Terry Marks's story is the story of America. It is the story of how the twin pillars of sports and education combined to make for opportunity; and how the lessons learned along the journey became templates for ultimate success. Marks's success is extraordinary, but the very ordinariness of his experience is the message. It is not necessary to be a captain of industry and a multi-millionaire in order to be a success. The fact that Marks is just these things is merely a neon sign advertising his work ethic learned through athletics, but the lessons imparted by this man have equal measures of impact on anybody willing to pick up on them.
It would be inaccurate to say that Marks grew up impoverished, although the kind of upward mobility America affords people of his background is unique. It is true that in England, France and other countries folks from the lower middle classes rise to the highest echelons of society. However, it is much rarer outside the United States that it is here. Terry's was a family of 11 in Rochester, New York. His father worked in the Kodak film processing plant. When he was growing up, the Kodak plant was the main employer in Rochester.
"If you were going anywhere at five o'clock, my mother would say, 'Oh, there'll be Kodak traffic' on the roads," Marks recalled. "My father never made more than $40,000 a year. He rose to be a supervisor and was home every day for dinner at 5:30."
Life for the Marks family revolved around the Kodak plant, sports and the Catholic Church. On the East Coast, neighborhoods were ethnic enclaves. Marks attended St. Thomas Aquinas High School.
"The priests had us play an annual 'football game' between the Irish and the Italians," he said. "It was a knock-down, drag-out affair meant to test your manhood." One year a girl from California transferred to the school.
"She was utterly exotic and new," Terry said. "To us she was like a movie star because she was from California."
Being Irish Catholic, naturally Terry and his family were die-hard Notre Dame football fanatics. Football was religion. Faith in God, the infallible Truths of Christ, were inter-changeable with Irish gridiron fortunes. There was just one faultline in his faith-based football fandom: the University of Southern California.
"I grew up in the 1970s," Marks recalled. "Those were my formative years, and they were great years for Notre Dame football, the 'era of Ara' <Parseghian>, of Joe Montana." Notre Dame won two national championships in the decade, but was overshadowed by their great rivals from USC. The Trojans beat the Irish eight of 10 times, captured three of their 11 national championships and the third of their seven Heisman Trophies. In 1974, USC rallied from a 24-0 deficit to crush Notre Dame, 55-24 in a game for the ages. It was like apostasy for Terry Marks.
"USC was Hollywood," he said. "The easy life. California morals. In a battle of good vs. evil, if Notre Dame was 'the good,' then USC had to be . . . something else."
In even years, Notre Dame ventured out west to play Southern California over Thanksgiving weekend. In Rochester, the snows were often falling. Being three hours later, darkness had descended. A sense of desolation permeated the cold outside the Marks family home, where the family gathered together to root for Notre Dame. The televised images consistently disappointed them, however. On the field, the Trojans more often than not pummeled the Irish, but the screen revealed something more than that.
"I saw a cavalcade of color like I'd never seen before," said Marks. "The green grass, the Trojan horse, and the stands filled with shirt-sleeved, sun-splashed fans. The camera panned in on pretty girls and celebrities, beautiful USC cheerleaders. I did not just see a football game; I saw optimism."
As much as Marks loved football, baseball was where his talents lay. At 6-3, 230 pounds, he was a strapping, hard-throwing right-handed pitcher. But youth baseball in Rochester was sketchy at best. The weather did not permit real on-field baseball until well into April or even May. The programs, from little league to high school, were second-rate. Marks remembered practicing in jeans and using hand-me-down equipment. He yearned for an atmosphere in which baseball would be taken seriously; one in which he could be the best he could be.
Just as in warfare the smart warrior learns all he can about his enemy, so too did Terry Marks endeavor to find out all he could about the hated USC Trojans. He discovered that not only were they a football dynasty, but an athletic powerhouse in everything from track to tennis to volleyball to swimming; and that numerous Trojans had won gold medals in every Olympic Games since 1904.
"Aside from Notre Dame football, I lived and breathed Boston Red Sox baseball," said Marks. "I was a member of the Red Sox Nation long before there was such a thing. I could not help but notice that two of my favorite Red Sox players, pitcher Bill 'Spaceman' Lee and outfielder Fred Lynn, were USC Trojans. At first this bothered me; not more Trojan dominance!"
But Marks investigated and found that among the sports USC dominated the most was his first love: baseball. In Rochester, he pined every winter away until he could get out on the field. He dreamed of playing baseball in warm weather on well-kept, manicured fields. Then he made a momentous decision: to attend the University of Southern California and play baseball. He was a good high school pitcher but did not catch the eye of USC coach Rod Dedeaux. But he was an excellent student from a family of modest means. He was able to get a partial academic scholarship along with financial aid. This attracted Dedeaux, who relied on a percentage of walk-ons to come to his high-priced private school to play for his team. Dedeaux offered a small amount of aid and Marks was a Trojan. Then came the shock of Terry Marks's life.
"I had seen a program promoting USC," he recalled. "They showed all these images of USC academic life; the Coliseum, the blonde cheerleaders, Anthony Davis running for touchdowns, and happy students lying on the grass in 85-degree sunshine. One image showed the campus as if it was right on the Pacific Ocean. The strand was right where Vermont Avenue parallels the school and the Coliseum. I thought it was real."
