Soon after claiming the biggest win of his life, he lost his starting position on the Penn squash team. But Brian Roberts, who now oversees Comcast as its CEO, hasn't suffered many setbacks since.
"It was my dream to attend Penn and follow my father with a Wharton undergrad education," explains Brian Roberts, His father, Ralph Roberts, graduated from Penn in 1941. "Playing squash for Penn was a factor in my decision. They had a strong team and I wanted to be a part of it."
Learning the sport at the suggestion of a math teacher after being cut from his high school basketball team, Roberts came to Penn as a 6-foot-2 "tall lanky squash player who was very serious about the sport, but needed to develop an edge that would differentiate my game," he says. The means to improve his game came in the form of Al Molloy, Penn's squash coach.
"Coach Molloy had a way of pushing me to become competitive both physically and mentally," says Roberts. He progressed steadily, and by sophomore year held the last starting position. In the match against Harvard the outcome "depended on the final two matches, including mine," he remembers. "The other Penn player was losing. Coach Molloy had only beaten Harvard once or twice before in a 30-year career. His focus and teaching caused me to win the biggest match of my life."
The success was short lived. Soon after the match another player challenged Roberts for his starting position, and in squash this is decided via a match. "He was successful, and I sat out the season's last match against Princeton for the national title," he says. "As tough as that was, it was fair. Another life lesson."
Soon Roberts wouldn't have to worry about his starting spot. By senior year he was a co-captain, made first-team All-Ivy and was named All-American. Teammate and fellow first-team All-Ivy Matt Panarese believes Roberts could beat more talented players "because he's so competitive, he found ways to win," he told Philadelphia Magazine. Fellow Penn squash player and four-time first-team All-Ivy David Proctor said Roberts "doesn't come across as a stud or a cut athlete. You're walking off the court, you just got whipped, and you can't figure out why."
A finance major at Wharton, Roberts found that far from being a distraction, squash helped sharpen him academically. "When you are passionate, involved and focused on one aspect of your life; it is easier to spread that into other day to day activities," he says. "For me it was about being focused on both areas of my life. There was really no other option. I'm glad I had both."
Graduating in 1981, Roberts followed his father again when he went into the family business, Comcast. According to a 2001 USA Today article Ralph Roberts wanted Brian to work on Wall Street but Brian wanted to work with his father. "We sent him right out to be a pole climber in Westmoreland, Pa.," Ralph Roberts said. "He went though every step of the way in how to build and operate a system before he went into the executive position, just so people wouldn't say, 'He's the father's son.'"
Progressing through a series of increasingly responsible management and executive positions, Roberts became Chairman and CEO of Comcast in 1990. When he started at Comcast in 1981, the company had $20 million in revenue. For the first quarter of 2007 Comcast posted $7.4 billion in revenue. The nation's leading provider of cable services, the company also owns the NHL's Philadelphia Flyers, the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers, as well as the arenas they play in.
Roberts hasn't forgotten his coach or school. He helped endow the Al Molloy Racquet Sports Directorship, and with his father in December 2006 pledged $15 million to Penn for the Roberts Proton Therapy Center, a cutting-edge cancer research and treatment facility.
"[Al Molloy] was a legend in racquet sports, but that doesn't begin to define how much of a wonderful and ideal mentor he was to so many young men," says Roberts. "His lessons still live with me, in life and in business."
— Stephen Eschenbach