Owner’s manual: What George McCaskey can learn from Bill Polian’s book
We’re so glad to have join us for Saturday Book Club. We hope you brought your copy of the book George McCaskey assigned us to read Monday. It’s called “Super Bowl Blueprints: Hall of Famers Reveal the Keys to Football’s Greatest Dynasties,” by Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian and writer Vic Carucci.
Come in! Come in! Your coat? Put it right there. Don’t worry about wiping your feet. Everyone else is in the other room, ready to go. We’ve got a seat for you. There are sandwiches in the kitchen and drinks by the bar.
We’re so glad to have you join us for Saturday Book Club. We hope you brought your copy of the book George McCaskey assigned us to read Monday. It’s called “Super Bowl Blueprints: Hall of Famers Reveal the Keys to Football’s Greatest Dynasties,” by Pro Football Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian and writer Vic Carucci. The two wrote a book about team-building in 2014, too.
The Bears’ chairman, if you’ll remember, hired Polian to evaluate the Bears months ago, though he had an onset of selective amnesia when asked specifically when it was. Polian’s evaluation during the season led to the firings of general manager Ryan Pace and coach Matt Nagy. Then McCaskey kept Polian around to help conduct interviews for their replacements. Polian is part of a panel of five Bears interviewers, and by far the most qualified. In 32 seasons, he steered teams to five Super Bowl appearances and was named NFL Executive of the Year six times.
When McCaskey was explaining all this Monday, he actually plugged Polian’s book. It was bizarre, right? But we were so motivated here at the Saturday Book Club that we assigned it right away.
What? You didn’t read it? You say it was only released until Nov. 30 and still isn’t available at a library anywhere in Illinois? You were too busy to read 458 pages in the five days since McCaskey’s news conference?
OK, I’ll walk you through it. I’ll use the discussion questions I wrote down:
Why is it McCaskey’s owner’s manual?
McCaskey drew from the book, in which Polian serves as a guide through oral histories of eight dominant teams. He introduces chapters about — and gives insight into — the Al Davis Raiders, “Steel Curtain” Steelers, Bill Walsh 49ers, Joe Gibbs Washington teams, Bill Parcells Giants, 1990s Cowboys, Marv Levy Bills and Peyton Manning Colts.
“As we dove more deeply into this project, a clear picture emerged,” Polian, who drafted Manning and hired Levy and the Colts’ Tony Dungy, wrote at the start of the book. “From 1975 through 1997, a small number of franchises — led by committed ownership, Hall of Fame general managers, and most importantly, charismatic coaches who created systems of football that had lasting effects on the NFL — controlled the league’s landscape.”
On Monday, McCaskey offered clues into what the book taught him about a coaching search.
“We’ll be looking for leaders, both in the general manager and the head coach,” McCaskey said. “In our conversations with Bill Polian … in fact he just wrote a book, ‘Super Bowl Blueprints,’ where he talks about what it takes to get to and win the Super Bowl. And he said he was even struck by great teams have coaches that the players respect. They don’t have to like him, they don’t have to love him, but they respect him.
“So the primary quality we’ll be looking for in both the general manager and the head coach is leadership.”
Even if the hire isn’t popular.
“Bill Polian talks in his books about decisions that he made as a general manager that were considered wildly unpopular at the time but eventually they bore fruit,” McCaskey said. “And you have to be ready and willing to make what may very well be an unpopular decision if you’re convinced it’s best for the Bears.”
So what is a leader?
In the book, former Ravens coach Brian Billick tried to define leadership when talking about 49ers coach Bill Walsh, for whom he worked in San Francisco and later called the best teacher he’d ever seen.
“Coaching is teaching, it’s leading, it’s all interchangeable,” Billick said. “You could take whatever leadership book, whatever teaching book, and juxtapose the ‘coach’ into whatever in that text it says ‘leader’ or ‘teacher,’ and it would make complete sense.”
Walsh, who coached the 49ers from 1979 to ’88 and popularized the West Coast offense, believed that a coach’s job was to create an environment where coaches — and players — can lead.
Chuck Noll, who coached the Steelers from 1969 to ’91, was so well-respected that he’d walk in a room and people would instinctively be quiet, assistant coach Tom Moore said in the book. One year, Noll coached in the Pro Bowl and had players get into full pads and run gassers after practice.