Malibu had actually offered USC a parcel of land with the enticement of re-locating the campus to its pricey beachfront in 1974. USC had turned down the offer, which was accepted by Pepperdine, up until then located not far from USC in downtown Los Angeles. Marks did not know any of this when he arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport in 1979 with two suitcases and $75 in his pocket. He hailed a cab and told the driver to take him to USC. He kept looking out the window, waiting to get a glimpse of the beach, but was immediately struck by the fact that the vehicle seemed to be driving east, which he knew was away from the water. The neighborhoods kept getting worse and worse and worse. The trip dragged on for an hour and the meter went up and up and up. Marks was convinced he had been taken for a "ride" by an unscrupulous cabbie when the lights of the Coliseum appeared in the distance, but the neighborhood was dangerous; definitely not beachfront property.
Finally he was dropped in front of a shabby apartment, the address assigned to him by student housing. It was August and few students were around yet. The heat was stifling and the smog seemed to stick to his skin. The fare was $40, which shocked him and left him with $20 to love on for a month. Marks found his apartment and unpacked, then took off for the supermarket to get needed supplies. The market was dirty and filled with illegal aliens. The prevailing language was Spanish.
Marks paid for some essential foodstuffs and departed with bags in both hands. He began walking back to the apartment, but 10 minutes later realized he was lost. He kept walking and became more lost. 20 minutes. 45 minutes. An hour passed. Marks began to panic. The jet lag, the searing August heat, the stifling smog that made it hard to see across the street, and a lack of food, began to play tricks on his mind. The neighborhood was dangerous. Gangbangers drove by. Graffiti and gang colors marked the fences. Nobody smoke English. He was eyed suspiciously and sensed that he was the target of predators.
He seemed to have wandered into an episode of The Twi-Light Zone. There was no sign that a college campus was close by. Marks had visions of Bill Lee, Tom Seaver and Fred Lynn walking the streets; of Anthony Davis driving by in a convertible with two blondes; of wealthy students making merry. These visions were now replaced by a horrible nightmare.
A strange dread overtook him, and Terry Marks began to give serious consideration to the possibility that he had died and was now in hell. His mind played tricks on him. As a loyal Catholic had he committed a sin against God by choosing not the school of his Catholic upbringing, Notre Dame, but instead their "enemies"? Had he been tempted by the sunshine, by Hollywood, by the lure of beautiful women and a life of ease instead of Christian piety, and was he now being judged and sentenced to eternal damnation for the "immoral" choice he had made?
Marks put his bags down, spat out the Copenhagen snuff he had been chewing, and tried to compose himself. Right then and there, on West Adams Boulevard on the mean streets of L.A., he did the sign of the cross, recited the Lord's Prayer, and asked God to guide him. He picked up his bags and began walking in the direction he had come from, trusting that he would be delivered to the Promised Land. 10 minutes later he was at his apartment.
Terry Marks attended USC from 1979 to 1984. He played baseball for Rod Dedeaux's Trojans. He was not a star, but he was good enough to sign a contract with the San Francisco Giants and play one year in the minor leagues. Marks graduated from USC with a bachelor's degree in communications. He was extremely popular with the coeds, but eventually met his future wife, a lovely fellow Catholic girl named Cecile Poppen, who had been raised a self-proclaimed "valley girl" in the nearby suburban enclave of Thousand Oaks. Cecile had her eye on Terry for some time and schemed to meet him by bribing this author to take his place at a campus job for the evening so she could enchant him. It worked.
For the Irish Catholic kid from the blue-collar "Kodak family" of 11 in Rochester, New York, USC was a revelation. It was not, as he initially feared, "hell" . . . on earth or elsewhere. Instead, it was a place of hope and promise, a place where people thought differently than he had ever known before.
"At USC people made plans!" he exclaimed. "It was a place where anything was possible, optimism prevailed, and one felt that he or she could achieve your dreams." Since childhood, Marks had dreamt of going to Notre Dame and playing baseball for the Red Sox. The reason he did not go to Notre Dame was because he dreamt of playing baseball. While today Notre Dame has a creditable program, in those days it was not a place to pursue diamond dreams, whereby USC was. Baseball had directed Marks to USC, and now directed him on the path towards his real destiny.
After graduation, Marks married Cecile and began a family. He went to work for Minolta, a Japanese company his older brother was well placed in. He succeeded in sales and began the process of promotion. For several years he rose at Minolta, but it occurred to him that he faced a "glass ceiling," being an American in a Japanese company. His patriotism plagued at his conscience, too. He began to explore a change in direction.
Marks set his sights on that most iconic of all American corporations, the Coca-Cola Company. He composed a letter and mailed it to a high-ranking Coke executive along with his resume, half-expecting that he would hear nothing, or get a form letter in return. But his recent experiences at USC; his young-but-successful marriage; and the sense that all things are possible lent him an optimistic air. A few weeks later the executive called him. He told Marks that there was something in his approach that stood out. Not anything really definable. Obviously, Coca-Cola received thousands of resumes and had to pass on the great majority of them, but destiny was in Terry Marks's corner.
