Maura Kathleen Mandt—legendary producer, pioneering innovator, fearless television army general, alien life force, and absolutely fucking singular human being—died unexpectedly on Friday in New York City. At least that’s what our brains are still struggling to tell us. Our hearts will forever be convinced otherwise.
As the longtime executive producer of the ESPYs, ESPN’s annual awards show, Maura was one of the most powerful and influential people in sports and entertainment for years. Through sheer force of will, she grew the show from a simple night to honor a few champions into one of the sports calendar’s signature events—inspiring, thought-provoking, controversial, and what Esquire magazine once called “the only award show that matters.” She capitalized on the show’s success to build her own production company, Maggie Vision, which also produces the NFL Honors awards show, as well as a long list of heralded and critically acclaimed documentaries, films, series, and branded content. She even produced a 2014 short film that won the first-ever Prime Time Emmy for 30 for 30.
Maura would tell you that she always saw herself first and foremost—more than as an executive, or a power broker, or a businesswoman—as a storyteller. She would tell you that her passion for stories guided every choice she made for every show. And that’s all well and good. But the truth was, in Maura’s own story, that was only a slice of what made her such an extraordinary, seminal figure in so many people’s lives.
It started with her persona: big smile, a Virginia Slims cigarette dangling from her hand, always trying to solve five problems at once. You didn’t just know Maura Mandt; you entered her never-ending work tornado every time you crossed paths with her. She swept you up in it and you didn’t really have a choice. Maura was always at her peak the night before the ESPYs, surrounded by her work family in the wee hours, frantically trying to get the show ready, oblivious to the smoking rules in whatever building or hotel, pushing everyone around her to keep going and going.
She embodied an unmistakable kind of cool, with her seemingly endless collection of friendships with huge stars in sports and entertainment. Her unparalleled connections seemed to double in size every year. But Maura’s attention to the smallest details seemed to know no bounds, and her unwavering dedication to her loyal, tight-knit staff at Maggie Vision absolutely turned her company into a family.
Maura was magnetic. She was brilliant. Some people thought she was crazy. And on that third point, it’s worth noting how sensitive she was about such a perception. She never thought it was right that just because she was willing to change a feature at the last minute, or spend a million dollars on a minute of television, or spend her life completely, utterly dedicated to her shows, that all that should classify her as crazy. She had a point, particularly since she was among the most powerful, successful women in all of entertainment, and the world has a bad habit of determining powerful, successful women to be crazy women. Then again, as Steve Jobs once said, the ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.
And on the subject of changing the world, Maura saw her signature show as a way to try. From the very first ESPYs, featuring Jim Valvano’s “Never, Ever Give Up” speech just a few months before he died of cancer, the show’s hallmark has been its huge array of unforgettable television moments. Maura treated every year as a new chance to create moments that would inspire, as well as provoke thought, awareness, and maybe even controversy. It was Maura who convinced 140 of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse survivors to come to Los Angeles and flood the ESPYs stage together while receiving the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. It was Maura who crafted unforgettable tributes on the show to heroes like Pat Tillman, Billie Jean King, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, Nelson Mandela, and Bill Russell. It was Maura who campaigned to honor a 15-year-old football player who was a victim of senseless gun violence, and a forgotten boxer who’d been wrongly imprisoned for more than a quarter-century. It was Maura who honored Caitlyn Jenner in her first major appearance in the world, in many ways amplifying a conversation about shifting gender norms in our society.
She had everyone from Peyton Manning to Justin Timberlake to Tracy Morgan to Jon Hamm on speed dial. Always speed-talking and bouncing around from topic to topic, Maura had a funny habit of referring to everyone by their first names in conversation, leaving you to determine on your own that “Aaron” was Aaron Rodgers, or “Brett” was Brett Favre. (She was tight with both of them, by the way.)
Sometimes she would wear you down until she got the result she wanted. She could be mean, mercurial, and baffling. Distant and intimate in the space of a few seconds. She often seemed to love Maggie, her dog, more than her friends. (Because she probably did.) Her methods—of thinking, of teaching, of producing, of living—could be exhausting. But true giants have that way about them. They don’t do things the way everyone else does. They don’t live the kinds of lives everyone else does. Yet we follow them, because we believe in them.
And looking back, it’s nothing short of amazing to see what happened because so many people believed in Maura.
She started her career in her native Detroit, before arriving at ESPN right after the network had taken off in the 1980s. She worked her way up the ladder in the most conventional, old-school way possible—by working her ass off—and eventually established a niche for connecting sports with entertainment, the essence of the ESPYs. She turned a show that had become a punch line into something that actually mattered.
There was a lot more than just the show: Emmys, Webbies, other awards and praise. She’d be pissed right now that we weren’t naming more of those accolades, because she was proud of every damn one of them. Understanding her legacy by focusing only on storytelling just doesn’t make sense.
Maura, now that you’re gone, it’s about your story. About your leadership, your fearlessness, your lovable insanity, your relentlessness, your passion. About how many people that impacted—people who were close to you, and people who never met you.
It’ll take a long fucking time to make sense of the idea that you died on February 28, 2020. (God, you would have hated the idea that you died while Donald Trump was still president.) But here’s the deal, for all the rest of us to remember today, and tomorrow, and the rest of our lives:
Anytime any of us wants to do something big, something that doesn’t seem like it’ll be possible, something that doesn’t even make sense—but it’s something that we believe in, and we can’t stop thinking about it—we owe it to Maura to go for it. We owe it to Maura to never take no for an answer. We owe it to Maura to write one more draft, make one more call, come up with one more idea, brainstorm one more time. We owe it to Maura not to take shit from anyone, and not to care what the world thinks. We owe it to Maura to keep telling stories.
And we will. Because she’ll always be with us.
Aaron Cohen has been a writer and producer on the ESPYs since 2007.