Footprints of Nick Mileti: A look back at the man who brought the Coliseum to Richfield
Looking back now, 49 years later, Nick Mileti really did say the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus helped convince him to branch out from his day job of legal work.
True, the circus was hardly a key point in his 1968 takeover of the decrepit Cleveland Arena. But a decade-long empire rose and fell under his command — and it began with buying that 31-year-old building. It sparked:
• The founding of the Cavaliers.
• Ownership of Cleveland’s professional baseball team.
• Buying a 50,000-watt radio station.
• Building the Coliseum in Richfield.
• Managing ice hockey and entertainment dates including, yes, the circus, along with Frank Sinatra, Elton John, Led Zeppelin and more.
“I want to have fun, make some dough, and leave a few footprints,” he told sportswriter Bob Oates of the Los Angeles Times in 1972.
Now 90, Mileti can look back at Northeast Ohio from his Florida residence and say, like Sinatra’s song, “I did it my way.”
“I figured if I could get 11,000 one night, I could get 8,000 every night.” — Mileti, interviewed by Sports Illustrated magazine in 1975.
In his life before sports, and while serving as a prosecutor in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, Mileti worked on senior citizens housing projects. In the 1972 interview with Oates, he said he had 5,200 “suites” under development or already in use.
Coming back to Cleveland after his college days, he felt a deep loyalty to his undergraduate alma mater, Bowling Green, where the alumni center is named for him. Those ties motivated him in 1967 to work on a one-night fundraising idea — promoting a basketball game at the Arena between Bowling Green and Niagara University, led by 5-foot-9 nationally known star Calvin Murphy.
The Falcons, coached by Bill Fitch, won 94-86.
John Lemmo was the Arena manager in 1968. In a 1981 interview with Beacon Journal reporters John Kostrzewa and Peter Phipps, Lemmo remembered Mileti’s enthusiasm that night. “One taste was all he needed to get him started,” Lemmo said.
“My daddy was a machinist who came over [immigrated from Italy] as a teenager, and he had a dream that I was to wear a white shirt.” — Mileti, in a Los Angeles Times interview in 1972.
Nick James Mileti, born April 22, 1931, is a Cleveland-bred son of immigrants from Sicily, Italy. He said his parents wanted him to go to law school “for as long as I can remember.”
Mileti’s education was at Cleveland John Adams High School, Bowling Green and then law school at Ohio State. In a series published in 1981 recounting the story of the construction of the Coliseum in Richfield, the Beacon Journal’s Kostrzewa and Phipps tracked down the 1949 John Adams yearbook. It listed Mileti’s resume as: “cheerleader, athletic chairman, Distinction Day Committee, Dance Committee, Prom Chairman, Student Council, Corridor Patrol, Intramural, Merit Roll.”
This was the makeup of the man who found an investor and put together the financing to buy both the Cleveland Arena and the Barons ice hockey team for about $1.8 million to $1.9 million in September 1968.
“Nick could sell you the Brooklyn Bridge, whether you wanted it or not.” — Bill Fitch, Cavaliers coach from 1970-79, quoted in an interview with Vince Guerrieri of Ohio Magazine in October, 2015.
Mileti told Los Angeles Times sports writer Oates that he was surprised to see the Cleveland Arena did not have dates booked for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus on its calendar.
“Can you imagine that?” he told Oates. “The kids in a community this size never got to see a circus. But now they do. I’ve touched their lives. I’ve brought them some happiness.”
In 1969, with Mileti as the building’s owner, an advertisement in the Beacon Journal on Sunday, Nov. 2, promoted the upcoming circus. It would run with 10 shows from Wednesday to Sunday at the Arena. Ticket prices were $4.50, $3.50 and $2.50. Adults could save $1 per ticket for children age 12 or younger for the first four shows. The billing said the circus had 33 acts “never before seen in America” and that “The Greatest Show On Earth” was the only one with 500 performers and animals.
The tradition of a circus visit would continue in Summit County when Mileti’s Coliseum was built in 1974, with animals sometimes walking with their trainers west on state Route 303 to reach their temporary homes in the parking lot.
