Sweetness And Light
3:19 am
Wed March 26, 2014

The Mystery And History Of Sport's Front Office

Originally published on Wed March 26, 2014 12:35 pm

One great mystery of sport is why they call the place that the general manager rules over the front office. Obviously, it's the box office that's out front. What they call the front office is really the "office office."

The front office has grown exponentially. Once it was pretty much just the general manager. Now it's added scouts and assistant GMs and statisticians. Another change: The general manager is usually called president. And once GMs started to be called presidents, the law of unintended consequences set in and that made an owner think that to one-up his president, he had to do more than just own.

Coaches get famous, but as a general rule, coaches don't make good general managers. Different talents. It's like the best assistant coaches usually don't make good head coaches. Different talents.

Recently, the New York Knicks named brilliant coach Phil Jackson to be general manager, er, president. What made Jackson so successful as coach was that he could relate to his players, actually coach them. He had a shtick that was hyped as sort of a trickle-down zen. However, these talents are pretty useless in the front office. Jackson will surely get a disciple to coach the team. Everybody will say Jackson has installed so-and-so as his coach, which sounds to the players like they just put in a new washing machine. It never works.

Click on the audio link above to hear Deford's take on the issue.

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Last night might have been a little awkward for the superstar basketball coach Phil Jackson. He returned to Los Angeles with his new team, the New York Knicks, to face the Lakers, who won five NBA championships with Jackson as head coach. Well, the Lakers crushed the Knicks by more than 30 points, and there was little Jackson could do about it. He's no longer roaming courtside during games. He's now managing the front office in New York.

Commentator Frank Deford says when coaches get kicked upstairs, it is not always the easiest transition.

FRANK DEFORD: One great mystery of sport is why they call the place that the general manager rules over the front office. Obviously, it's the box office that's out front. What they call the front office is really the office-office. College sports never had a front office. It sounds too commercial, too un-academia. So it's called the Athletic Department, pretending to be like the Geology Department or the Romance Languages Department - if there're any of them left.

Anyway, The front office has grown exponentially. Once it was pretty much just the general manager himself, who was known cutely as the GM. Then they added scouts. Now there are many assistant GMs, who I know not what they do. Because also ensconced in the front office are powerful sorcerers, known as statisticians, who tell the general manager that their numbers prove which players are really good, notwithstanding what the expensive genius general manager thinks he sees with his own educated eyes.

Another change is that the general managers now usually have the title of president.

Uh-oh. Once general managers started to be called presidents, the law of unintended consequences set in and that made an owner think that in order to one-up his president, he had to do more than just own. And that screwed up front offices even more.

Coaches get famous, but as a general rule coaches don't make good general managers. Different talents. It's like the best assistant coaches usually don't make good head coaches - different talents.

It's instructive that the athletic director who changed college sports, really made them mercantile, was a track coach at Michigan back in the '70s named Don Canham, who got sick of coaching track. Wouldn't you? Don Canham was the operator who thought athletic departments could be Wal-Marts with teams on the side. Very savvy guy.

About the worst sports franchise is the New York Knicks, where the meddlesome birdbrain owner has hired the brilliant coach Phil Jackson to be general manager - oh, excuse me, to be president. What made Jackson so successful was that he could relate to his players, actually coach them. He had a shtick that was hyped as sort of trickle-down Zen. However, these talents are pretty useless in the front office.

Jackson will surely get a disciple to coach the team. Everybody will say Jackson has installed so-and-so as his coach, which sounds to the players like they just put in a new washing machine. It never works.

If I were an owner, I would hire a general manager to be general manager and I would call him general manager. And then I would stay out of the front office.

GREENE: Commentator Frank Deford. He's welcomed here any time. He joins us on Wednesdays. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.