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Thursday, December 1, 2005
Updated: December 2, 10:09 AM ET Leadership key to finding right coach
By Chris Mortensen
The first coach has been fired. The Detroit Lions have said goodbye to Steve Mariucci and they're paying him about $12 million over the next two years to take a hike.
It was a costly mistake. It doesn't mean Mariucci is a failure as a head coach. It means he was the wrong man for the Lions. There is a difference. Atlanta Falcons general manager Rich McKay and Indianapolis Colts general manager Bill Polian have had outstanding success in hiring the right coach for their franchises. They have a common link in Tony Dungy, who got his first job when McKay hired him in Tampa and his second job when Polian hired him in Indianapolis.
Another link between Polian and McKay is that both hired Jim Mora to coach their teams -- father and son, that is.
What's the secret to finding the right guy?
I spent less time with Polian on the topic, so I'll share his thoughts first in a question and answer format. CM: Simply, what's the key to picking a coach?
Bill Polian (in Indianapolis) and Rich McKay (in Tampa) each hired Tony Dungy.
Polian: You just have to get the coach that is the right fit for your organization at the time you have to make that choice. That's the key. It isn't just going out and picking a name from a group of coaches who have achieved a lot. It's more about what kind of talent do you have, what kind of program and what role will that coach play in the organization. CM: So it's not always the hot candidate? Polian: No. Marv Levy used to say, "When you speak so loudly, I can't hear what you say." Look, track record is important. But just because it's something so obvious, it can be the wrong path. You don't choose a head coach for that reason alone. You choose based on what he brings to the overall program. CM: Your first hire with the Colts was Jim Mora, but you fired him and ended up with Dungy. Was Mora a mistake? Polian: No, he was absolutely the right guy at the time. We owe Jim a tremendous debt of gratitude for getting this program on the right path, the right footing, the right way. This program was in disarray and Jim pointed every single player that is still on this roster in the right direction. He showed them how to prepare, how to win, how to be a professional. CM: Of all the qualities a head coach should have, what's the most important? Polian: Leadership is by far the most important quality.
Now, on to McKay, who, like Polian, is a member of the NFL's Competition Committee. CM: What's the first thing an executive in your position must do before he hires a coach? McKay: First and foremost, you have to develop a profile for your coach that best fits your organization. You have to establish your goals, not just the bottom line of winning, but how you want to go about winning. The most important person in that deal is the owner. You have to get a clear understanding from the owner what his or her expectations are. CM: When you get down to the nitty-gritty of interviewing a coach, what are the key talking points? If your offense has been dreadful -- or if it's the defense -- does a coordinator on that need-side of the ball get more consideration? McKay: I think that's a mistake. In the end, it's as much about leadership and the type of environment that a coach will create as opposed to how they line up the X & Y. I want to spend as much time talking to various candidates about how they will structure their coaching staff and how they will operate on a daily basis. I like to spend as much time on the staffing. I don't want to talk just talk about specific names of coaches who might be on staff, but the type of coaches they like and what they expect out of those coaches. CM: I take it you agree with the concept that one coach that could succeed with one franchise could actually fail in another? McKay: No question about it. That goes back to how that coach fits in your organization at a very particular time of where you are as an organization and a football team. Tony Dungy was a perfect fit in Tampa because of what we needed -- stability, leadership and a grounded approach to build something that will last. Jim Mora was perfect in Atlanta because this was a team with some talent in place that needed his energy, his motivational skills and the type of discipline be brought to the organization. CM: In Tampa, when the Glazer family decided to fire Dungy, you recommended that they hire Marvin Lewis but they passed. That would have been a pretty good call now, too, don't you think? McKay: I just liked Marvin's leadership and the fact I felt he would be very successful with the type of adversity we were facing at the time. Remember, Tony had been dismissed and Bill Parcells did not come. There was a lot of unrest. That situation needed a unique personality. Jon [Gruden] handled it well and Marvin would have done likewise. CM: What about the franchise where the stadiums are half-empty and there's a need to reenergize the fan base? Do you go for the headliner? McKay: Big mistake. One of the things I always like to say is that the last thing you consider is the impact of a hire on season-ticket sales and local headlines. It's all about winning. When you win, those things fall into place. The fact that you generate 3,000 more season tickets because you hired a legend is pointless if you don't become a winning franchise. There are plenty of examples of that. CM: You serve on the diversity committee. There is a now a policy in place that requires teams to interview minority candidates. What's the best thing about that policy? McKay: First, the diversity policy is one of the best things we have done in recent years as a league. Not only does it bring the minority candidates to the forefront, but it's a good, healthy exercise for the organization. It requires you as an organization to have a plan, to incorporate a lot of people in making that plan, as opposed to an owner who saw Coach X on TV and liked him, so why not hire him? You learn something about yourself as an organization when you actually take the time to draw up a plan, create a profile, and then meet with a good group of candidates who actually bring a variety of ideas to the table. CM: Yet, even though you, your owner [Arthur Blank] and [executive vice president] Ray Anderson were on the league's diversity committee, you surprised and even disappointed a lot of people in Atlanta by hiring Mora, a nonminority coach. McKay: That's correct. In the end, you owe it to your organization, the players and the fan base to simply hire the right guy, the right fit for your organization at that specific time. It all goes back to that. It doesn't mean you hire by somebody else's measurement. This isn't the quarterback ratings game. You hire the best coach that you think can win. In our case, Mora was the right choice, but we still were better off by going through a thorough process.
McKay added, "The other thing I like about the process is that it's a great opportunity for the organization and a prospective new coach to lay out a game plan prior to the time the coach is hired. If you simply identify your guy beforehand and hire him without real substantive discussion, you might discover that you're not really on the same page but it's too late because the hire has been made. You can go through all the various issues -- how you meet, how you organize the draft, how you organize free agency, everything. ... and when you finally do hire a coach, you hit the ground running." ESPN's Chris Mortensen is a regular contributor to Insider. He chats every Wednesday in The Show.