Dean Capra, owner of Capra’s Sporting Goods in Blaine: My late father, Ted, was a good friend of Irwin. They competed as a trio along with Hulk Hogan in the celebrity tournament held in conjunction with the [Don Shelby U.S. Invitational]. In one of those early years, they won first place in a field of 30 boats. Irwin was exhilarated and told my dad that he was going to make a lot of professional fishermen rich. He got the biggest bang out of winning that.
The hoopla, live entertainment, strong prize money and media coverage that went along with those annual Shelby tournaments helped attract participation by some of the champions from B.A.S.S. It was a feather in Irwin’s cap.
Don Shelby, former anchor for WCCO-TV: We put as many as 100 boats on Lake Minnetonka and that required a lot of cooperation with local lake authorities and the DNR. We emphasized conservation and made sure not to have any fish mortality. It was always good public relations for Irwin, and the celebrity tournament was the biggest fundraiser of its kind in the country. Proceeds went to Ronald McDonald House. We made it a family event. We created a lot of firsts, including dramatic, weigh-in ceremonies captured live on a mega-screen showing digital readouts of fish weights and rankings of anglers. The tournament spanned about nine years, and somewhere in the middle you could tell Irwin would use it as a format for something bigger.
Franklin Pillsbury IV of Fort Myers, Fla.: Irwin hired me in 1991 after he purchased Cajun Boats. I moved to Minnesota, from Texas, where my family was in the boat business. Irwin was early to recognize how bass fishing could soar in popularity and he always thought 150 yards ahead of anyone else. He already owned Lund, the most renowned walleye boat, and it was his ambition to have pro anglers recognized as elite athletes. He thought they were underappreciated, but raising the bar on tournaments was also a way to make the cash register ring in the boat business.
Irwin told me one day he would get TV to broadcast a bass fishing tournament as a lead-in to a National Football League game. He did that by partnering with a legend from ESPN Outdoors, taking FLW [Fishing League Worldwide] marketing and sponsorship to a new level.
Dennis Mathisen, Irwin’s close friend and longtime business associate: Irwin loved the boat business and he built it with friendly and hostile transactions. But even more than Ranger, Irwin’s favorite line was Hatteras of Cape Hatteras, N.C. We bought AMF [for $1.1 billion], and Hatteras was a desired asset inside AMF. Hatteras made seaworthy fishing boats and luxury yachts.
Beth Whittaker of Waconia: I worked for Irwin for 21 years and helped manage the fishing tournaments on Lake Minnetonka, including the Shelby and charity bass tournaments hosted by Vikings coach Denny Green. Too many media accounts in the wake of Irwin’s death have focused on his former stake in the Vikings. That’s not his legacy. It was boating and building up tournament fishing. … He just elevated it to a whole new level.
Compiled by Tony Kennedy