The old clip from World Championship Wrestling (WCW) that’s still online is a little grainy, a throwback to 1990s television. Harvey Schiller (M.S. 1962, Ph.D. ’70), a top executive at WCW at the time and dressed in a suit and tie, interrupts the vainglorious monologue happening on the wrestling stage by strolling out amid the elaborate spotlights.
“Did you see that I was biting my lip and trying not to laugh?” Schiller says now. “That was so much fun.”
Schiller argues with the man onstage, and the crowd roars. The clip is the only evidence of Schiller’s short-lived onscreen celebrity. The skit was just part of his job as president of Turner Sports.
Schiller, a chemist who earned a master’s and Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, hung a poster of the electromagnetic spectrum in his office at Turner Sports, a division of the Turner Broadcasting media company. He still keeps a card of the periodic table in his wallet, because he’s loyal to the chemistry background that gave him a foundation for how to think about things.
“It’s the whole idea of trying to find the simplest solution to a problem that I think you come away with from a scientific education,” he says. “You’re analytical in the way you look at things. So when somebody’s presenting something in business, or sport, or in the media world, you try to think about it in the simplest terms to understand it.”
You know, like with professional wrestling.
Fight for It
Schiller got his undergraduate chemistry degree from The Citadel. He took the advice of one of his chemistry professors there, a U-M alumnus, and applied to Michigan for graduate school.
After getting his master’s at U-M in 1962, Schiller reported for pilot training with the Air Force. In 1966, he served in Vietnam. He trained as a pilot and flew 1,180 combat missions during the war. Once, he got hit more than 30 times on a single mission. But he just had to battle those odds; his squadron was a lifeline, transporting people and critical supplies to encamped GIs.
“Very few people have a chance to demonstrate their courage under fire,” says Schiller, “and it instills something within you as you go on in life. You don’t want to have that experience, but it’s almost like a gift, that you’re able to understand how you reacted to it.” That intense experience earned him a confidence and perspective that has followed him through a career that’s offered up very different kinds of stress.
Schiller spent a year in Vietnam. When he came back, he taught at the U.S. Air Force Academy in their chemistry department for a short time before returning to U-M in 1968 for his Ph.D.
Schiller needs less than two minutes to root around and find the U-M dissertation he wrote almost 40 years ago; he keeps it in his home office in Charleston, South Carolina. He studied with Professor Ralph Rudolph in LSA’s Department of Chemistry, after the two overlapped in a lab at the Air Force Academy. Both served in the Air Force.
“He guided me through my doctoral studies in a positive way, and I was really lucky to have somebody like him there,” Schiller says.
“As you might expect, coming back from Vietnam with a few assignments as a combat pilot, I was a little older and a little bit different from the rest of the doctoral students at the time,” he says. And as an airman who served in an unpopular war, he felt a little under fire during anti-Vietnam protests. Schiller remembers that, during his time as a Ph.D. student, someone detonated a bomb near the ROTC building.
But in other ways, Schiller was like any other active student with big ambitions. He played rugby at Michigan and was president of the U-M Rugby Football Club in 1969–1970. He also worked with Don Canham and Bo Schembechler to build a football practice field at U-M.
Sports and C-Suites
Schiller always dug sports. “I’ve always enjoyed doing the challenging things,” Schiller says. “I tried ski jumping at Lake Placid. I thought I was going to die, mainly because there are no tall ski jumpers—I’m six-four.” He’s tried almost every Olympic sport, including luge, bobsled, and biathlon. He’s played baseball and team handball. He’s parachuted and has completed several legs of the Tour de France.
He had a romantic first date with his now-wife at an exercise facility. “We played racquetball at the gym on faculty-student night,” Schiller says. “And we played basketball.
“You know the sport of H.O.R.S.E.?” he chuckles. “She beat me.”
After getting his Ph.D., Schiller returned to teach chemistry at the U.S. Air Force Academy and became the school’s faculty representative to the NCAA. He also volunteered with the U.S. Olympic Committee and eventually served as its executive director in the 1990s. In 1994, Schiller was the one to announce that figure skater Tonya Harding would skate in Lillehammer, despite the attack on Nancy Kerrigan.
After his time with the Olympics, Schiller flirted with onscreen fame and professional wrestling at Turner Sports. He’d had no direct experience with broadcast television, yet he oversaw more than 900 hours of sports programming for the job. He also worked with George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees, joined various corporate boards, and co-founded several companies. How did his degrees in chemistry lead him down such an unlikely career path, from chemistry to wrestling, along with other zigzags?
It’s hard for an outside observer to say, but a chemist like Schiller has some hypotheses about how training, confidence, and other people can catalyze an active life and career. Schiller says that he takes education seriously. He honed the habits of integrity and honesty through his military experience. He’s held on to important relationships throughout his personal and professional life. And he looks for ways to give back to the broader community.
Remembering how he marched onto the field with the Olympic team in Barcelona, Schiller imbues the experience with his sense of community. “It’s not about you. You’re proud of the team that’s behind you.”