The executive told Marks that his communications degree from the University of Southern California, normally a door opener and, if combined with the right "old boy" networking, a ticket puncher, was not an advantage at Coca-Cola. This was an old school company that promoted from within. They did not rely on "headhunters" and "executive searches" for their talent. The Coke hierarchy was homegrown and consisted for the most part of people who began at the bottom: truck drivers, deliverymen, and factory workers. A man was expected to learn every aspect of the Coca-Cola business from the ground floor, slowly but surely making an inexorable, painstaking climb up the ranks that, eventually, might lead to the corporate offices in Atlanta. 30 or 40 years of service to the grand old company was expected before a man could reach the top. There was none of the glamour or high profile that a Donald Trump, a Rupert Murdoch or a Sir Richard Branson attained, but for a newcomer in his mid-20s, such status was seemingly incomprehensible. Except that USC had once seemed incomprehensible, but then it had become possible, and people there "made plans!" Terry Marks had plans.
Marks made the right impressions during the interview process. He was told that the company was making an exception in hiring a college boy. All his life, Marks thought his blue-collar roots were a hindrance, that he was like the Notre Dame icon Rudy Ruettiger, whose own father tried to stifle his dreams by telling him that people "like us" should not dare dream of going to Notre Dame or aiming for the stars. In graduating from USC, Marks thought he had scaled a wall that would open up vistas of opportunity previously unavailable to him, but now he found his life had taken an ironic twist in that his very blue-collar background was precisely what had made him attractive to his new employers, instead of the other way around.
Furthermore, his sports background, or more precisely the story that revolved around his pursuit of a baseball career, had been viewed by the people at Coca-Cola as a template for success within their organization. Marks had grown up in an egalitarian neighborhood and pursued the most egalitarian of occupations, sports. He had not ultimately succeeded, but it was the journey that had led him down this new, bright path in this most egalitarian of American companies.
For the better part of a year, Terry's mettle was tested. While his wealthy classmates pursued work on Wall Street and Madison Avenue, took cushy jobs in family businesses, and in the case of many of USC's international students, entered politics in their home countries in Asia, Africa and the South Pacific, Terry was given a shirt that read "Coca-Cola" on once side and "Terry" on the other. He rose every day at four in the morning and learned the Coke way from gruff truck drivers assigned to show him the ropes. He sweated over boxes of Coke bottles that had to be carried into supermarkets, 7-11s and neighborhood mom 'n' pop stores.
He went from each incremental assignment to the next; a few months on a truck, a few months in a warehouse; a few months in a bottling plant, and so forth. Each step was difficult and lacked panache. He was given every chance to fail, to call it quits, and pursue easier work, but his hardscrabble upbringing and lessons learned on the baseball diamond had taught him to overcome obstacles, which is what he did.
Finally, the day came when Terry Marks had "graduated" from Coca-Cola's "school of hard knocks." He was given an office and a secretary. For the first time he donned a coat and tie to work. But if he had any dreams of Atlanta and corporate stardom, the company's history was meant to quickly dissuade a man in his 20s from thinking of something that could not be expected until he reached his late 50s. However, Terry Marks always reverted back to his own experiences: baseball and USC. A rookie Fred Lynn could through sheer excellence become the Most Valuable Player in the American League. A blue-collar, Irish Catholic Terry Marks could graduate from USC, and he could "make plans!"
That was what he did. He made plans. He decided to demonstrate sheer excellence, to "assume dominance" the way he had been taught to do on the pitcher's mound. When things got tight at work, he would pitch his way out of the jam. If he failed, he would come back the next day and try and again. Rivals, jealousies and company in fighting would be dealt with just as he had learned how to work with teammates of every color, from every part of the country. Discipline, goal-setting and other traits from his sports career would be, and were, applied to his career.
Terry Marks rose in meteor-like fashion through the ranks of Coca-Cola. He was promoted consistently and, with each promotion, moved his growing family as he worked in downtown Los Angeles; Orange County, California; Maryland; Boston; and eventually Atlanta. In the mid-1990s, the rumors began: Terry Marks was on the fast track to become the youngest president in Coca-Cola history. The signs were all there. In Boston, whenever the company sponsored an event or an award, it was Terry who was selected as the spokesman, to present Larry Bird or Kevin McHale with a trophy of some kind on the parquet floor of Boston Garden. A corporate partnership with the Oakland A's gave Terry a chance to meet A's general manager Billy Beane, he of the famed Moneyball style of baseball economics. The two found much common ground, and Beane admired the young executive's style.
Year by year, Marks moved up the ladder, until in the 2000s he was the number two man. In 2004, he became number one, heading Coca-Cola's North American operations. At 47 he is still young with an unlimited future, as a captain of industry or some other endeavor, should he choose.
"There are just two jobs I would take that could make me leave what I'm doing," he says. "General manager of the Boston Red Sox or athletic director at USC." Do not count Terry Marks out of either. What he sets his mind to achieve, he will achieve.
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism