Michael Iaconnelli's year to remember

Being the Classic champ isn't easy, just ask Ike

Michael Iaconelli

If two words could be used to describe Michael Iaconelli's year as reigning world champion, winner of the 2003 CITGO Bassmaster Classic, obvious choices would be "nontraditional" and "awesome."

Seldom, if ever before in the history of the Classic, has the winner reached as many nontraditional outlets as has the 32-year old New Jersey pro. ESQUIRE, PLAYBOY and GQ are just a few of the magazines with whom he's interviewed, and he's been featured in the New York Times. He's thrown out the first pitch in a major league baseball exhibition game and he even served a stint as a television weatherman.

Nontraditional? Absolutely, but it's no accident. Much of the credit goes to ESPN, who has worked hard to expose Iaconelli to such diverse audiences, but Iaconelli himself has certainly done his part. His major goal, formulated during the 21-hour drive from New Orleans to his home in Runnemede, N.J., was to use his champion's platform to help make tournament bass fishing a mainstream sport, and to do that meant talking to people, especially youngsters, who were not fishermen.

The response he's received, he readily admits, has simply been "awesome."

"I realized two things the moment I held the Classic trophy over my head there in New Orleans," says Iaconelli. "The first was that the goal I had worked for all season, the goal of my entire career, had just been accomplished. But more importantly, I realized what an opportunity I had just been given to build the sport, and being able to try to do that this year has been an awesome, unbelievable experience.

"In all the things I've done, just being able to represent bass fishing has been an unbelievable honor."

The plan on how to accomplish any of this was hatched five days after Iaconelli's win, when he and two close friends, high school buddy John McGraw (who had flown in for the Classic) and fellow pro Pete Gluszek, made the long drive home together. Between cell phone calls of congratulations, the three anglers tried to put together a business plan that would allow Iaconelli to maximize his opportunities.

"Along the way, I called Kevin VanDam, Jay Yelas and Dion Hibdon, three former Classic champions, and asked them questions about what I should and should not do," remembers Iaconelli. "It wasn't just about me, because I also wanted their suggestions on how to help the sport and make it grow. I think that's a major role of the Classic winner today."

The opportunities started sooner than Iaconelli expected. The three of them drove up I-95 through Washington, D.C. and northward through Maryland, Delaware and, finally, into his driveway. Then the cell phone rang; it was one of his sponsors, Ranger Boats, asking if Iaconelli could be in Washington that day to present the awards at a charity fishing event that Ranger was conducting for 100 kids.

"I never even unpacked," Iaconelli says. "I just got back in my truck and drove three hours back down the very same route we had just come up. This was my first chance to reach out to young people, and it turned out to be a great, great time."

It was not until the next night that Iaconelli was finally able to sit at home and enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet and reflect on how his win had changed his life. Those quiet moments, he soon learned, would be few and far between during the next 12 months.

More than 100 people showed up at a surprise party family and friends threw for him shortly after his Classic win, and a week later the city of Runnemede staged a parade in his honor. The date of Aug. 3 (the day he won the Classic) was named "Michael Iaconelli Day," and a plaque commemorating his achievement was placed in the center of the city.

During the first nine months of his reign, Iaconelli made more than 100 show, seminar, and media appearances. He also competed as a member of the American team in an international fishing contest in Spain (finishing eighth overall) and fished for peacock bass in Venezuela (while filming CITGO's Classic Adventure).

On that long drive home with McGraw and Gluszek, part of Iaconelli's business plan had included a note to try to reach as many nontraditional magazines as possible, and in September he hired a publicist to push that idea forward. It did not take long for the effort to bring results. Iaconelli's Playboy interview was published on the Internet; Esquire and GQ interviews were conducted at tournament sites and will be published in the summer of 2004.

"It's been a shock to me that I can be a part of the growth and change of this sport," admits Iaconelli. "Those magazines have never, ever expressed much, if any, interest in bass fishing. We've all shared the vision of making our sport grow, and when I've been able to make people who normally are not excited about bass fishing get excited, then I get excited, too.

"People have come up to me at the supermarket and asked, 'Aren't you that fisherman from ESPN?' and at least a dozen times someone has come up to me in a restaurant and asked for an autograph. Experiences like this tell me bass fishing has huge potential for growth if we can just continue to reach people in the nontraditional markets."

