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Inside the NFL: Finding right GM, coach can be a science

Jed Hughes is the NFL’s version of cupid.

He’s a professional matchmaker, looking to put team owners with the right candidates to fill head-coaching and general-manager vacancies. Some of his handy work can be found in Seattle (coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider), Kansas City (coach Andy Reid and GM John Dorsey), and Atlanta (coach Dan Quinn).

Hughes also works with NBA and MLB teams, as well as with college football (he placed Jim Harbaugh at Michigan and Jim McElwain at Florida) and basketball programs.

But his busiest time is almost here. In four weeks, when the NFL regular season ends, the league’s annual firing-hiring frenzy will begin.

Hughes will start, as always, with an interview – but not with the coach or GM candidate who is out of work or seeking a promotion. First, he must meet with the owners to gauge how they interact with the people running their team. Those conversations can happen right after a firing occurs, or “they may talk to you earlier in a very confidential manner.”

“The most important thing you have to do at the beginning is to understand where the owner wants to be in terms of his activity,” Hughes, who heads the sports division of the executive search firm Korn Ferry, said by phone from his office in Manhattan. “You can have a situation where you have heavy ownership involvement, where you put Jerry Jones or Dan Snyder at the top of that list. And then you go to Seattle and put Paul Allen at the other side of the list.”

The differences have everything to do with the type of prospective hires brought into the mix.

Hands-on or hands-off?

Some coaches and GMs are fine with the idea of having an owner who prefers to be hands-on, with regular meetings with his top decision-makers. In Jones’ case with the Dallas Cowboys, GM is part of his title. Other coaches and GMs would rather have the owner keep their distance, making only periodic appearances at the team facility or checking in from time to time by telephone.

Hughes has 45 years of experience in sports and executive recruitment. He was an assistant coach for coaching legends Bud Grant, Chuck Noll and Bo Schembechler. He helped the Packers and 49ers with, among other things, psychological testing, competence development and “structural behavioral” interviewing of their top management.

Not surprisingly, Hughes gears the entire search process toward ownership, because that’s the party that hires his company. Although the title of an 18-page booklet he distributes to owners this time of year is “The First Year Challenge: A Game Plan for General Managers and New Head Coaches,” the contents are designed to inform those paying the salaries what they should expect to get for their money.

“It is up to coaches or general managers to take up the task of building that relationship (with owners), because if they wait until problems arise, the leash is shorter and the response is much less charitable,” the booklet says. “When Quinn was recruited by the Falcons, he got to know Arthur Blank, the active team owner, of whom Quinn asked early on, ‘What exactly are you looking for from your head coach in terms of back-and-forth communication?’ Quinn followed up by asking how best to stay in contact – email, texts, or phone calls – realizing that navigating their relationship was crucial to success. ‘If the owner is someone who wants involvement, then you should include him in lots of discussions,’ Quinn said. ‘If the owner’s needs aren’t being met, that won’t ever be a good thing.’

“For a new general manager, communication and compatibility with the owner are even more critical. Most owners are fans of the game, and the general manager is their conduit into the inner workings of the front office and the organization.”

All about proper alignment

That’s why Hughes talks a great deal about “alignment.” He sees it as the most vital aspect of his job, finding as much of a common thread as possible from ownership through the front office and coaching.

Poor alignment, he says, is “the No. 1 thing that blows up organizations.” That means there isn’t a shared vision and when things go wrong, the coach and GM invariably will bicker about the cause and self-preservation takes over. The coach will complain he doesn’t have the right personnel. The GM will insist coaching isn’t getting the most out of the talent.

There won’t necessarily be constant harmony in any situation. Disagreement is healthy, because it helps create a culture of checks and balances. But once the friction starts, it has a way of turning into a four-alarm fire.

“You also look at a scale between general manager-dominated or head coach-dominated, and you slide along that scale to understand what the organization is trying to accomplish,” Hughes said. “So, for example, if you look at a team that’s dominated by the head coach, you’d probably put Bill Belichick on the top of the list. If you think about a team who probably has the strongest general manager tenured, it would be Teddy Thompson up in Green Bay. And then if you look at organizations that are balanced, you take a look at the Steelers where ownership, front office, they all work together.”

Once Hughes and ownership agree on the type of coach or GM to pursue, he goes about the task of comparing candidates accordingly. “You then develop questions and reference questions that are based on that criteria,” he said.

Brace for first-year obstacles

One of the most fascinating front-office/coaching structures Hughes helped assemble was with the Cleveland Browns after last season. Jimmy Haslam, the Browns’ owner, had had enough of seeing the conventional approach with multiple GMs and coaches go awry, just as it had for many years before he bought the team in 2012.

He promoted Sashi Brown from executive vice president/general counsel to head up the football operations. Brown was charged with leading the Browns into a full commitment to an analytics-based approach, something that had never been done in the NFL. To that end, Haslam hired Korn Ferry to build out the rest of the hierarchy. In came John DePodesta, a career baseball man and the brains behind the “Moneyball” phenomenon that inspired a book and a movie, along with Andrew Berry, who had been the pro scouting coordinator for the Indianapolis Colts.

The final piece was finding a coach who would buy into a philosophy that prioritized draft picks and called for a virtual gutting of the roster. Hue Jackson, who had been the Cincinnati Bengals’ offensive coordinator after a one-year head-coaching stint with the Oakland Raiders, took the job knowing the Browns’ 0-12 record was a distinct possibility.

“We interviewed a variety of candidates,” Hughes said. “(Jackson) brought the experience and the skills and the type of leadership that would be needed in the building and had to be the type of person that could sustain dealing with some real obstacles and challenges early on.”

The conclusion of Korn Ferry’s booklet provides club owners and college athletic directors and presidents with a harsh dose of reality about what they are about to undertake by bringing in new coaches and GMs.

“The first-year leader, whether in a corporation, political office, or locker room, faces daunting challenges,” it says. “There are minefields everywhere, ready to blow up the best-laid plans and sabotage even the best-intentioned efforts. Unless prepared with a well thought-out vision and strategy, new leaders will not succeed.

“Few other professions operate under such a glaring spotlight as new general managers and coaches do, and the line between success and failure is often a key base hit, an overtime goal, a freak injury to a star player, or a miracle catch on the goal line. Franchises with sagging fortunes want quick results and, in this era of social media, fantasy sports, and billions of dollars in revenues at stake, expectations grow higher each year.”

Which is why, around this time each year, Jed Hughes is a busy man.

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