One morning, Indian Executive Vice-President Alva (Ted) Bonda called Mileti to discuss the club's new TV contract. "Tomorrow's a historic day at the Coliseum," he heard Mileti trumpet into the phone. "We're pouring cement on the main floor. Think of it!" Unable to focus Mileti's attention for long on the TV contract, Bonda gave up and hung up.
One who is well aware of Mileti's restless nature is the Cleveland Browns' Art Modell, the town's No. 1 owner until Mileti upstaged him with three teams. Then, in late 1973, it became known that the ubiquitous Mileti had helped launch the upstart World Football League and had bought one of the original franchises. Cleveland was stunned and so was Modell. "I admire Nick's insatiable appetite for professional sports," was his tight-lipped comment.
Privately, Mileti assured the Browns' boss that he had no intention of starting another football team in Cleveland. Sure enough, he sold the WFL franchise for an estimated profit of $450,000 and it surfaced as The Chicago Fire. What Mileti did not tell Modell, but what a local reporter learned, was that he was meanwhile urging another WFL owner to field a team just 60 miles away in Akron. Mileti at first denied the story but now treats it as another detail that has no place in a Van Gogh, "To tell you the truth," he pleads, "I don't remember whether I recommended a team in Akron or not."
Mileti-watchers are not unanimous on the question of what makes Nick tick, though all agree that he has an enormous appetite for hard work. Mileti puts in 18-hour days, running behind schedule at all times and seeing little of his wife Gretchen and 9-year-old son Jimmy. Zeroing in on the problem, Mileti confesses with a helpless air, "The whole thing is that I love people." Tom Embrescia, the youthful manager of WWWE, elaborates, "Nick goes to see the president of a company and winds up spending more time talking to the porter." Steve Zayac, Mileti's top aide, says, "Nick doesn't forget where he comes from."
When he is done working, the gregarious Mileti has a nightly routine that might begin with cocktails at the Pewter Mug and conclude only when the final abrazos are exchanged in the small hours in a jazz-cum-sports hangout called the Theatrical Grill. In between, he might squeeze in dinner at the Keg and Quarter, where he can count on the VIP treatment from owner Jim Swingos. "Let this breathe a minute, Nick," Swingos said to him on a recent evening, uncorking a bottle of Chateau de Pressac '67.
"Listen to him," roared Mileti. "Ten years ago he couldn't spell wine. Now he's letting it breathe."
"Ten years ago," replied Swingos evenly, "you didn't know what a fast break was." Mileti banged on the table in delight.
Mileti may be a neophyte in sport, but he is no stranger to Cleveland—an unqualified plus at a time when carpetbaggers roam the landscape of sport, buying and moving teams without regard for roots or geography. Mileti gives the impression of genuinely caring about Cleveland. Distressed that his hometown ranks just behind Buffalo and Philadelphia as the butt of urban jokes, Mileti says passionately, "There's an old Sicilian saying: 'Don't curse the bridge that carried you across.' Translation: Cleveland is the greatest city in the world. It's my city." Hurrying up to Mileti at one of the Coliseum's open houses, a woman visitor cried, "This place is so beautiful, it's hard to believe I'm in Cleveland." She wasn't, of course, being 25 miles out in the country, but Mileti was touched by what the woman said. "That's the bottom line, when people come up to you and say, Thanks for everything, Nick.' "
Mileti also receives thank-yous, perhaps surprisingly, from his financial backers, who include some of Cleveland's most prominent businessmen. Scarcely happy with their losses—the real bottom line—they nevertheless know that sports investments can make handy tax write-offs. They also expect that the seemingly endless spiral in franchise prices will someday enable them to recoup at least part of their money. Noting that the Browns and Indians were Cleveland's only major league teams until Mileti came along—and that the troubled Indians were threatening to leave town—Mileti's backers also admit to impulses that go beyond dollars and cents.
"If Mileti were opening a widget factory, I wouldn't have invested," concedes Banker Bruce Fine, who has put $300,000 into Mileti's three teams. "But sports is something I've always wanted to be in." C. Carlisle Tippit, a manufacturer with a large stake in the Indians and Crusaders, says, "I've made money in Cleveland and I wanted to put some back. Nick Mileti is the man who made things happen." Another heavy investor is the Indians' Ted Bonda, a former board chairman of Avis Rent-a-Car. Bonda once called Mileti's operations an "empire built on marshmallows." Now he says, "We all turned to jelly when Nick came around, but only because we wanted to. Sports is a Walter Mitty thing, and Nick's enthusiasm was infectious."