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Titans are latest team to show how not to handle a great coach

In Sports
January 14, 2024

There are objective prerequisites for every job with every NFL team. With one exception.

There is no experience or educational requirement to be an owner.

It’s one of the most fascinating aspects of pro football. Businesses that are skyrocketing toward ten figures in value are still run like mom-and-pop stores. When pop dies, mom or son or daughter or nephew or someone else in the family takes over. Regardless of whether they know anything about running a football team.

It happens throughout the league. Unless the family members opt to cash out (or unless they have to, in order to pay estate taxes), someone who would never, ever be hired to run a multi-billion-dollar business falls into the position, by blood or by marriage.

The latest example of people who run NFL teams not necessarily having the skills to run an NFL team comes from Tennessee, where a decision was made this week to fire head coach Mike Vrabel. The decision came from Amy Adams Strunk. She’s the daughter of Bud Adams, whose estate plan split the team between the three branches of his family tree but inexplicably failed to give one of them control over the teams.

That became a low-key mess for the league and Titans for several years, until a deal was brokered to put Strunk in charge. Like many other situations throughout the NFL (Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Houston, L.A. Chargers, Las Vegas, Dallas, New York Giants, Detroit, Chicago, Tampa Bay, New Orleans, San Francisco, Arizona, Seattle), control has flowed within a given family from the person who bought or founded the team. There’s no guarantee that the person who inherits the ability to run a team will ever be equipped to do it.

TheAthletic.com has taken a deep dive into how things went sideways between Strunk and head coach Mike Vrabel. It ranges from Strunk reportedly being chafed by Vrabel’s belief that Ran Carthon wasn’t ready to be a G.M. to Strunk reportedly taking offense to the praise Vrabel heaped on the Patriots when he was inducted into the team’s Hall of Fame.

Neither has a thing to do with how Vrabel coaches a football team. Or how, for example, he managed to win the No. 1 seed despite having 91 different guys on the 53-man roster in 2021.

Here’s the reality about dealing with a great head coach. You need to find a way to deal with him. Robert Kraft did it for 24 years in New England, even though Bill Belichick was at times (or as the case may be all the time) not the easiest person in the world to deal with. The reward for finding a way to coexist with a challenging personality was six Lombardi Trophies.

The 49ers would have won their sixth by now if Jed York had known how to work things out with coach Jim Harbaugh, who was fired after three NFC Championship appearances (and one Super Bowl) in four seasons. But Harbaugh was viewed as difficult and egos and personalities got involved when Harbaugh was just trying to win as many football games as possible.

Coaches coach. All the time. They see someone who isn’t doing things the best way they could, and they tell them.

They are blunt. They are direct. They withhold praise strategically. They push those around them relentlessly.

Great coaches know what they’re doing. The problem is that owners — especially those who saw control of the team come their way like a coin collection or a classic car — have no idea what they’re doing. And they definitely have no way of knowing whether they have a great coach.

Until, perhaps, it’s too late.

The 49ers should have found a way to work with Harbaugh. The Titans should have found a way to work with Vrabel. The Patriots found a way to make it work with Belichick for as long as possible, and then some.

It’s one of the reasons why the league would be better off if all teams were corporations. While not perfect, it would be better. There would be a CEO who earned the job, not who had it given to him or her. There would be a board of directors to provide oversight and accountability when, for example, the CEO might be tempted to let something petty poison the relationship with a key employee.

Until then, fans are mere bystanders in the various family dramas that will shape the direction of their favorite NFL teams, sometimes for decades to come.

Except in Green Bay. There, the powers-that-be stumbled into an ideal management structure by necessity decades ago, when a cash crunch resulted in a stock sale. Even though the stock that fans have purchased has no value, the real value comes from ensuring that the people who run the team will at all times be properly qualified to do so.

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