Sports 101: A Baltimore Lesson in Hiring the Right Coach

In one small market town, Baltimore, home of Natty Bo beer (brewed now in North Carolina but still the symbol of Highlandtown and awful grammar), The Block, The Wire, and Under Armour, we witness the two most capable coaches in all of American professional sports, Buck Showalter and John Harbaugh. How did that come to pass, especially in contrast to the larger markets like New York and Boston, where the money flows constant, the fans stay delirious, but coaches are either ‘just not that good/playing for dysfunctional ownership’ (Rex Ryan/John Farrell) or coaches playing ‘on the back nine’ (Tom Coughlin/Bill Belichick)?

One thing it proves is that even the most awful owner, errr, uhhhh, Pete Angelos, with enough time and enough losing, eventually can find a winning formula, especially when their investment begins to crater.

In Angelos’ case, the transformation of his team ought to be a Harvard Business School case study. His early attempts to micromanage every baseball decision led to such famous foibles as signing Albert Belle (a player who set a very high bar for not simply being unproductive and costly, but perhaps being the most surly teammate in baseball history), losing Davey Johnson as manager (a beloved and respected local baseball man), losing Mike Mussina (as close as it gets to a local baseball guy), and hiring Syd Thrift as GM. Angelos’ moves would be hard to make any worse. And it showed on the field.

And yet, he surprised all by changing gears mid-season 2010. By truly entrusting the stewardship of the team to Dan Duquette (G.M.) and Buck Showalter (Manager), he enabled the Orioles to overcome the owner’s dark, bad-leadership impulses (exacerbated, btw, by his not being a true leader but instead being a class-action plaintiff’s lawyer…seeking the big score, the home run, ignoring fundamentals and not laying a good foundation).

As the local fans abandoned Camden Yards, selling their tickets in favor of the Yankee and Red Sox fans who came to town regularly in the early aught’s, Angelos recognized the impact on his investment and pivoted the team to baseball people who actually knew what they were doing. This decision was also, ironically, a hallmark of having a lawyer’s mindset, in this instance recognizing when it’s time to plea rather than defend.

The Duquette signing was notable in and of itself, as Angelos showed real moxie hiring a guy who had frankly been out of real baseball for several years, starting a league in Israel. Duquette is a guy who knows, among many other things baseball, that a successful farm system neutralizes the dollars of big market teams every day. He set about and created one of the better farm systems, which will accrue to the Orioles benefit for years to come to the chagrin of the Yankees and Red Sox.

But Angelos’ best move was signing Showalter. In Showalter, regardless of how the Royals ALCS series ends up, you have quite simply the best manager in baseball, a guy who has assembled and motivated a balanced, winning team, all the while this season losing his three best players. You have a manager whom other coaches want to work with, a man who knows how to simultaneously encourage as well as discipline players, and a man who eschews the limelight. He is the new era, post-PED definition of success on the field, and there are only a handful of peers who can match his-now corporate demand. Unfortunately for other MLB owners, Showalter is locked up with a contract that extends through 2018.

Oh by the way, all of the Oriole position coaches are signed up through next year, a fact not equaled by any other MLB team at this time.

In the case of the Ravens, you have an owner, Steve Bisciotti who is generally revered by all his players and front office staff, who has hit the right notes ever since he purchased the team from Art Modell, and might simply have the best front office in football with Ozzie Newsome, Dick Kass, and John Harbaugh.

Most people not in the know are going to conflate Bisciotti with the Ray Rice episode, which completely mis-aligns two persons as one, when nothing could be further from reality; Bisciotti would take a bullet for his spouse; missed by all the Internet hysterics is Bisciotti might be the most ethical NFL owner out there today. This is a guy who is first and foremost a family man, driven also by a company (Allegis Group) which he single handedly has made into one of the country’s most successful private companies. That does not happen when you cut corners or ignore your stakeholders. Ask Ravens fans if this guy ignore them?

Bisciotti’s best move to date had to the hiring of John Harbaugh, a risky hire (Harbaugh was a special teams coach) but entirely in tune with Bisciotti’s corporate past. He researched and researched, and what he did in the end was hire a man whom he sensed not simply competence, but decency. He wanted a man whom he could trust to run the team, not a yes-man.

Harbaugh is unlike any other coach out there that we see today, a man who gets the best out of his players while simultaneously laying a great framework for future success (even were he not to be the coach). He can speak from the heart without sounding pedantic, and he knows the right move at the right time (you should have seen his signing autographs for the Ravens’ fans who trekked to Tampa after the game yesterday). There are not many NFL players who do not want to suit up for this man and this team, as the Ravens show that their dedication to their players is second to none, hallmarked by having a coach who is equally leader as well as mentor.

And like Showalter, signed up for a while, in his case through 2017…

It is telling that these two coaches exhibit tremendous respect for each other. The job of coach or manager may seem idyllic and renumerative, but the fact is that very few people can execute. In one town, you have arguably the two best.

The lesson for sports and business: hire the best, the most competent, and the most ethical. get out of the way. Success inevitably follows.