Friday, January 13, 2012

Nepotism Fails in Sports

Meritocracy brutally exposes family nepotism. Modern elite sport functions as a raw meritocracy and rips apart well meaning attempts by families to hand on positions as coaches or managers. The recent firing of Vice Chairman Bill Polian, the long time mastermind for the Indianapolis Colts, may have had a lot do to with his probably overmatched son Chris whom Bill had appointed General manager. This story illustrates an oft told tale just as the leaving of Jay Paterno from Penn State now that his dad was fired demonstrates. 

We can all understand the desire of a parent to set up their child in a good position. We can understand the even deeper desire to hand on a patrimony such as a successful athletic program.  Basketball coaching legend Eddie Sutton tried to do this after many successful years at Oklahoma State. He even made it part of his contract that his son, Sean, would succeed him. Coaching legend Bob Knight did the same when he made it a condition of employment that when he retired the Texas Tech program be handed on to his assistant and son Pat.

The ruthless world of elite sports unmasks weaknesses very quickly. This world only rewards success, period. A person cannot live on another’s competence. Competitors lurk waiting for coaches to fail and to snatch their jobs. In this world of intense struggle where successors lurk in the wings, loyalty takes on inordinate importance. A head coach or General Manager desperately needs allegiance and candor. For millennia, the human solution resided in nepotism. Officials appointed  blood relatives as allies and assistants. Family values may be one of the few bonds that can withstand the caustic pressures of competition. So not only did Pere Polian hire his son, but Mike Shanahan at the Redskins hired his son Kyle to be his offensive coordinator. Don Shula had launched his son Dave’s NFL career when at Miami as Bobby Bowden did for two of his children while coach at Florida State. I could go on but you get the picture.

The parent can hide the son when he is the head coach or general manager.  A competent child or sibling can flourish as a number two or three under the parent’s or older sibling’s protection. But when the parent steps down and hands on the program, he usually hands on a good roster. The son, the inheritor, can succeed for a couple years with the talent pool and remaining ethos of the father’s system.

But elite sport reveals problems quickly. Other teams and coaches dissect tendencies, lay bare flaws, outthink or out recruit. The son cannot rely upon the father’s talent or reputation and must go it alone. At the same time he lives in the shadow of his father and the lingering question of whether he really earned the job.

So three years and Pat Knight is fired.  Three years later, Sean Sutton is fired. Gerry Tarkenian tried to hand on the Fresno State program to his son Danny, but Fresno State had enough sense to stop that, although they did hire Tarkenian to begin with.

Genes may sometimes tell, but not as often as we would like to believe. Coaching or management nepotism in sport remains a high-risk low return approach. It almost never works.

I admit anomalies exist. Joey Meyer took over DePaul from his legend father Ray Meyer and coached for 12 years to a 231-158 record and 7 NCAA tournaments. Tony Bennett took over Washington State from his father Dick after three years and lead them to the NCAA. Before the bubble could burst, he moved to Viriginia where he is rebuilding the program. I know there are other cases, but this bequest approach fails far more than succeeds.

John Thompson III, who now coaches the Georgetown team his father John Thompson brought to prominence, illuminates a different path that works far better. He went to Princeton where he succeeded as a student and player and then became an assistant coach under Pete Carroll’s tutelage. He mastered a very different system and eventually became coach at Princeton and later at Georgetown. He earned it all himself and set his own career, his own philosophy. When he arrived at Georgetown, he did not inherit but earned the job.

A related approach occurs when a child or sibling is hired on and succeeds as an assistant coach, then gets hired to move on to their own program. Given the temptation to hire family, if you have to hire family, this approach works better. Bob Stoops coached at Oklahoma and hired as his brother Mike as defensive coordinator and associate head coach. Mike later took a job at Arizona where he had mixed success. But Mike Stoops earned the shot by his own body of work and he succeeded and failed at Arizona on his own terms. Similarly, Terry Bowden started as a graduate assistant for his father at Florida State, but left to earn his own reputation at a series of small colleges and great success and failure at Auburn. He is now  at Akron. Terry Bowden may have been launched by nepotism but made his career on his own merits.

Obviously these are anecdotes but I believe they illustrate an important point. Given the role of loyalty in sport and given the lure of family, coaches will hire family and managers will hire family. It only works as a launch that enables a child or sibling to cleave their own path and prove their own worth. They earn a program by work and success, not genetics.

The final irony, of course, lies in the fact that owners can get away with nepotism more than coaches or general managers. Wins and losses harshly define success or failure for coaches. Universities or owners mercilessly fire coaches and GM’s who do not win. But owners cannot be fired. They might create a family culture that hands on culture that can endure the vicissitudes of wins/losses, like the Rooneys in Pittsburgh. Better yet they can hire competent professionals who can assemble winning teams sometimes despite the owner's family.

Nepotism may or may not work with owners, but it is fatal with coaches and general managers. 

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