All With a Smile

The always smooth Jimmy Earl helped
make Austin arena a concert magnet

Jimmy Earl is among the last of a vanishing breed, a self-made arena manager. His early training came on the job, supported by continuing education through groups such as the International Association of Venue Managers.

Earl retired this fall after spending close to 40 years running the Frank C. Erwin Jr. Special Events Center, the University of Texas’ on-campus arena. The 16,734-seat home of Texas men’s and women’s basketball also stands as a lucrative concert venue. 

He made a brief pit stop running the Fort Worth Convention Center from 1987 to 1990 before returning to Erwin Center after John Graham took over as director. Earl assumed his same position, senior associate director, before taking over for Graham as director after he retired in 2017.

In Austin, considering UT is building the new $340 million Moody Center to replace Erwin Center in 2022, the time is right to reflect on the career of an industry veteran who was on the ground floor for opening the older venue. Earl is part of the 2020 VenuesNow Hall of Honor class. 

Peeling the layers back on Earl’s life reveals a renaissance man that goes well beyond his profession. He’s a third-degree black belt in tai chi, a martial arts discipline that he has practiced over the past 30 years.

He’s also a blues music enthusiast whose mother was a big fan of Jimmy Reed, a member of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Earl has played guitar since the early 1960s and has played in multiple bands in Austin, most recently the Erwinites, a group of arena staffers. 

In addition, Earl is a ham radio operator, a hobby he picked up from his father, and a solid golfer dating to his days as a kid playing weekends at the Ross Rogers Golf Course in Amarillo, a few blocks from his childhood home in the Texas Panhandle. 

Those interests fall in line with his passion for public assembly, which he passed on to his son, Jabari, now in his third year as an event manager at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in downtown Dallas.

Things have changed a lot since Jimmy Earl first entered the business at the Amarillo Civic Center in 1976. Back then, sport management programs preparing college students to run venues were in their infancy.

Earl had recently graduated from Sam Houston State in Huntsville, about 70 miles north of Houston, with a degree in industrial engineering. He was hired on the spot by Civic Center GM David DeWald after Earl’s neighbor, an arena employee, told Earl about a job opening at the building.

“I was going to slay the world and make a whole bunch of money, as most college graduates think they’re going to do,” he said. “I had no clue about this industry and David took me under his wing and taught me a lot.”

During his one year at the 5,000-seat arena, Earl worked in virtually every department, extending from custodial and maintenance to concessions, ticket sales, painting the ice for hockey games and running spotlights for concerts.

“David even taught me the administrative piece, reporting to the city manager and how to schmooze the bosses’ secretaries in that office, all things that I never knew about,” Earl said. 

GUITAR TOWN: Earl still takes guitar lessons and plays in a band of Erwin Center staffers. (Courtesy Jimmy Earl)

Erwin Center opened in 1977, and Earl moved to Austin after DeWald gave him a tip that Dean Justice, the new arena’s general manager, was searching for an event manager. Earl got the job, and it was an eye opener for the young professional one year into his career.

Earl was hired in August 1977, and the arena opened Nov. 29 of that year with a Texas victory over Oklahoma in men’s basketball. As part of running a bigger building, Earl was responsible for hiring and training a few hundred employees.

Compared with Amarillo’s “four-wall operation,” the Austin arena was a full-service operation tied to a business model providing all the services that partners and co-promoters need to produce live events, Earl said. 

“It was incredibly exciting,” he said. “Opening a new facility, there’s a lot of planning and forecasting, but you can never be sure what to expect. You learn from the mistakes and what you need to change — real quick. It was baptism by fire but very rewarding.”

Lawrence Welk performed the arena’s first concert on March 12, 1978. It came as Austin’s music scene began to develop into a world-class attraction through the “Austin City Limits” television show and, later, the South by Southwest music conference.

Over time, Erwin Center would thrive as an entertainment hub under Earl’s supervision.

Louis Messina, a longtime Texas-based concert promoter, observed the evolution while putting on many shows at Erwin Center. He got to know Jimmy Earl pretty well. They joke about Messina’s reputation as the “Moses of rock ’n’ roll,” as the sign read for his reserved parking space at the arena.

“Jimmy’s a special kind of guy,” Messina said. “He always moves at one speed, calm and smooth. He can be yelling at you and you wouldn’t even know it, because that’s how smooth he is. He does it all with a smile and it seems like it’s in slow motion, but he always makes things happen.”

In Messina’s days working for the old Pace Concerts in the 1980s, the company booked arena rock stalwarts such as Van Halen, Pink Floyd, and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band at Erwin Center, among many others.

In those days, Pace promoted most concerts at Erwin Center. Similar to Earl’s demeanor, it became a smooth process. With the school’s blessing, the arena took financial risk to secure concerts, which is not always the case with publicly owned venues in a university setting.

Messina, a promoter for 48 years who now lives in Austin, describes a city that was initially a “strange” music market. 