Raiders star Howie Long asked Moore, incredulously, what Noll’s deal was.
“Go talk to him,” Moore implored.
What about personality?
It takes all kinds.
Walsh had a sensibility that would make perfect sense in a modern boardroom, quarterback Steve Young said in the book. He worried about players’ holistic well-being, from mental health to nutrition to marriage counseling.
“The way to really teach today is by creating sympathy for another and actually seeing them, literally walking in their shoes,” he said. “And Bill was great at that.”
Polian said Parcells, the Giants’ coach from 1983 to ’90, “believed that he had to put maximum pressure on players and coaches during the practice week.” On the other end of the spectrum, Polian considers Levy, the Bills’ coach from 1986 to ’97, the greatest teacher he has ever met — “and he did it through aphorisms and poems, things that are certainly off the beaten path as far as football is concerned.”
Steelers owner Art Rooney II was a ballboy when Noll was hired in 1969, but could sense a change.
“I had an immediate feeling of, ‘Something’s different here,’ ” he said in the book. “There was a more serious purpose, a more serious goal about the way we were going about things.”
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said that Alabama great “Bear” Bryant — who was so named because he wrestled a bear at a fair when he was 13 — had to find ways to connect to different personalities.
“I’m an actor for different roles,” Jones said Bryant told him. “That’s a coach. A coach has to have a lot of wardrobes and wear a lot of different hats.”
Joe Gibbs, Washington’s coach from 1981 to ’92 and 2004 to ’07, believed the opposite.
“What I learned was that you could be successful by being yourself, and that’s the most important thing in dealing with teams,” he said in the book. “When you work with the collective mind of 45 football players, they’re going to figure you out.
“If you’re trying to be someone you’re not, they’ll know.”
What about expertise?
McCaskey claimed he doesn’t have a preference between hiring an offensive- or defensive-minded coach. Teams often hire in the opposite direction of their previous coach, though. In fact, the Bears have rotated defensive and offensive coaches for their last four hires. That would mean a defensive coach is up this time.
Rooney II argued the merits of a defensive coach. McCaskey might want to listen: The Steelers have had only three coaches since 1969.
“It wasn’t an accident that Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin were defensive coaches,” he said in the book. “I think there’s been a belief that defense sets the tone for our franchise. Obviously that’s gotten tougher over the years as they keep changing the rules, but it’s still something I think you can rely on.”
In the book, Manning vouched for a defensive coach, too, with a caveat — Dungy, whom the Colts hired in 2002, was a defensive coordinator who played quarterback in college.
“I felt like my game went to a new level when Tony Dungy became head coach,” the Hall of Fame quarterback said. “Because even though Tony had a defensive background, he was an old quarterback. He knows both sides of it.”
Who’s in charge?
The Bears long have preferred to hire the GM first and then let him hire the coach. The coach then reports to the GM.
“There are some people that want that head coach to be the total package and do everything,” Dungy said in the book. “But to me it was the general manager who could look at the long term, set the direction of the team and understand things and help me do my job, which is to coach the players.”
Someone once asked Dungy whether he or Polian, the GM, controlled who was cut and added to the Colts’ 53-man roster. His answer: He didn’t know. He was that much in sync with Polian.
“With great teams, it starts at the top with your owner, and then it flows to the general manager,” Dungy said. “He kinda sets the tone for things. Everybody’s on the same page, everyone’s preaching the same message, everyone’s getting things across the same way, and it filters down. But to do that, you’ve got to have trust. You have to have good people.”
Some tension is good. Late Steelers owner Art Rooney and Noll, for example, argued about whether to draft running back Franco Harris in 1972.
Polian has a specific idea about the GM’s job: to support the coach and be collegial in the process.
“Respect, candor and constant communication is absolutely necessary,” Polian said in the book. “It’s a partnership.”
That’s what makes the Bears trying to hire a coach and GM at the same time so compelling. They have to find partners whom they believe in individually — but also together.
If it sounds simple, it’s not.
“As my mentor, Marv Levy, said, ‘What it takes to win is simple — but it isn’t easy,’ ” Polian said.