called NebraskaHSHoops where I was the first to live tweet games in Nebraska, to what you may or may not see me do today.
If you are passionate about something, you just find a way. For seven years I worked your standard sales jobs while working on my passion when time allowed. After work, late night, on the weekends and early mornings. I even got fired from one of those 8-5 jobs while at the state boys basketball semifinals in 2015; yes, I took a vacation day to be there.
In 2017 what I thought was my dream job came calling, a job doing what I do, covering high school sports and mainly recruiting, at the Omaha World-Herald. Three years later, well, they just didn’t have room for quote “another preps reporter.” My point is that if you follow your passion, it will all work out. It’s not always a straight line to the top, you will run into that wall trying to catch the fly ball and miss it. But the next opportunity you may just take away a home run.
After the World-Herald I spent two years betting on myself as an independent contractor just working away at my craft until November of last year when Hurrdat, the parent company of Hail Varsity and Hurrdat Sports, asked if I would listen to them. I missed being a part of a team, I missed bouncing ideas off of what we like to call TTBT (Team The Best Team). Remember, it’s not a straight path if you follow your passion.
Passion is defined as a strong liking or desire for or devotion to some activity, object, or concept. It’s an everyday thing, you can’t turn it on or off, you can’t say “Oh, tomorrow I’ll work on my passion.” If it’s just a game or just a job then you aren’t passionate about it. Mine is to be the absolute best at what I do.
You may ask, so what is the H? It’s Hard or better yet Hard Work. I’ve never been the smartest person in a room — just ask my 11th grade high school journalism teacher at Ralston High that said I would never be good enough to work in journalism. I’ve never been the most athletic — just ask Jerry LaFevre, the former head baseball coach at Peru State college and my seventh-grade baseball coach, about my ability to get on base without the ability to hit the ball to the outfield. I’ve never been the most handsome when I walk into a room (don’t tell my wife). I’ll never be the best writer, the best photographer, the best videographer or even the best dad, even though my kids think I’m pretty cool.
I will be the hardest worker you may have ever met, the best teammate you will find and love my family unconditionally. I can control those things.
I can control my effort, I can’t control the fact that I graduated high school as a 5-foot-11, 134-pound kid with glasses that could only just make the state wrestling tournament without placing in it.
So many people say they work hard, but do you? That video game or that instagram post or TikTok you just have to make can’t wait? There is a thing called a Puke to Post ratio that some college athletic programs have internally adopted. If you don’t understand what that means just ask me later.
The D is for Different, but let’s add to that. Everyone is different. Some of us (like me) can hit a baseball 400 feet, and others can throw a fastball 90 plus miles per hour.
Being Authentically Different is something I strive to be every day. If you are different just because I or your parents or coaches tell you to be, that won’t work. Authenticity is genuine, it’s exactly what you claim to be. Being authentic implies being fully trustworthy. Fake it until you make it won’t fly with me.
I have a personal mission statement: “celebrate the story differently.” If everyone else is doing something the same way, no one stands out. If you celebrate the success of others just a little differently than the person sitting next to you on press row or in the dugout, you might just be a better teammate.
I think we can all agree that the player leaving the dugout without cleaning it up or the one that doesn’t pick up the baseballs after a hitting session in the cage is different, but not in a good way.
Little things matter, for 10-plus years I’ve handwritten a thank you or congratulations note to the winning and losing coach at the state basketball tournament. I give it to them in the back hallways after the game with no one around. It’s an authentic personal message that doesn’t need to be shared on social media or in public view. Remember, it’s the little things that make you different.
Changing Landscape in College Athletics
Do you know the devil?
I read a recent interview where current Iona Men’s basketball coach and former Louisville and Kentucky and NBA head coach Rick Pitino said: “I know the devil here; sometimes people don’t know the devil.”
What he was referring to was coaching at a higher level of college basketball after rehabilitating his career and the Gaels program.
It’s not all sunshine and rainbows at the highest level of athletics. Sometimes when you have a good thing there is nothing wrong with staying put.