“It’s like hitting a brick wall. But you have to get up and go again. That’s my style and it always will be.” — Mileti, quoted by the Associated Press in Cleveland, for a news story on Oct. 31, 1969, when it is revealed he will not apply for a National Hockey League expansion franchise for the city.
The 1968 acquisition of the Barons, members of the American Hockey League since its second year in 1937-38, thrust Mileti into his first sports challenge just when the sport’s highest level of play, the National Hockey League, was hitting a growth spurt.
On Sept. 11, 1969, it was announced the NHL decided to expand again by two teams for the 1970-71 season, bringing the league to 14 teams.
But after a five-month study, Mileti declined to pursue it.
One reason might have been the fee: $6 million.
Mileti told hockey writer Rich Passan of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland: “$6 million is a figure only in relation to something. If there is no way you can get a competitive team, then 10 cents is too much of a price tag.”
He acknowledged that an existing NHL franchise could move and that might be a way for Cleveland to obtain a team. But then came the formation of a rival league that wanted to challenge the NHL — the World Hockey Association. So, on June 21, 1972, the United Press International news service in Cleveland reported that Mileti paid $250,000 plus a $100,000 “performance bond” for a WHA franchise. It was named the Crusaders and the Barons were moved to Jacksonville, Florida.
“It should happen. I would think and hope, in three to five years.” — Mileti’s response in January 1971, in an interview with the Beacon Journal when asked about the need to make a financial profit from his sports ventures.
From the day in September 1968 when Mileti acquired the Arena, basketball was on his mind.
Just like hockey, the business leaders in pro basketball were searching out new markets for sources of revenue. It would be years before television and the birth of cable channels would challenge ticket sales as the king of their bank accounts.
The National Basketball Association had been officially formed in 1949-50 with the combination of two pro leagues. One was the Basketball Association of America (or BAA, with 10 teams) and the other was the National Basketball League (or NBL, which had seven). Cleveland had a team in the BAA for one year playing home games at the Arena in 1946-47.
Starting in 1949-50, the NBA enjoyed stability until 1967-68 when a rival league called the American Basketball Association was formed with 11 franchises, including three (San Francisco-Oakland; New York and Los Angeles) that were placed where the NBA already was established. A few ABA teams jumped from city to city in the first three years of its operations but there were three markets that had been untouched in this new era: Cleveland, Buffalo and Portland, Oregon.
And so when the NBA invited applications for new teams that would start up in the 1970-71 season, it received bids from those three cities along with Houston. On Nov. 7, 1969, Commissioner Walter Kennedy said the league was pleased with the interest shown along with other markets in Memphis, Kansas City and Minneapolis.
Mileti was moving at the same speed as the league, and it was disclosed on Jan. 21, 1970, that the four leading candidates — Cleveland, Buffalo, Portland and Houston — had applied.
The four bids were officially accepted Feb. 6. Then on March 22, Houston’s group did not meet an obligation for a $750,000 payment, so that city dropped out. The expansion fee was originally reported to be $3 million but as time went by, multiple media reports showed that the actual cost was $3.7 million.
“I want to put my imprimatur on something, change it, affect something, create something. As Vince Lombardi said, ‘The joy is in the creating, not the maintaining.’ ” — Mileti on July 25, 1972, in an interview with sports writer Bob Oates of the Los Angeles Times.
Needing to finance the startup of the Cavaliers, Mileti moved in a new direction — selling shares of stock to the public at $5 each, raising $2.25 million. The Green Bay Packers of the National Football League have historically been owned by hundreds of shareholders but it is rare that a pro sports franchise has public stockholders.
Beacon Journal sports writer Jack Patterson reported Jan. 24, 1971, that the Cavaliers’ financial structure as an expansion team called for a payment to the NBA of $1.5 million in 1970 followed by fees of $550,000 per year for the next four years from 1971 to 1974 — for a total cost of $3.7 million.
“There’s no way you can say no to Nick Mileti if he really wants you. He’ll never give up until he gets you on the dotted line.” — University of Minnesota assistant basketball coach Jim Lessig, quoted by Minneapolis Tribune sports columnist Sid Hartman on March 19, 1970, as Gophers coach Bill Fitch accepts a job offer to lead the newborn Cavaliers franchise.
Having met the NBA expansion financing challenge, Mileti faced the first in a series of a new tests of his sports executive skill sets.
