He father, the loving father—the man who started Comcast and built it into a cable TV giant with 25,000 employees and a market capitalization of $40 billion—used to call his son Bree-oh-nee. This was a term of endearment. Bree-oh-nee's college squash coach, Al Molloy, born in Brooklyn, raised by the Marines, used to call his worst player Muscles. This was a term of motivation. As a freshman at Penn 23 years ago, Brian Roberts was 6'2" and 125 pounds. He had a pretty stroke, but an opponent could get in his head and provoke him to the edge of tears.
Today Roberts is 41 and president of Comcast, a Philadelphia-based company that is the majority owner of, among other things, the city's pro hockey and basketball teams and the arena in which they play. When Roberts enters the First Union Center to take in a Flyers or 76ers game, nobody calls him Bree-oh-nee or Muscles.
He is starting to make a name for himself, as his legendary father did, as his legendary coach did. After a tour of Microsoft in 1997, Roberts found himself seated next to Bill Gates at a small dinner. While other guests peppered Gates with questions about Amazonian birdlife, Roberts asked him to make a significant investment in the cable industry—and got $1 billion for Comcast.
Roberts learned about familial love from his father, Ralph, and about earned love from his coach, Molloy. Both men shaped him in enduring ways. Ralph's fingerprints are all over Comcast's annual reports. (He's 80 and still chairman of the company.) Molloy's fingerprints are all over them, too, but only the father and the son know they are there.
To bulk up the kid, Molloy had him lift weights with the track team. To toughen him up, Molloy had him play matches against Richie Ashburn, the retired Phillies centerfielder, who played wily, physical squash. On the locker room chalkboard, Molloy wrote, NO PAIN, NO GAIN. Roberts adopted those four words as a code of life.
By his sophomore year Roberts had moved up from 18th to ninth on the Penn squash team. Against Harvard that year, the outcome turned on how Roberts did in his match. All through Molloy's long career, the team he wanted to beat most was Harvard. Between games, he didn't bog down Roberts and his other players with technical advice. He said, "This is the Harvard match. You'll remember it the rest of your life. Do whatever you have to do to win."
Roberts won. Penn won. Molloy bought his players champagne. Two weeks later, Penn was playing Princeton for the national title, and the hero of the Harvard match was sitting. After Harvard, Roberts had lost a challenge match to Penn's 10th player and lost his starting spot. That was it. No argument.
"Aside from my father, no man has influenced me more than Al Molloy," Roberts says. "If you're going to accomplish something in business, you have to be tough, physically and mentally. Al gave me that. When I asked Bill Gates for that money, that was Al whispering, 'Go for it, take your shot.' When Al said, 'Do whatever you have to do to win,' he was empowering his players to play their way. I do that today with our company presidents. Pat Croce's title is president of the Sixers. But he acts and is empowered as the owner.
"When I sat for that national title match, I was devastated. But now I know that Al was just being fair to the guy who'd beaten me in the challenge match. In business I've learned you can never judge fairness from one perspective. Al took a group of individuals and made them into a team." Roberts's greatest teamwork has been with his father. Since 1990, when the son was named president, Comcast has grown tenfold.
Molloy didn't treat squash as a genteel, elite game. He treated it like Big 10 football. Roberts responded to that. As a senior, Roberts was Molloy's No. 1 player, a co-captain and an All-America. After graduation, he was on the U.S. team that won the silver medal at the 1981 and 1985 Maccabiah Games in Israel. In '97 he was on the team that won the silver in the 35-and-over division. Molloy was with him, in spirit, on every point.