The transfer portal has astronomically changed college athletics. Some coaches only recruit the portal, some look to the portal first then high school or junior college. Why? Coaches at the highest level of college athletics get paid a lot of money. So their thinking is, I need to win quickly and right now. What better way to do that than with players another school has already developed?
The portal and NIL are tied together and probably forever will be. NIL has absolutely changed college athletics for the better in my opinion. It has caused more athletes to stay in school longer — well, outside of baseball because of that whole three years after high school before you can get drafted thing.
Twenty-two states have adopted laws that allow for college athletes to make money on their name, image and likeness. Not every college athlete is making millions of dollars, but it is enough to help take a date out on a Friday night.
Over 500,000 student-athletes have NIL rights; of that 500,000, roughly 1,000 made $50,000-plus last year.
You might ask, why are local brands using college athletes? Well, they generally have highly engaged followers, it’s an affordable way to associate with the university, they have a target audience of 18-24 year olds, athletes are followed by college sports fans and it’s a highly localized following.
Both sides, the brands or businesses along with college athletes are still struggling to figure out the path forward when it comes to NIL, and not every athlete will make even $500, much less $50,000.
So what is coming next? I think I agree with industry leaders:
player bargaining power for their full economic value is the next step. What does that mean? Maybe it’s a players union that negotiates contracts with the different NIL collectives or players are given the right to say yes or no to different NIL opportunities rather than the collective they sign up with telling them they have to make a certain Instagram post.
Travel Baseball Mirroring AAU Basketball
AAU basketball in Nebraska started in the early 1980s with just one team. It has evolved to more than one team and, well, dozens. That one team was known as Godfather’s — yes, the pizza place sponsored them. They were trailblazers; some of the names your parents might remember are Dave Hoppen, Bill Jackman, and Kerry Trotter.
Fast-forward some 30 years and names like Akoy Agau, Khyri Thomas, Justin Patton blazed a trail of their own. I lived it. You see, I got my start with AAU basketball because I found a niche that no one in the state was covering. It also let me see some of Nebraska’s best players compete against the best from cities like Chicago, Atlanta, L.A. and New York.
Have you ever been to LakePoint in Cartersville? I know the baseball facility is great but the gym is across the street. Wow!
What Prospects has done is exactly what happened with AAU basketball in the late 2000s and early 2010s — kind of regional games and maybe the kids from Nebraska can beat the kids from Des Moines or a team from Minneapolis every so often. Now? That is the expectation, and frankly, if they lose to those teams it’s an upset.
The point is, no longer should Nebraskans feel slighted athletically. We’ve more than proven we belong on a national stage, even with the state population similar to that of Phoenix. There should be no intimidation when you take the mound against the kid that has Arkansas, Vandy, Texas, Mississippi State and UCLA there to watch him hit.
Find Your Fit
If you are one of those fortunate people that can fit your passion to your profession after your playing days are over, you’re lucky.
Sometimes it has to happen years down the line and you must be committed to making sacrifices others won’t make. You have to find your superwoman that believes in your passion, or at the very least understands it.
You see, I made a lot of sacrifices in my life before anyone knew who I was. Remember those 8-5 jobs that just didn’t quite work out for me because I was too focused on my after-work, no-paying passion.
I still make sacrifices today. Frankly, tonight is day five in a row and nine of 10 without helping my wife put the kids to bed.
So I have a very cliche challenge for you: as you go into the next phase of your baseball life, control what you can control (your effort, being coachable, and being a great teammate), find your passion like I did even though it may not come to you in the most straight line, and don’t neglect opportunities to challenge yourself and make yourself uncomfortable as you grow.
Sports did change my life because I found my role. I know it’s hard to believe, but I wasn’t the five-star NIL superstar, but I’ve been able to share some of their stories in an authentically different way. I get an up-close ride all because of my passion, hard work, and being authentically different.
Thank you for letting me share my story differently.