Could Pioli really have divined that a sixth-round draft choice in 2000 named Tom Brady would turn out to be ... Tom Brady? No matter. Astute judgment, not dumb luck, was the main ingredient in player personnel guru Pioli's and coach Bill Belichick's recipe for three Super Bowl victories (and almost a fourth). Eight draftees became Pro Bowlers; acquisitions included stellar receivers Randy Moss and Wes Welker and running back Corey Dillon; and Pioli also stockpiled solid role players such as linebacker Mike Vrabel. This season Pioli decamped for Kansas City, where he'll try to work similar magic as GM of the woebegone Chiefs.
Ken Holland, Detroit Red Wings
The Wings won two Stanley Cups during the decade (2002, '08) and barely missed another last spring. They were the regular-season Western Conference champions five times. The club's GM since 1997, Holland assiduously has kept this well-oiled machine purring with artful final-pieces-of-the-puzzle deals and signings that brought to the Motor City, among others, goalie Dominik Hasek and forwards Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull. Perhaps even more telling, he ensured continuity by keeping in the fold homegrown stars such as defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Johan Franzen.
Theo Epstein, Boston Red Sox
Had this Yalie wunderkind merely presided over the Sox's reversal of their seemingly intractable 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino, it would have been enough. But what Epstein accomplished after that epic 2004 World Series win may be even more noteworthy. He stocked the farm system and used prospects in deals (for instance, getting ace Josh Beckett from the Marlins by giving up star-to-be shortstop Hanley Ramirez). Meanwhile, savvy scouting allowed Epstein to assemble a club with a nucleus of homegrown gamers such as infielder Kevin Youkilis, closer Jonathan Papelbon, left-hander Jon Lester, second baseman Dustin Pedroia and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury. Result: a perennial contender and a second world championship, in '07.
Kevin Colbert, Pittsburgh Steelers
In the Steel City, at least, everybody knows his name. Colbert, a graduate of North Catholic High and Robert Morris, became the Steelers' director of football operations in 2000. After popular longtime coach Bill Cowher won Super Bowl XL at the end of the '05 season, Colbert pushed a year later for the hiring of untried assistant Mike Tomlin -- who promptly won his own Lombardi Trophy for the '08 season. Remarkably for a team usually drafting late, six of Colbert's No. 1 choices had key roles in last season's Super Bowl campaign -- including defensive back Troy Polamalu ('03); quarterback Ben Roethlisberger ('04); and wide receiver Santonio Holmes ('06), the MVP of Super Bowl XLIII.
R.C. Buford, San Antonio Spurs
When Buford was promoted to vice president in the summer of 1999, the Spurs already had a pair of aces in David Robinson and Tim Duncan. Impressively (especially given how late his team was drafting), Buford, who became GM in '02, has constantly improved his hand, helping San Antonio to stay at or near the top and win titles in 2003, '05 and '07. Working with coach-president Gregg Popovich, Buford showed his keen eye for foreign talent by pushing for the selection of, among others, Argentina's Manu Ginobili (57th overall in '99; didn't join the NBA until '02) and France's Tony Parker (28th in '01), who became skilled stars as well as consummate team players. Moreover, Buford plucked perfect-fit veterans such as Robert Horry, Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen. And the hits keep coming: Last June, at No. 37, Buford found Pitt's supposedly undersized power forward, DeJuan Blair, who is now among the rookie leaders in rebounding.
Rick Hendrick, Hendrick Motorsports
Yes, Hendrick has the deepest pockets of any owner in NASCAR -- but his is money brilliantly spent. His two Sprint Cup winners, Jeff Gordon (2001) and Jimmie Johnson ('06-09), were virtual nobodies when Hendrick signed them. The saga of Johnson is particularly instructive: Hendrick picked JJ off the metaphorical scrap heap after an eighth-place season in the Busch series. Looking past the standings, Hendrick saw something he liked in the way Johnson handled his vehicle. Now the rest of NASCAR sees nothing but the rear bumpers of JJ's No. 48 Chevy.
Pat Gillick, Seattle Mariners/Philadelphia Phillies
In 2001, Gillick was in charge in Seattle when the Mariners won 116 games after losing two pretty fair players. (You may have heard of them: Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez.) In '05, he arrived in Philadelphia and began his Patented tinkering. Gillick cleared out spots for first baseman Ryan Howard and outfielder Shane Victorino, and brought in solid contributors such as outfielder Jayson Werth and utility man Greg Dobbs. His real coup, though, was in building a bullpen that included situational relievers Chad Durbin, Scott Eyre and J.C. Romero and closer Brad Lidge. Discarded by the Astros, Lidge merely converted all 48 of his save opportunities in the regular season and postseason. The Phillies won the 2008 world championship (Philadelphia's first in 28 years), after which Gillick retired.
Jeremy Foley, University of Florida
In 2004, Foley, the Gators' athletic director since 1992, snatched the nation's hottest football coach, Urban Meyer, from under the nose of no less than Notre Dame. Two years later, Meyer's team became the national champion -- replicating the achievement the previous March of the Gators' men's basketball team run by Billy Donovan (whom Foley had hired back in 1996). It was the first time any school had held both titles simultaneously. For good measure, Donovan's team repeated in '07, and Meyer's squad again was BCS king of the hill when it beat Oklahoma 24-14 in last January's title game.
Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons
Detroit reached the Eastern Conference finals six years in a row (2003-08), and the one constant during this three-coach era was Pistons lifer Dumars, who has demonstrated that he has as keen an eye for the deal as he did for the hoop during his Hall of Fame playing days. Detroit won it all in 2004, and the mainstays of that title team -- guards Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton and forward-centers Rasheed Wallace and Ben Wallace -- all came in free-agent signings or trades. Given that enviable record of talent acquisition, we will conveniently ignore the '03 draft, when Dumars passed up Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in favor of Darko Milicic.
Billy Beane, Oakland A's
The only championships his club won were divisional (though there were four of those). Nevertheless, the onetime Mets first-round draft pick was celebrated for the philosophy chronicled (and titled) in Michael Lewis 2003 best-seller Moneyball. Its essence: seeking out patient batters with high on-base percentages, and pitchers who throw strikes. Beane employed his approach to assemble run-producing hitters such as Jason Giambi and a wise-beyond-its-years rotation of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson and Barry Zito. The A's made a lot of noise and went as far as their small-market budget could take them; inevitably, the stars were dispersed to the richer clubs -- the same way Beane's notions have been disseminated to front offices everywhere.
Honorable Mention:Bill Polian, Indianapolis Colts; Lou Lamoriello, New Jersey Devils; Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay Rays; Jerry West, Los Angeles Lakers and Memphis Grizzlies; Jerry Reese, New York Giants.
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