Scouting for the Best Athletes (or Analysts): Character vs. Performance

When the Philadelphia Eagles, a perennial contender in pro football, are checking out young prospects in advance of the annual NFL draft, they certainly look at the player’s time in the 40-yard-dash and contact his college coach — but the team is just as likely to talk to the guidance counselor or even the janitor at the young man’s high school to see how he treated other people in his life.


That’s according to Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, who said during a recent Wharton discussion on “Leadership Lessons Learned from Sports” that character and on-the-field leadership qualities count for more than raw athleticism in putting together the Eagles roster. The Eagles, in building a team that has been to the playoffs six of the last seven seasons as well as the 2005 Super Bowl, use a battery of tests and evaluations in judging future draft choices that is more extensive than most Fortune 500 companies use when hiring MBAs.


The Eagles owner was joined on the panel — sponsored by the Wharton Sports Business Initiative as part of the recent 2007 Wharton Economic Summit — by several other team owners or executives with a background in sports, including Robert Castellini, CEO of the Cincinnati Reds baseball franchise. Although the wide-ranging panel touched on a number of topics, one central theme was this: What are the qualities that make someone a sports leader, especially on the playing field, and can the successful qualities of a winner in athletics be applied to the world of business?


In introducing the panel, Kenneth Shropshire, director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, invoked the increasingly popular science of analyzing the habits of highly successful coaches to see which of their leadership skills are useful away from the playing field. For example, championship basketball coaches Phil Jackson, Pat Riley and Mike Krzyzewski have all written books on leadership, while there is a cottage industry studying the wisdom of late football coach Vince Lombardi.


The panelists have hired or worked with some of the most accomplished names in sports, including Eagles coach Andy Reid and baseball manager Lou Piniella, now with the Cubs but a long-time friend of Castellini. Both Lurie and Castellini, in particular, described a similar model for constructing a sports team: Start with a foundation of players with personal character and a winning attitude, then hire coaches with the right kind of intelligence and the motivational skills to get the most out of them.


Lurie, in particular, quoted former Dallas Cowboy coach Jimmy Johnson, now a TV analyst, who said a successful player personnel director in the NFL is essentially “a chemist …. Football is such a team game, and so you need a mix of leaders, followers, people who will react well under stress.”


“The chemistry dynamic is very important,” agreed Gary Lieberman, president of West Side Advisors and part-owner of the New Jersey Nets basketball franchise. “We try to think that if someone is a good guy in the locker room, so to speak, then he will do what’s right for the team.”


If the general manager is a chemist, the head coach is the catalyst who makes the team perform well on the field. Lurie said that his 1999 hiring of Reid — a quarterback coach who lacked experience as a top assistant coach — was borne out of his desire to find a head coach who thought outside the traditional box and who would be an on-field innovator.


Lieberman agreed with the point. “I was really surprised at the level of intellect” in the New Jersey Nets coaching staff, he said, adding that he expected them to be motivational “rah-rah” guys or strict disciplinarians, but not as cerebral as they actually are. “I would welcome the opportunity to work with them” — his coaching staff — “in a different situation.”


Lieberman noted that the Nets have been under media and fan pressure this season to replace the current coach, Lawrence Frank, but that the owners believe the team’s sometimes spotty performance has been, in part, the result of injuries and not due to a problem with Frank. “He continues to be well-prepared, and he continues to motivate the players,” he said.


The Reds’ Castellini added an important caveat to the discussion. “Tommy Lasorda [the longtime Dodgers' manager] told me that while it’s important to have chemistry in the clubhouse, if you don’t have the talent, you don’t win.” He also said a good manager helps to nurture two or three star players, such as a starting pitcher, as clubhouse leaders and role models. “You pick people out to be leaders so that they can help you manage those 25 very individualistic people,” the ones who, “let’s just say, have a high opinion of themselves.”


Point Guards, Centerfielders


Several panelists said that while sports leadership skills are not easily learned, they can be transferred quite successfully to the business world.


Mark Fisher, founder of MBF Clearing Corp., the largest clearing firm on the New York Mercantile Exchange commodities exchange (NYMEX), told the panel that a disproportionately large number of the traders that he has hired for his firm have a background in college or professional sports. “As a trader, I have found that the qualities that made the best traders are the ones that make the best athletes.” One reason is that athletes may have a losing day on the field just as a trader will make a bad trade, but the successful ones have the ability to move on.


A competitive nature is important, noted Fisher, who is a major supporter of youth basketball on Long Island. “At the end of the day, you know how you did …. There is no bureaucracy.” When hiring, he tends to focus on people who were in key on-the-field leadership positions — point guards in basketball or baseball centerfielders.


While there may be a lot of accountability on the playing field, there is less in the front office than one might expect. Castellini said he was surprised by the lack of any kind of evaluation system, similar to what might be found in the more traditional business world. He noted that when he arrived at the Reds’ organization several years ago, the team was 29th out of 30 major league franchises in developing players through its own farm system, and that no one was deemed responsible for that failure. “You might be paying a $4 million bonus to sign a high school player, and so you had better be right,” Castellini said. “And if you’re not right, you ought to be held accountable.”


But that is only internally. Several of the attendees noted that the media attention a sports owner or general manager receives is comparable to just a few top superstar CEOs in other types of business. Castellini — who continues to manage Castellini Companies, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, in addition to the Reds — said that he went to a kind of “charm school” to learn how to deal with reporters. “One little slip of the lip, and you are in trouble,” Castellini warned. What’s more, both fans and journalists tend to have longer memories in sports than people do in the business world. One former sports owner who could attest to that is President George W. Bush, who, even after six years in the White House, still hears about the time his Texas Rangers traded away slugger Sammy Sosa back in 1989.


“Every decision that you make is really scrutinized, not just in the moment but for years to come,” noted Lieberman.


There is one other important issue that arises in professional sports as well as in business: finding a balance between the need to make a profit and the need to put a winning team on the field. As team executives such as Lurie and Castellini explained it, there is constant pressure and intense scrutiny — from both the fan base and from the hometown media — to win now, and to make short-term moves that might prove counterproductive in the long run.


“The fans want you to win, but you can’t engage in a popularity contest or you will be in last place every year,” said the Eagles owner, who insisted that the best moves have tended to be the ones that were not popular with the fans. Although he didn’t mention this at the Wharton event, Lurie may have been thinking of his 2004 signing of flamboyant wide receiver Terrell Owens, who was applauded in Philadelphia initially but who ripped the team apart with his antics a year later.


Owens may have been on the mind of one audience member who asked why more players didn’t negotiate contacts with performance incentives, as is common with top executives in other businesses. Again, the answer was that such incentives didn’t jibe with the type of winning, high-character athlete that these sports executives wanted. Said Lieberman: “Fundamentally, players have to be motivated by more than money.”

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