Rivers McCown on “The Interview” (RSPWP III)

Jim Irsay. Photo by Zennie Abraham.
Jim Irsay. Photo by Zennie Abraham.

You’ve just had an interview for your first GM position, but you’re ambivalent about the club’s organizational leadership. Will you take the job if offered?  

What is 2014’s Writer’s Project?

This year’s RSPWP is a different take on team building. I will have 15-20 written scenarios based on true NFL stories provided to me from current and former NFL employees (scouts, players, and consultants). In each scenario, the participating writer is the general manager of an NFL team has a decision to make. Each scenario will have at least two different writers. I will post the writers’ responses and the actual outcome of the case study (if applicable).

Find out more about RSPWP3 and see other GM Scenarios.

GM Scenario No.9: The Interview

You’re the assistant general manager with a successful organization. Your boss is revered as a talent scout and negotiator. He has groomed you since you caught his attention as an area scout.

Your boss is still at the peak of his powers so there’s no shot you’ll succeed him anytime soon. However, he believes you’re ready to take the helm of a front office.  Having a heavyweight like your current boss in your corner is a great door opener.

And when a job opened outside your conference you got an interview. The team has a storied history, but has fallen on hard times. The fan base is loyal, but the roster and coaching staff is a turnstile of young talent that has cycled in and out.

The reason most suspect is the owner. He’s an elder statesman in the league with a great football mind, but he’s a control freak.

He likes to give coaches and staff first-time opportunities and it appears his motivation behind his hiring tendency is that it’s easier to maintain control over all facets of the organization with new people.

The owner did make a rare hiring decision with his last GM, bringing in an experienced administrator with multiple teams. However, the individual in this role had a much better reputation in the media for his work than he did in the league.

Around NFL circles this GM practiced the “remora” behavior in his career; attaching himself to a winner and coasting wherever he went. Eventually, there were enough teams that got wise to the fact that he was a yes-man who talked a better game than he walked. The players on this team had such little contact with the former GM that they referred to the owner as the GM and they called the guy with the actual title a “ghost.”

Although known for your diplomacy in a world filled with ego-driven, combative personalities, you’re not a softie and you’ve never adopted remora behavior during your career. Of course, you began life in the NFL with a $25K salary and doing all of the work that no one wanted to do.

This job could pay somewhere between 3-6 times the amount you’re making as an assistant GM and likely closer to the higher end of that range. It’s difficult to turn own that kind of money.

But your interview with the owner left you ambivalent about a potential offer.  The owner spent a lot of time telling you about his football philosophy and on the surface it was all helpful information:

  • The mentality he expects from a team.
  • The offensive and defensive style he’s seeking.
  • The type of players the team needs to draft.

The problem with what you heard is that while your job title might be general manager in title, you get the sense from the way this owner talked that your role would still be an assistant manager. In fact, you wonder if you’d have as much decision-making input as this team’s GM as you do as an assistant for your current team.

You asked the owner specific questions about his desired football style and players, phrasing the questions to see if the owner considered alternatives to his plans. One of your questions was about run blocking fits for running back styles and he made it clear that he had a very specific stance on the type of players he wanted and he wasn’t veering from it.

The owner also said that you would be expected to keep the current scouting staff and front office employees. When you asked if you would be allowed to make changes if certain personnel don’t work out after year one, the owner’s response was brief:

“RECOMMENDATIONS to me about changes, yes.”

When you asked the owner to discuss weak spots within the organization he told you that football isn’t all that complicated and if he were to offer you the job you’d learn from him that what works is generally simple  and that the hard part is getting people to execute. Then he changed the subject.

You’re concerned that working with this owner could give you the reputation across the NFL as a yes-man. However, what message does it send if you turn down the first opportunity to become a GM? There’s no guarantee you’ll earn this shot again—especially if owners get the idea that you didn’t even want to fight for what you believed in.

You have a call on your cell phone. It’s that team owner’s office. The admin asks if you have time to speak with him.

If he offers you the job do you take it?  Why or why not? Are you concerned about being pegged a yes man? Is there anything you’d try to negotiate with the owner after he makes his offer?

River McCown: I don’t take the job.

There isn’t enough money on this world to make me subservient to a system that I don’t believe in. It’s clear to me, from the way this is phrased, that the owner in question has a devotion to his way of doing things despite the fact that it is no longer successful. (If it ever was.) There’s no way that I could believe in my plan if it winds up being haphazardly and poorly implemented, or even half-implemented.

I don’t think it’s possible to have a great football team without an owner, general manager, and head coach that are all working off the same script. Just as you need some sprinters who can shield off the ball and a quarterback with a deep arm if you’re running an Air Coryell offense, your management trio must also feed off of each other in a productive way. There are bound to be disagreements, but those obstacles must be seen as an opportunity to refine our system rather than an opportunity to decide who, for lack of a better term, has the biggest balls in the room.