He had to choose someone with management flair and the talent evaluation abilities necessary to compete with basketball luminaries such as Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy, Red Holzman and Jack Ramsay. And it would help if this individual had the personality to be the “face” of the franchise when it came to helping sell tickets.
Perhaps most of all, the job would require patience and endurance when the coach realized the daunting obstacles placed in front of him:
• The new teams were granted the seventh through the 10th choices among the 17 teams in the first round of the 1970 NBA college player draft. (That meant the new teams had no chance to draft Bob Lanier, Rudy Tomjanovich, Pete Maravich or Dave Cowens, who all became Hall of Fame selections)
• New teams would have no input on game schedules or league divisional alignment. (The Cavs’ first season began with seven games in a row on the road — all losses — including visiting the West Coast as part of a 12-day trip)
• New teams would fill out their roster with NBA veterans but the existing teams were permitted to protect seven players. So the available players would be judged as the eighth, ninth, 10th or 11th best on the team they were leaving
• No existing team would lose more than three players.
Who would take such a job?
Mileti persuaded former Bowling Green coach Bill Fitch, then head coach at the University of Minnesota, to take on the challenge and he agreed in return for total authority on the team’s roster plus a three-year contract reported to be worth $60,000 a year (or about $404,500 today).
Fitch brought 14 years’ experience in basketball, having had four jobs at the college level, including working with baseball star Bob Gibson at Creighton and future NBA coaching legend Phil Jackson at North Dakota. His sense of humor was an attractive quality, too. In the Cavs’ early days, he was fond of saying, “Just remember, the name’s Fitch, not Houdini.”
“Here’s a guy who has gone through what we have in mind here – starting from scratch and putting it all together to build a winner.” — Mileti on March 19, 1970, in announcing the hiring of Fitch, 37, as Cavs coach and director of player personnel.
If there was such a thing in pro sports in the late 1960s as “overpaying” to gamble on finding the right talent at the right time, Mileti was willing to try.
Cleveland sports writer, columnist and author Terry Pluto reported in his 2019 book “Vintage Cavs” that Fitch was being paid about $20,000 a year at Minnesota, so Mileti’s offer tripled that salary. Mileti said it took several conversations with Fitch to persuade him to accept the job. “We’ve been talking a long time,” Mileti told reporters on the day of the announcement.
Once he and Mileti agreed on a contract, Fitch found immediately that the learning curve was fast.
Four days after Fitch’s hiring, the NBA’s 1970 college player draft was held. And then on May 11, 1970, less than two months later, the expansion draft of current players on other teams was held. It took six years before the Cavs would have a winning record, but Mileti was finally rewarded for showing patience in a world where many owners gave in to the pressure to make a change only for change’s sake.
By any measure back then or today — when NBA teams turn over head coaching jobs with tenures as flimsy as one year — Mileti had found the right man in Fitch. The proof was that their partnership lasted nine years.
“I have always wanted to be in the broadcasting business. It carries the same excitement and dynamism as other enterprises with which I am associated.” — Mileti, quoted by the Associated Press on Jan. 12, 1972, after his acquisition of two NBC radio stations in Cleveland, including an AM frequency with a 50,000-watt signal.
As busy as he was from 1968 to 1970, Mileti had his stamina for deal-making tested even more in 1972.
Buying a radio station — whose call letters were renamed WWWE 1100-AM — married his sports properties with another way to bring in revenue in the form of advertising dollars.
But showing his fascination once again for creating something — more than merely operating it after it was born — he jumped in to bid on taking over the Cleveland baseball franchise when owner Vernon Stouffer was negotiating with none other than George Steinbrenner.
On March 8, the Associated Press reported his bid of $10 million meant the value of the team had increased from $8 million when Stouffer had taken over in 1966.
Stouffer was 70 years old and the club had lost 102 games and had the second lowest attendance (591,361) in the major leagues in the 1971 season. The Associated Press quoted Stouffer: “I’ve had enough of that [sports business]. There’s too much pressure.”
This time, Mileti turned to a group of investors to finance the deal — including future U.S. Sen. Howard Metzenbaum and business executives Alva “Ted” Bonda, C. Bingham Blossom, Dudley Blossom, Dick Miller, Bruce Fine, Marshall Fine and Mileti’s cousin, Joe Zingale.
