The Ultimate Leader


This week’s guest is Stephen Bardo. He is a Big Ten Network College basketball analyst, an author, speaker and a proud pop of two wonderful sons. During his basketball career, Stephen lead the University of Illinois’ team to the Final Four in 1989. From there, Stephen played 10 years professionally with stops in the NBA in Dallas, Detroit, San Antonio and then overseas in France, Japan, Italy, Spain and Venezuela.

He then made a smooth transition into sports broadcasting; many of you folks may know him for his work with CBS, and ESPN. He is currently a college basketball analyst in the big 10 network and motivates audiences with his presentations on leadership to youth associations and corporations.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: As we talk with Stephen today, I’m sure he’s going to add a lot to our conversation based on his experiences, not only in the professional field of basketball, but also as a leader in his industry as a speaker and author.

He is a motivational master. His experience on the basketball court and as a television analyst helped him forge his fast-paced presentations that provide audiences with the tools that they can use immediately to achieve greater results in their professions. Growing up in Carbondale, Illinois, Bardo always strived to be the best at anything he did. I’m sure he will share lots of stories about that with us today. This included school and especially sports where Stephen was a all-star, an honorable mention all-American basketball player in high school and led his team, as we said, to the state tournament.

All of his hard work and dedication paid off when he received a scholarship from the University of Illinois. During his standout career at the University of Illinois, 6’ 5” Bardo scored 909 points and compiled 495 assists. I love the way sports lists these points as though they are one-time things. I’m sure there are lots of point we missed, and Stephen you can tell me more about that when we bring you on.

He was part of the Flying Illini team that qualified for the 1989 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Final Four. That fighting team gained the moniker, Flying Illini, by Dick Vitali who’s broadcasting, of course, is very well known. He gave the name to the team while he was broadcasting a game during the 1988-89 season.

Bardo was named Big Team Defensive Player of the year in 1989 and since then has been a regular analyst and contributor with ESPN and CBS as well as an author and a celebrated speaker.

I was fortunate to catch up with Stephen and actually was able to catch him for dinner. I actually walked up to him in line while he was waiting for dinner, there was a long line in the restaurant, I knew it was going to be a long time before he was going to sit down, and I thought, what the heck. So I walked up and said, Stephen, would you like to join us for dinner here in Los Angeles? We met at a Big Money Speaker event and we are now members of the same mastermind group and I have to thank Stephen for taking out time from his very busy schedule to join us today and for being such a gracious dinner member. Welcome to the show.

Stephen Bardo: Thanks a lot Cathy. I think you described that extremely well.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Well, one of the things that we love to do on our show is to help our audience understand how you have brought your industry knowledge and expertise and growth experience to what their dealing with in the business world, both as leaders, managers and coaches. We do that Stephen, by starting out with one very special question and that is, “who in your experience have been the people who have influenced your career the most?”

Stephen Bardo: I would have to say that I have had two mentors. One is Dennis Swanson. Dennis has been one of the media industries most important figures, maybe in the last 50 years. Dennis has had various positions from President of ABC Sports; he has run all of the news stations for the CBS brand in the country and he has done the same thing for Fox Network and  local news stations around the country.

I met Dennis because he was a basketball manager at the University of Illinois in the late 50’s and early 60’s. He heard me on a radio interview my sophomore year of college and he liked what he heard. My father suggested that I write him a letter thanking him for the opportunity to be on ESPN and that my major was broadcast journalism. He got the letter and wrote me back. That started the story of a tremendous relationship and one that I benefited from greatly, so probably Dennis Watson and Jim Berry because of their background as a Marine involved in sports, and being very successful in the media. His leadership abilities—he really shortened the curve for me in that regard.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Well Stephen, that is not only exciting but we want to talk more about how you have gone on your journey with these folks and leading past this benchmark.

Dr. Relly Nadler: Stephen, tell us a little bit about some of your current business activities that you may be most happy about or proud about. What kind of things are you doing?

Stephen Bardo: The Final Four Team that I was a member of—we’re coming up on our 25th year anniversary—that’s probably the most popular team in Illinois history. My book is about the Flying Illini: The Untold Story of One of College Basketball’s Elite Teams. It’s been a project, a labor of love for me because we don’t have a historical book or story about that team. Twenty-five years later I am just stopped around the country because of the popularity and uniqueness of that ball club so I’ve been very fortunate to be able to take on this project. There’s hard copy book, eBook, and interview series and an audio book, all around the story of the Flying Illini. You can find it at

There will be some YouTube clips from myself and some of my teammates on that team that will drum up interest and really get the word out about this season. It’s just going to be a year’s celebration for the basketball program in general, but for the Flying Illini team in particular.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That is so exciting. You said you are doing both an eBook, a hardback book, what else?

Stephen Bardo: An audio book, and an interview series. What we learned Cathy, at the Big Money Speaker Convention, is that people have different learning styles. So if you really want to get your message out and provide value to people, it’s very important to try to put it into as many different mediums as possible. So I’m an entrepreneur at heart; it’s a blast figuring out these different things and trying to figure out how to most effectively create these products and I’ve just had a blast doing it.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Now we’ll get back to this book. I want to bring the audience up to speed on your career and how you went from being a student to an NBA Basketball player, to and ESPN Sports announcer and now to a leading author. Maybe you can bring us up to speed on your life journey. As you go through that Stephen, talk a little bit about what leadership means to you in those different roles.