Autograph hunters have found a willing target in Iaconelli, as they have with every previous Classic winner. Iaconelli, who now compares a Sharpie felt tip pen to a billfold since he always has one with him, says he cannot imagine refusing an autograph to anyone the way some athletes in other sports have been known to do. He has signed rods, reels, paddles, shirts, books, magazines, one bass boat, and even an old wooden lure with glass eyes — which Iaconelli is certain was worth far more than his signature.

One of the highlights of his attempts to reach a nontraditional market presented itself during the last day of practice for the opening CITGO Bassmaster Tour event at the Harris Chain of Lakes near Leesburg, Fla., in January. The champ served as Grand Marshall of Disney World's Make A Dream Come True parade. Riding in the lead car ahead of Mickey, Minnie, Goofy and the full cast of Disney characters and winding through the entire Magic Kingdom, Iaconelli could both see and sense the excitement on kids' faces along the parade route.

"It had been announced I was the Bassmaster Classic champion," he says, "and I just can't tell you how it makes you feel in a situation like that. In truth, you're representing the entire sport of bass fishing worldwide, not just one individual tournament. It was just awesome, and I'll never forget it."

One event Iaconelli might want to forget, or at least push to the back corners of his memory, is his opening pitch in the final spring training game between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves, an appearance set up in Orlando by ESPN.

"I follow baseball, but I'm not a serious fan," admits Iaconelli, "but this offered still another chance to expose bass fishing to a nontraditional audience, so I was happy to do it.

"I probably had not thrown a baseball in at least 10 years, and I didn't practice before the game, either," he laughs. "When the catcher handed me the ball and I walked out to the pitcher's mound, I got a nice grip, wound up, and threw it. The ball headed straight as an arrow to the catcher, except it started going high. The catcher was crouched down and he stayed down. The ball went over his head and hit a photographer standing behind the plate."

No one was hurt and everyone was able to laugh about it, including Iaconelli, who was later interviewed by ESPN as he sat in the stands watching the game.

ESPN also arranged for the Classic champ to be interviewed on their program Cold Pizza, which airs each morning. Instead of talking about fishing, however, they handed Iaconelli a page of notes and told him to announce the weather, which he managed to do without too much trouble. Eventually they did talk bass fishing while showing film clips from the New Orleans Classic, again giving Iaconelli the opportunity to reach a nontraditional audience.

All his efforts are paying off, too. Before the Classic, he was getting about 20 e-mails a month, but only three or four would be from people in the 12 to 18 age bracket, the audience bass fishing needs most to reach. Now, he still gets 20 e-mails a month, but 10 or 12 are from that age group.

One reason Iaconelli connects so well with both a younger audience as well as a nontraditional one is that, by his own admittance, he is still a kid at heart himself, someone who still enjoys jumping on a skateboard or doing a cannonball off the diving board.

Even though he has been a full-time bass pro for five years and is now a Classic champion, Iaconelli is, also by his own admittance, still one of bass fishing's biggest fans. His own excitement about the sport is real — it is not acting for the camera — and it is contagious for those around him. At a sports show one night this year, Iaconelli had dinner with all-time great Bill Dance, and he says he was totally awed by Dance's presence.

Between early August, when he won the Classic, and late April nine months later, Iaconelli was at home less than three weeks. On more than one occasion he visited three and four different states in a single weekend. There were endless airport delays caused by bad weather, strange motel rooms, and missed meals, all of which are now common for Classic winners.

He did not get to prefish any of the six Tour event lakes, and at three of them he missed at least one full day of official practice to attend various functions. Still, Iaconelli nearly won the Angler-of-the-Year title, eventually finishing third behind Gerald Swindle and Greg Hackney.

"One of my goals was to stay competitive," Iaconelli says, "and believe me, it was much harder than I expected. Before I won the Classic, I spent 75 percent of my time fishing and 25 percent on business. This year it's been a total reverse, with at least 75 percent of my time spent making different appearances across the country.

"My style of fishing has always depended on a lot of research and preparation, too. I have always been on the water at daylight and stayed out as late as possible, but this year I wasn't able to do that. But at the same time, all the pressures were gone. I had an automatic berth in the 2004 Classic and I was in the Elite 50 field.

"All of that allowed me to fish more freely, to go out and have fun. I could, and did, just drop the trolling motor and say, 'Wow! Isn't it fun just to be out here!' It's something other Classic winners have told me they also experienced, but it's a feeling I hope I can keep in the years ahead."

The world of bass fishing might hope that Iaconelli never stops trying to reach nonfishing audiences. With his youth, his exuberance, and now his Classic recognition, he has the potential to reach an entire generation of young, potential fishermen. His year as champion has already shown he's doing just that, which in itself is, well, awesome.

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