When the deal with Steinbrenner fell through, Mileti and his partners became owners of the Cleveland baseball team in March 1972 for an estimated $9.7 million.
“Every boy dreams of owning a baseball club, especially if he’s played the sport as I have,” Mileti told the Associated Press in a report published March 8, 1972.
As for Steinbrenner, he moved on in 1973 to acquire the New York Yankees instead from the CBS television network.
“It was a major miscalculation. I thought the two cities [Akron and Cleveland] were going to grow together. Instead, everyone moved to Orange County.” — Mileti, quoted by reporter Andy Rose of the Los Angeles Times in a 1987 interview about the Coliseum’s location in 1974.
It wasn’t long after buying the Arena that Mileti realized a 30-plus-year-old building with questionable plumbing and a seating capacity of only 11,000 did not suit any kind of healthy financial outlook for pro basketball and hockey.
But instead of renovating the existing building or looking for another downtown site, he began thinking big — as an urban planner might have done.
By 1971, he had zeroed in on 440 acres of land in the northern Summit County village of Richfield, about 20 miles away from most of Cleveland’s population. He built on the northwest corner of the intersection of state Route 303 with Interstate 271. That highway was a nice shortcut from Interstate 90 to the northeast and linked directly to Interstate 71 to the southwest.
And so a real estate flag was planted — with environmental concerns immediately arising. Mileti answered them all and the building with 20,000-plus seats was named the Coliseum.
Mileti told audiences the building could not help but be successful since its location could draw audiences from a population of 5 million people within a 50-mile radius.
And once again, the question arose that followed every Mileti enterprise: How to pay for the $36 million construction cost?
It was a traditional real estate method — construction loans from out-of-town banks, including Chase Manhattan of New York City and Mellon National Mortgage Co. of Pittsburgh. The work took a year longer than plans called for, as the project fought through the necessary public approvals and a dozen lawsuits, including a case that rose all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
Construction was finally completed and the building opened with a Frank Sinatra concert on Oct. 26, 1974.
When the Coliseum opened and tours were given to visitors, Sports Illustrated magazine reported in a Jan. 27, 1975, story that the places where the visitors came from were called “Coliseum country.”
“Everything happened too fast.” — Mileti, quoted by Sports Illustrated writer Jerry Kirshenbaum in 1975, on his Cleveland experiences.
The Cavaliers came the closest of any of Mileti’s sports franchises to winning a title. They made the NBA playoffs for the first time in 1975-76 and won an exciting seven-game series against the Washington Bullets before losing to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals.
The 16-day odyssey from April 13-29 became known as “The Miracle of Richfield” and took on legendary status in fans’ memories during a period of dark times for the Browns and the Cleveland baseball club. If star forward Jim Chones had not suffered a broken foot and been unable to play, some experts said the Cavs could have defeated the Celtics and might have been favored in the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns. But it was not to be.
If the 1976 Cavs’ season is thought of as Mileti’s pinnacle, that means either an exit, or a slide downward, was to occur. And so Mileti’s sports fortunes finally played out this way:
• The Cleveland Arena was demolished in 1977.
• Ted Bonda replaced Mileti as president of the baseball franchise in March 1975, three years after he had assumed control.
• That same month, the operations of the Crusaders’ WHA hockey team was transferred to business executive Jay Moore.
• Mileti’s role in management of The Coliseum was diminished in a new business arrangement, also in 1975.
• In June 1980, Mileti gave up his title as president of the Cavaliers, sold his interest, and control of the team went to Ted Stepien.
In the 1976-77 Cavaliers souvenir game program, Mileti wrote a letter thanking fans for their support.
The Beacon Journal quoted the letter on March 28, 1999, in its news coverage as the Coliseum was demolished and the land was taken over by the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area.
“You have become a legend in your own time,” Mileti wrote.”You are the standard by which all basketball crowds are now measured. Everyone associated with the Cavaliers is proud of you and your most important role … helping the team on its way to the championship and putting the word PRIDE back into the vocabulary of Northeast Ohio.”
Larry Pantages was the NBA reporter from 1981-85 and sports editor from 1998-2006 at the Beacon Journal.