Stephen Bardo: Well, a lot of the times in sports people say some leaders are made and some are born. I’m a born leader. I was very fortunate that my father was a student athlete and Southern Illinois University in the late 50’s early 60’s. He played basketball and ran track and cross country.

He then went into education and is now a professor administrator at Southern Illinois University for the last 45 years. So, sports is very important in my family. Between he and my older brother Craig who played at Indiana University for one season for the great Bobby Knight, and then finished his career at the Citadel University. My sister Helen played junior college basketball. Basketball is a family business. Being the baby in the family, I was the beneficiary of all of this intelligence and knowledge and leadership ability that is required to play the point guard position, which I played. So all throughout high school and college, playing the point guard position and being the leader on the floor, it was a natural transition for me to not only go from professional basketball into broadcasting; because when you are an on air personality or analyst you work for an organization but you are pretty much an entrepreneur. You are pretty much a self-contracted individual. I worked in my company. I’ve always been, even in the off-seasons when I was playing professional basketball, trying to run basketball camps, I was doing consulting, I would intern at different media outlets in the Chicago land area. I always had my eye out on one day being able to be on air nationally, which I’ve done, and then be able to speak to audiences because I really got turned on to that at the end of college. Being able to go out speak to local elementary schools and people responded to what I had to say; I’m pretty self-effacing, I’m pretty humble, thanks to my parents. It’s really been a tremendous journey.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So Stephen, say a little bit about your team that made it to the Final Four and then that kind of transition as a professional basketball player into now broadcasting. I think this will be a little promo in a sense where people are interested in that special season. Just give us a couple of highlights.

Stephen Bardo: The reason the Flying Illini, as we were aptly named by Dick Vitale, was so special is because we were a collection of athletes between the sizes of 6’5” and 6’7”. That was unusual.

Dr. Relly Nadler: So two inches between the guard and the center?

Stephen Bardo: Yes. So we would switch everything defensively. People that are familiar with basketball, that’s a very unique attribute on a team. One, we were very similar in size, two, we were extremely athletic, and three, we were all from the state of Illinois. So typically when you see teams that make it that far in the NCAA Tournament Final Four, there will be a sprinkling or a smattering of guys that are outside state or not from that general area. But we were very special because we represented the state. We were very proud to be from the state of Illinois. It seemed like the whole state and the Illini Nation got behind us. It was a very special run. Five of us were very fortunate to go on to play in the NBA and have a professional career. That’s unusual as well to have that many players from one team able to make that transition.

Then I think my professional career was one that was not really smooth because I had numerous stops, but I think that was part of what has made me into the professional speaker that I have become. It’s given me tremendous material for books that I’ve written. It’s given me quite a bit of experience in terms of having to grow up.

When you are in Italy and smack dab in the middle of the country; you can’t just walk down the street and get McDonalds. You have to immerse yourself into the culture. I really loved that. Having to work with different individuals in Japan, Italy, Spain, France, Venezuela and Germany, you learn a lot about leadership, you learn a lot about non-verbal communication. I think that I’m an expert at non-verbal communication and I still use that today.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: That’s probably why I felt safe inviting you over for dinner.

Stephen Bardo: Well I would hope. Steven Howard, my good friend and ex-athlete is about 6’10”, so we could be kind of scary.

Dr. Cathy Greenberg: Which was nice. It made it easy for me to pick you out. Because for the audience that doesn’t know me, I’m 5’4 ½ “. So between the two of them you can imagine. Getting back to your books; Stephen you are not a novice to writing. You have written a couple of books and this new one, obviously we are going to go back to, but tell us a little bit about how you came up with the book that was very impactful for young people called, “How to Make the League Without Picking Up the Rock.”

Stephen Bardo: That title is a play on words where when we were in college, the football players at the University of Illinois, they were talking the League with the NFL. We were very fortunate that some of the track athletes were US Olympians. We had baseball players that ended up playing in the Major Leagues and their league was Major League Baseball. Steve Stricker, one of the best golfers in the world, played golf and attended the University of Illinois at the same time I did. His league was the PGA Tour.

What I tried to do to get young people to understand is that there are a lot of ways to be successful without having to go the route of sports or entertainment. Especially for kids of color, African Americans, Latino American children tend to focus too narrowly in two or three different career fields where there are tremendous opportunities in 100’s of different career fields. So the book, How to Make the League Without Picking Up the Rock, is a tool that I use when I go in and speak to high school students and try to get young people to understand that there are a number of different opportunities that are available to you that there is no secret to success other than 10,000 hours. I try to give them a very honest and brutal assessment of where they are and what they need to do and not to sugar-coat things but really tell the truth to our young people. I think we as adults have partially let the generation of these kids down because we have been to soft on them and not told them the truth enough. So that is one of the tools that I use when I go to speak.

Be sure to listen to the entire interview above.


Leave a Reply