MORNING DRIVE: Earl practices tai chi to start his day. (Courtesy Jimmy Earl)

“It’s a hipster market, and for a while, only certain types of acts would work here,” he said. “But then it evolved into a mainstream city and a lot of it had to do with making it easy to do shows at Erwin Center.”

Austin’s location on Interstate 35 between Dallas, Houston and San Antonio helped attract business. But it was more than that, Earl said. For years, Erwin Center ran everything in-house, from marketing and ticket sales to security and food, streamlining those services for events.

The ability to fill the role of co-promoter was a big plus, tied to Austin’s reputation as a music center.

Some years, Erwin Center booked 35 to 40 concerts, a strong calendar for an arena at any level. It wasn’t just students from a school that now tops 50,000 in enrollment who were going to shows. The building became a regional venue drawing ticket buyers from a six-county area, Earl said.

The numbers are impressive. Over the past seven years, two-day runs by Paul McCartney and Adele both grossed more than $3 million in ticket sales at Erwin Center, the highest totals over the building’s 43-year history, according to Pollstar’s database. 

“We had dollars at risk and we were good stewards of that,” Earl said. “We did our homework with everything and made sure we had a reasonable chance to recover our investment. That’s probably a little different than most institutions, but after all, this is the University of Texas.”

Michael Marion understands the dynamics of running college facilities. Marion, general manager of Simmons Bank Arena in North Little Rock, Ark., ran venues at Mississippi State University early in his career. Marion knows Earl through their volunteer work with IAVM.

“Universities have their own set of challenges when you’re dealing with an athletic department and school administrators that don’t understand our business,” Marion said. “The fact that Jimmy has hung in for this long and has been successful speaks well for him.”

Earl’s stewardship extended to the Longhorns basketball teams at Erwin Center, part of the nation’s richest college athletics program. He’s good friends with past men’s coaches Rick Barnes and Tom Penders, current coach Shaka Smart, and past women’s coach Jody Conradt. 

For Earl, it was all about meeting their needs and taking care of “their house.” Coaches have only one thing on their minds and that’s their teams. They don’t care if there was a big concert the night before a game. The building needs to be ready to go the next day, he said.

For Rick Barnes, Texas men’s coach from 1998 to 2015, Earl’s office filled the need of an escape hatch.

“Rick was kind of a cutup,” Earl said. “He used to come to my office to hide, where nobody could find him. We would just sit there and chat. Everybody wants a piece of head coach.”

 

The IAVM pipeline has allowed Earl to give back by mentoring young professionals. 

He joined in 1987, the same year as Brad Mayne, now IAVM’s president and CEO. Earl served as the group’s chairman in 2004-05 and was awarded the prestigious Charles A. McElravy Award in 2016. It’s the group’s highest honor in the public assembly industry.

“He’s a servant leader willing to help and assist several people in the industry,” Mayne said. “He’s strategic, always coming up with ideas, and obviously a champion of equity and inclusivity.”

Shura Garnett, senior vice president of OVG Facilities’ convention center division, was among those facility managers Jimmy Earl supported early in her career. He helped her navigate the industry in general and deal with the politics often associated with facility management.

“I got to know Jimmy at a regional IAVM meeting in Colorado, “ Garnett said. “We attempted to learn how to ski together. It didn’t go too well. One thing about Jimmy, I’ve never heard him issue a bad word about anybody. He conducts himself with a high degree of morality.”

It’s that sense of morality that he instilled in his son. Jabari Earl grew up going to events at Erwin Center and kept a close eye on how his father ran the operation. Over time, Jimmy has been Jabari’s greatest source of knowledge. 

There was no pressure to follow in his father’s stepsteps. Jimmy likes to joke that he tried to talk Jabari out of pursuing a career in venue management. But the roots ran deep and Jabari went down the same path.

Before taking the job at the performing arts center, Jabari interned at the Alamodome after graduating from the University of Texas-San Antonio and getting his MBA at the University of the Incarnate Word. He’s learned from his father the importance of maintaining an even keel through the ebbs and flows of the live entertainment business.

“There’s always a fire to put out,” Jabari Earl said. “My father likes to quote (martial artist and actor) Bruce Lee to ‘be like water.’ It’s constantly moving and molds to the situation. That’s how he taught me as a venue manager.”

Moody Center, a 17,000-capacity arena funded and operated by Oak View Group (which also owns VenuesNow), will be designed in large part for concerts, extending the legacy established by Erwin Center. The older arena will be torn down for the expansion of Dell Medical Center.

“It will be great for the university and the teams and the fans,” Earl said. “For me, it’s bittersweet, but there’s impermanence in everything. A lot of people don’t realize there’s a whole world around what we do. I know I didn’t, but sure glad I happened upon it.”   

 

2020 Hall of Honor: Rick Abramson

2020 Hall of Honor: Carol Wallace