– By Richard Urban
Sherry Henry enters the room for our interview carrying an 8-by-10 framed photograph of her and the Phoenix Suns’ Charles Barkley, a memento of her year as Fiesta Bowl board chair.
“I think I was standing on a stool,” she smiles.
Barkley was Grand Marshal for the 1994 Fiesta Bowl Parade and the perfect choice. He was kind, kids mobbed him, he signed hundreds of autographs with grace and humor, and he was generally a cool guy to be around, Henry recalls. And that epitomizes the Fiesta Bowl for her.
“It’s all about kids and balloons and fun,” she says.
That year, 1994-95, also marked the first time a woman headed a college football bowl organization, a distinction Henry downplays, but an important one, nonetheless.
“That’s my 15 minutes of fame,” she says somewhat sheepishly. “In a conservative state, the Fiesta Bowl, from the very beginning, had no gender, race or anything issues. It was all about who came into the room and wanted to make things happen.”
Another example of that came in 1981, when Dr. Morrison Warren became the first African-American to chair a college bowl.
“Gender was never much of an issue. Nobody ever really talked about it that much, which I thought was great. To me, it wasn’t about being a woman. It was about being a Fiesta Bowl volunteer,” she says.
“Sherry made it clear that it was OK for women to become engaged in the bowl,” says Win Holden, who was tapped by Henry to serve as Yellow Jacket Committee Chair. “You look at the organization now, there are far more women involved. I honestly believe that Sherry was the one who made it clear that the door would swing wide open if they wished to get involved.”
Some media wanted to make an issue of her gender, but Henry wouldn’t allow it. Her passion and commitment were so strong that she was recognized for her contributions and accomplishments, not her gender.
“I was the general manager of a hotel at the time, and you could count on one hand the number of general managers who were female in the Valley,” she says. “I’ve never been about gender. It’s about who you are and what you can do and what you believe in.”
With the Fiesta Bowl, Henry got things done long before she was elected to chair the board.
She first got involved with the Fiesta Bowl Parade in 1973, the bowl’s third year, handling just about every detail – down to painting the horses’ hooves silver and buying doughnuts for the volunteers. She wrote scripts for the parade’s television hosts, and later acted as a spotter after the broadcast was syndicated and the hosts wrote their own scripts.
By the early ’80s she had joined the Yellow Jacket committee and was invited to join the Board, becoming its first woman member and eventually serving on the executive committee before becoming board chair.
Henry wasn’t supposed to become chair in 1994, but the man who was designated to chair that year retired and moved to Tucson.
“I got a standing ovation from the Fiesta Bowl Committee and the board members when it was announced,” she recalls. “And I think that made me cry because that was such a tribute from the people that I worked with day after day, year after year. That they would give me that acknowledgement was very special.”
One of her first acts was to offer the committee chairmanship to Holden, an advertising executive at the time.
“We talked during the call about her vision for the year and she said I really want these meetings to be less dull and more fun and hopefully get more people engaged,” Holden says. He accepted on the spot.
Holden had chaired the bowl-sanctioned national high school band competition and kicked off the first meeting with a local high school band marching into the room to the tune of a college fight song.
Henry went along with it, but asked him one pertinent question: “You know what room we’re in, right? Maybe you’d better come take a look.” The ceilings were about 12 feet high.
“She said, ‘you know, I really don’t think it matters.’ Now, she may have thought it was the worst idea to put a 300-unit marching band inside that small ballroom, but she wouldn’t say it. She supported the idea because, I think, she didn’t want to make me feel bad. Happily, it worked fine. It was loud, but it worked and people loved it. It really set the tone.”
Holden says that’s just how Henry operated. She supported people and did not micromanage. She let people make mistakes and learn from them.
“She’s almost like a boat that doesn’t leave a wake, not flamboyant in terms of her personal style. She is very quick to deflect credit and praise to other people, and doesn’t accept compliments very well,” he says. “She’s just the consummate leader, and one of the finest executives I’ve ever worked with. People just fall all over themselves simply because of her natural warmth and charisma.”
Those attributes served her well as board chair as she led the bowl to some significant milestones. It was during her time as chair that the Fiesta Bowl moved from NBC to CBS, a package she played a key role in negotiating.
She also led the Fiesta Bowl to its inclusion in what was then known as The Bowl Alliance, a predecessor to the Bowl Championship Series. The Fiesta Bowl, not even a quarter century old, joined the prestigious Rose, Orange and Sugar Bowls in the alliance, beating out such established bowls as the Cotton and Gator. Her efforts led to the Fiesta Bowl hosting the National Championship in 1996.
“We beat out a lot of established bowls,” Holden observes. “The fact that the Fiesta Bowl was going to leapfrog all those was a big shock. And Sherry was one of the primary reasons we were successful in getting in the rotation.”
All those years of travel, showing up everywhere in those yellow jackets, establishing relationships with college administrators, athletic directors, coaches and even players paid off.
“It was about recognizing that making friends was the best way to succeed in business, because these are personal relationships. And you can never replace personal relationships,” Henry says.