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It's Not About Winning the Press Conference; but Winning Games

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It's Not About Winning the Press Conference; but Winning Games
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The quandary every sports team faces is creating the formula that will ultimately build a championship team.  Many organizations fall victim to “winning the press conference,” so to speak; acquiring the top free agent or trending player instead of developing the right components of a championship-caliber team.

This scenario often happens in large-market organizations, where the fans and media may influence some of the acquisitions and departures.

Organizations love to have an exciting day in the sun—the traditional press conference when the big-name, highly-paid player holds up his new team's jersey for the first time.

Some of the biggest signings lead to disappointing team results for a variety of reasons: age at the time of signing, injuries, disruption of team chemistry, trying too hard and the pressure of trying to "live up to the contract."

Acquiring the biggest-name players is not always the formula for long-term success.  Acquisitions such as Alex Rodriguez's signing with the Texas Rangers generate an enormous amount of buzz yet mean very little if the organization cannot develop a winning reputation with their new acquisitions. 

In New York alone, the Yankees, Mets, Jets, Knicks and Rangers have often relied on the acquisitions of big-name free agents and trades for stars.  Yet only the Yankees have won a championship since the Rangers hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1994.

Much of the New York Mets' demise can be attributed to underperforming free agents and the acquisitions of players near the ends of their careers.  Pedro Martinez and Billy Wagner, two great pitchers of the last decade, were decidedly mediocre during their tenures with the Mets, and Jason Bay has been a huge disappointment.

Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Overspending and acquiring big-name players comes at the expense of draft picks and ultimately leaves holes at other positions.

 

Often missing the playoffs in recent years, the New York Knicks have spent a fortune on players such as Allan Houston, Tracy McGrady, Stephon Marbury, Steve Francis, Eddie Curry and Chauncey Billups.

While acquiring these players, the Knicks traded away an enormous amount of young talent, including first-round picks and players such as Trevor Ariza, whose career blossomed with the Magic and the Lakers.

Until recently, the New York Rangers went through a long stretch of expensive letdowns, including Bobby Holik, Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Michal Rozsival and Wade Redden: all big-name free agents given multi-million-dollar contracts.

The team began to turn things around when they shifted their primary focus to homegrown talent such as captain Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Marc Staal and role players such as Brad Richards

The New York Jets were excited about signing future Hall of Famers Brett Favre and LaDainian Tomlinson, as well as other big-name players, but they still have not reached the Super Bowl.  It remains to be seen if Tim Tebow, a name that transcends sports, can help them win a championship. 

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Ryan Leaf was drafted with the 2nd overall pick in the 1998 NFL Draft

This is an annual rite at the NFL draft, where the Chargers once celebrated the selection of Ryan Leaf, the Rams chose Sports Illustrated cover boy Todd Marinovich, and the Bengals welcomed Akili Smith.  You will certainly hear the hoots and hollers of the fans in the galleries this week at the 2012 NFL draft.

 

Similar reactions happen when teams hire head coaches.  Much hoopla accompanied the arrival of Charlie Weis, former offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots under Bill Belichick, at Notre Dame in December 2004.

After two years of initial success, his record was sub-.500 during his last three seasons with the Fighting Irish, and his tenure was generally considered a disappointment in South Bend. 

On the other hand, Brady Hoke was hardly a household name when the University of Michigan hired him as head coach in 2011.  Hoke rewarded the school by leading the Wolverines to their first 10-win season since 2006 and winning the Sugar Bowl.

Arkansas' newly-appointed head coach, John L. Smith, is hardly a household name.  The circumstances of how the job became open played a role in the relatively quiet transition.

The bottom line is that fans are very passionate, but few of them are well versed in how to run a winning sports organization.  Building a winner sometimes takes unpopular moves, but as the old saying goes,  coaches who listen to the fans end up sitting next to them.

Jed Hughes is Vice Chair of Korn/Ferry and the leader of the executive search firm's Global Sports Practice.  Among his high-profile placements are Mark Murphy, CEO of the Green Bay Packers; Larry Scott, Commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference; and Brady Hoke, head coach of the Michigan Wolverines.  Earlier in his career, Mr. Hughes coached for two decades in professional and intercollegiate football where he served under five Hall of Fame coaches: Bo Schembechler (Michigan), Chuck Noll (Pittsburgh Steelers), Bud Grant (Minnesota Vikings), John Ralston (Stanford) and Terry Donahue (UCLA).  Follow him on Facebook, Twitter @jedhughesKF.

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