I’m not worried at all about being pegged as a yes man, because I know I’m a top performer. I know that I’m coming into every interview I have with the best combination of statistics and scouting reports possible. I know that before I even set foot into the owner’s office, I’ll have a master plan and interview questions for him – that I’ll have consulted with former employees of this organization and spent many days coming up with the kind of questions I know will reveal just how on the same page we’ll be.

Based on what he has said in this hypothetical process, I can already see the worst-case scenario unfolding before my eyes. The team underachieves and needs a scapegoat, and the system I have goes completely unchecked because we never get a chance to fully implement it. Not only would I be fired, but I would be wasting my time because we’d never get to know if the system needs to be refined. We could only guess at what might have been. In fact, in this hypothetical, I think I’d be more likely to come off as arrogant.

I would take that call, and I would name my price to the owner after I got his offer. Then, I would tell him the contract terms: that I want it in writing that I have final say on all personnel and front-office matters. And that any violation of that clause would lead me to resign and receive an extra severance package. After that offer was inevitably rejected, I’d go back to forging my relationships with owners who weren’t quite so hands-on.

I’m assuming in this scenario that I am acting out a character who has an absolute, No. 1 dream to be an NFL general manager. (It’s not my dream at all. In fact, the way NFL front offices work their employees to the brink seems wildly counterproductive to me.) So, would it be tough to turn down that dream in its first form? Absolutely. But I would have the belief in myself to know that I can aim higher, that I have the track record to demand more, and that I can blow any owner’s socks off in an interview. (The endorsement of one of the better general managers in the league doesn’t hurt, either.)

Ultimately, to me, the title isn’t even about the money. If I want something enough for it to be the biggest dream in my collection, I would likely do it for free. But if I come in with this attitude that I need this job so bad that I’m willing to accept less-than-ideal circumstances, ultimately I’m doing a disservice to myself by classifying myself as a generic commodity.

If you’ll allow a quick philosophy aside – one of my beliefs is that we all have problems we want to solve and opportunities we want to achieve. The ideal situation is always one where one of us solves the problem and the other one is able to achieve an opportunity because of it. In this case, with an owner so focused on his belief that his way is right in spite of dwindling success, I am reminded that we often don’t know our own problems.

I would do my absolute best to demonstrate to the owner why his way of thinking was a problem, but I have no qualms about walking away if he doesn’t see it that way. I’ve got a good job to come back to, 30 other potential teams to hire me, and one team where I’d likely have the inside track on the job I want in time. Why throw that away for the job equivalent of being a Subway sandwich artist?

Matt’s Notes

I like Rivers broaching the subject of team unity as a reason why he would’t accept a GM job if he were to encounter a situation where the owner is dictatorial. What’s interesting about the two responses to this scenario is that both writers are seeking negotiation points to get assurance that they’d have control and they’re concerned about their future image.

I think it makes sense to have this concern, but there are people I’ve spoken with that say it’s not necessary–take the job, get the money, some of the experience, and if you get fired, most teams will understand that the owner of that team was a hindrance and will give you a fair shake to show your true skills. It sounds good, but I’m not so sure I’d trust the sentiment even if it has happened in the past.

The most difficult aspect of this scenario was assigning it to a writer. Money motivation is not as strong with most writers as it is with the  future sports exectuatives of America.

Rivers McCown is the assistant editor at Football Outsiders. You can follow him on Twitter @FO_RiversMcCown.





2 responses to “Rivers McCown on “The Interview” (RSPWP III)”

  1. Matt noted that he assigned this task to writers, so I will attempt to give a businessman’s perspective.

    As a career business person, with a postgrad level business degree the question is nigh-rhetorical. I and 95% of my colleagues would reflexively take a job with substandard conditions but 3-6X pay and a massive improvement in visibility. The only negotiation would be to leverage more pay/autonomy in the job. That the industry might be forgiving of the substandard conditions and problem-owner is a huge bonus. It is far easier to go back to being an assistant GM after being a full-time GM. Even if I’m fired after 3 seasons, the bank account should more than give me the leeway to wait to find my dream position for awhile. After being GM and having worked as a protege to a Thompson/Newsome figure, my resume should make me a shoe-in for being an assistant-GM or head of scouting at a team that is a better fit (assuming there are not other GM jobs open for the immediate taking).

    Unless we do a Millen-level job as GM, it is much easier to get a GM job after being one in the first place. This is true of any major promotion to a level of monster pay/visibility (e.g. going from country manager at a huge firm to CEO of a midsize firm). Even if you fail in the new job, the high-level corporate experience more-or less creates a lifetime of opportunity on boards, in private equity, or in other corporations.

    This GM job is way too good to pass up, all thats left is negotiating for more pay and autonomy.

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