INSIGHTS

Those thrilling comebacks-why we admire them

WHEN SINATRA is at his best-singing My Way, the national anthem of those who bounced back from misfortune-I remember the story of how desperately he sought and needed the role of Maggio in From Here to Eternity. His career had skidded badly, and so had he. He had enough knowledge of the streets to realize that there weren’t many chances left. But he won the role and the Academy Award. What must he think now-there on the stage of Carnegie Hall before a packed and devoted house? Does he think of his comeback? Does he think of what might have been if someone else had gotten the role of Maggio?

There’s so much more romance in a comeback; it draws forth our most generous responses in a way that predictable successes never do. It was fun to hate the New York Yankees during their nearly absolute domination of baseball during the Mickey Mantle era; we knew in the end-and especially in October-where the smart money would go. The Yankees’ strength and depth precluded any comebacks other than their own. Yet when they came from behind, we never considered it a comeback because Yankee losses represented only a postponement of the inevitable.

It’s also rather difficult to root for IBM. Theirs is such a tradition of success, right moves and foresight that you just never associate IBM with comebacks because they seem to have exorcised the possibility of failure.

Steady, correct, one foot in front of the other, one rung at a time-these climbs to success won’t bring us to the edge of our seats. We can admire those who pull off this kind of progression (and we can depend on them), but those who come back excite us. We may respect those who succeed, but there’s an affection for those who come back.

Sam Wyly, founder of University Computing Company, one of the Sixties’ highest flyers ($9,000 invested in UCC’s stock in 1965-the year UCC went public-was worth more than $1 million in 1968), flew too close to the sun in the Seventies. He spent eight years and $100 million trying to create DATRAN, a company that could compete against AT&T in the emerging field of data transmission. During the Sixties he was hitting home runs almost every time he came up to bat, but during the Seventies it got tougher-much tougher. The venture capital pool shrank from $1 billion to $50 million during the five-year period from 1969 to 1974. And DATRAN needed another $200 million from that shrinking pool to succeed. Wyly didn’t get it, and DATRAN didn’t make it.

But it wasn’t all because of the lack of money. The enemy DATRAN took on-AT&T-was dedicated, huge and more than a little committed to monopoly, now and forever. One source says that Wyly knew he “was beat up pretty bad.” and that while he never started DATRAN to be a martyr, he. along with Tom Carter of Carterfone and Bill McGowan, president of MCI, were the chief architects of the breakup of AT&T. And that, many people believe, makes it a fair fight for those who want to compete to serve the country’s communication needs.

If you’re willing to put yourself at risk, Wyly believes, you must accommodate yourself to the certainty that even the longest winning streaks come to an end. Sam Wyly has come back, and he’s not doing it by thinking small. His plans for NetAmerica, a nationwide communications network that will fill the gaps that MCI isn’t covering, are, in their way, at least as ambitious as those for. the failed dream of DATRAN.

As it turns out, Wyly’s own business comeback doesn’t hold nearly as much appeal for him as the comeback that Highland Park’s football team made against Greenville in 1980, a comeback in which Wyly’s son was a tight-end target for the passes of Lance McIlhenny. “That was a comeback,” says Wyly.

Those who come back have more than a nodding acquaintance with the bottom dropping out from under them, self-doubt or being uncomfortably ahead of their times. But the Amazing Mets told us, “You gotta believe,” and Lee Iacocca, mustering all of his considerable bravado, told us that if we could find a better car, then, dammit, we should go right ahead and buy it.

Once in a while, you wonder whether the people who come back would bother if they were privy to what the future held. Patricia Neal came all the way back from a stroke only to find that the person (other than herself) who had helped effect the comeback most-her husband-found he had another interest. So it was goodbye, Patricia. Her recent photographs reveal a pain that must be at least equal to that of her grueling rehabilitation.

Comebacks are often savored more than theinitial achievement because in so many casesthere is an accidental quality to the beginner’ssuccess. Losing that achievement might bean accident as well. But comebacks are conscious, deliberate, often even courageous acts.Those who pull them off deserve the cheersbecause they went through the times when thecheering stopped.

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