With the exception of rumors that Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh will soon be returning to the NFL with either the Las Vegas Raiders or the Miami Dolphins and/or former New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton eventually landing with the Dallas Cowboys, consider me bored with the options and intrigue with this year’s (media driven) cast of group think characters that have been rolled out for our hiring enjoyment.
Trying to project assistant coaches into the role of the big chair is very hard and analytics alone should tell you, it’s a risky investment at best. On the job training is hard at the NFL level, especially for a new head coach or a new GM. Some might say, “you had no experience when the Saints made you a GM at age 39”. Actually, that’s not true. Without having the title, I was really in charge of the general manager duties with the Seattle Seahawks for several years. I not only ran the personnel department but I also managed the team’s salary cap. I just didn’t have the title of GM. I also had 17 years of experience observing others in the business. I was more than ready for the job in New Orleans.
I credit former Seahawks owner Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, and his circle of aides for pushing me to start at the top when we searched for our next coach after they dismissed Dennis Erickson. Allen had President Bob Whitsitt and myself start our search by investigating the top coaches in the league to see if we could pry any away from their current employers.
We had conversations with not only Mike Holmgren, but also Jeff Fisher, Tom Coughlin and several others. All were at the top of their games at the time, and we contacted each either directly or through intermediaries. Our theory was, let’s start at the top and work our way backwards.
Do we really think Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, isn’t having second thoughts about his current coach and Payton stepping away from the Saints on Tuesday is a complete coincidence?
Everyone seems to have their own flavor or favorite when it comes to “what is best” for their franchise. I have been involved in these kind of searches four times in my career. With three of these coaching searches, in all honesty, I knew who we wanted to hire before the search began.
The other search was a crap shoot that became an exercise in moving to the opposite end of the spectrum from who we had as our prior head coach. It was a process-oriented search that had multiple levels of research. I think my first three hires would be judged as a success, even by the harshest of critics. However, the fourth, and the one based on process and zero prior relationships, was a failure.
Having said that, I am a believer in a process-oriented search with discipline to see it through. I think gathering information is smart and that information can be used to educate now AND can be valuable down the road as well. But if you are an informed and well intentioned general manager, you have done your homework to familiarize yourself (and thus the others in your hiring group) with the pros and cons of each of the candidates before you interview any of them.
The bottom line is that choosing a head coach, is much like choosing a player. As hard as some people try to make this decision based on objectivity, its really very SUBJECTIVE. I think it’s a gut feel based on prior relationship(s) that is the most important element. It’s a level of comfort that the lead person on the hiring side of the table feels toward a particular candidate.
To that end, I truly think some teams use the process to align their criteria and to validate a choice that they have already made. They want the process to justify the choice. I’ll even take it a step further. In many cases, interviews are set up with their initial list of people to consider just to confirm their predetermined choice or at least favor a particular candidate.
It happens with general manager candidates as well. Sometimes, I can tell by who is doing the hiring, which coaching candidate will get the job. Its why, at times, the best candidates not only don’t get these jobs, but they don’t even get interviewed. It’s fascinating why teams with head coaching vacancies don’t go after bigger fish?
There are many smart people who think hiring on a gut feel is totally crazy. They define everything through being objective and checking every box from an analytics point of view.
I happen to think it’s a relationship business and as a former general manager, I have spent a lot of time cultivating those relationships and growing a knowledge base in that fashion. I went out of my way to gather information and keep track of important values measuring strengths and weaknesses of “would be candidates” throughout my career.
Communicating is hard, but spending quality time face to face with people is even harder. When I was a general manager, part of the reason I liked to stay active in scouting and get out of the office to make college visits, was to have my pulse on what was happening at a variety of college programs.
I wanted to meet and watch coaches as well as players. I know many GMs who never leave their own buildings in this day and age. They never develop a feel for others beyond checking boxes and using numbers to analyze. Call me old school, but this is something the NFL and more particularly, those who run teams, really need to improve on. Its no different than those who run large companies successfully. They understand the relationship business better than their competitors.
I have an idea that may even help the NFL improve upon the crazy disparity of minorities getting left behind in the head coaching process. Let me pick, five or six GMs this summer who I happen to think might be looking for a head coach next year (after the 2022 season). Then let me choose six/eight assistant coaches who have the credentials to move up to the big chair at the NFL level (minorities should make up the majority).
Once I have compiled my list, let me gather them all together for a golf weekend or a fishing trip to Alaska or some exercise where people can “be themselves”. I want them in some other setting than a formal cocktail party with owners in suits and ties at a luxury resort (which the league has pushed for years).
Lets build some real relationships and get to know each other. We can discuss a number of topics, including football, around a camp fire. I move that we need to get general managers more comfortable with potential head coaches so that they can develop a gut feel to lessen their anxiety of hiring one of them someday. That comfort level will then be passed up to ownership.
Cultivating relationships has got to be a priority. Especially when it comes to minorities getting a true chance. Trust me, the results will work on multiple levels, including helping minorities and improving the overall hiring success rate in general.