Drawing on a lifetime of lessons and a network of like-minded confidants across sports, Scott Pioli is rebuilding the Chiefs based on his ideal of what makes a winner
This is an article from the Dec. 6, 2010 issue
The young man, going out of his town to meet the adventure of life, began to think but he did not think of anything very big or dramatic.... He thought of the little things....
—SHERWOOD ANDERSON, Winesburg, Ohio
Scott Pioli has what looks like the biggest desk in America. The thing must be 14 feet long, with drawers large and deep enough to hold two or three defensive tackles. The desk is a thing of beauty—dark stained wood and a thick glass top—and it is enormous because of a misunderstanding. Pioli had looked at the blueprints for his new office in Kansas City, and he misread the proportions. He has never had a good mind for spatial relations. After taking over as the Chiefs' general manager nearly two years ago, he expected a normal-sized desk and instead got one bigger than the team bus.
He still feels sheepish about it, but he has grown used to the big desk. Pioli is 45 now and still has a bit of the look of the All--New England defensive tackle he was at Division II Central Connecticut State. He sits behind the big desk the NFL-recommended daily allowance of hours (18, often) and thinks of little things. All of his professional life, Pioli has longed to recapture something, something from his childhood, something difficult for him to explain. It is something he tries to explain now. He begins to talk about how, in building a team, you want—no, more than want, you need—to find people who will do the right thing most of the time.
Then he stops. No. That will sound wrong, sanctimonious, and that's not what he wants, not at all. "There are a million skeletons in that closet," he says, and he points at the closet past the end of his desk. He turns the conversation, starts to talk about how powerful a team can be, how much a team can mean, how much his own team....
And he stops again. No. His eyes redden, and he stares at the wall with the writing on it, and he knows that he is blowing it. Bruce Springsteen, Pioli's idol, sings about how he "lived a secret I shoulda kept to myself." Pioli feels words are diminishing what is in his mind. People will get the wrong idea. This is why he doesn't like talking about it.
He repeats some of the core words about building a team, hoping their power might fill the empty spaces. Reliability. Dependability. Accountability. Discipline. But these words have been used so often and so much in vain that they shrivel and fray and lose their color in the light of day. Say discipline, for instance, and people think of banning long hair and earrings and tattoos, of avoiding dumb penalties. "That's not at all what I'm talking about," Pioli says.
Lived a secret he shoulda kept to himself. Yes. It's better to say nothing. There are fewer misunderstandings that way. For most of the previous decade Pioli was the Patriots' general manager without being called that; his official title was vice president--player personnel, featuring a dash instead of the word of—like United States--America. Nobody could say precisely what the title meant, and it didn't matter. Led by coach Bill Belichick, inspired by quarterback Tom Brady and flanked by scores of people famous and unknown, New England and Pioli won three Super Bowls in four years. They lost another in February 2008 after going 18--0 during the regular season and playoffs. For all this, ESPN named Pioli NFL personnel man of the decade.
He stayed in the shadows. It is almost impossible to find a story about Scott Pioli that does not refer, usually at length, to his anonymity. The popular thought was that he remained in the background in deference to Belichick, his friend and mentor, and there is some truth in that. But then in January 2009, after turning down more jobs than he will ever reveal, he came with great fanfare to Kansas City to reshape a dysfunctional Chiefs team, and he moved right back into the shadows. At his first press conference he announced that he expected the coach, not the G.M., to be the public face of the franchise. He talked about how he had no interest in individual stardom—"I'm not here to sell jerseys"—and he rarely did interviews. When The Kansas City Star attempted to do a bigger story about him, where he comes from, what drives him, what he thinks about, Pioli called friends and family back home in Washingtonville, N.Y., and asked them not to reveal anything. The story that appeared in the paper was mostly about how Pioli wanted no story to appear in the paper.
This year the Chiefs have improved dramatically—on Sunday they beat the Seahawks 42--24 for their seventh win in 11 games, more victories than they had in 2008 and '09 combined—and Pioli has stayed in character. He has been distant, careful, emerging only every now and again, mostly to remind everyone that his team is still a work in progress. He sits behind that big desk, and he scouts college players, and he talks with agents, and he works over the salary cap, and he pushes his coaches, and he raises expectations, and he pierces egos, and every now and again he stares at his wall where the Winesburg, Ohio passage is written in calligraphy. The young man, going out of his town to meet the adventure of life.
What did that young man want?
"It's hard for me to put into words," Pioli says, "but I have these friends... ."
Scott Pioli's friends in sports think about things the way he does. They include:
• Boston Red Sox manager Terry Francona, who says, "From the first time Scott and I talked, there was this kinship."
• Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who says, "Scott is like a brother."
• San Antonio Spurs president R.C. Buford, who says, "We just had a connection."
• Cleveland Indians president Mark Shapiro, whom he's known longest of all of them.
He has other friends in sports, of course. Pioli has spent most of his professional life seeking out anyone he thought had good ideas about how to put a team together. He's on something like a quest. He learned more about team-building from Belichick than anyone else. He has learned plenty more from his father-in-law, a pretty fair coach and G.M. named Bill Parcells. (Pioli and his wife, Dallas, have a daughter, Mia.) But those four friends are all about his age, and they have similar ideals. They have all had success—they have been part of four pennants, two World Series wins, three Super Bowl victories and four NBA championships. They talk about many things, as friends do, but mostly they talk about how you build teams, real teams, in this crazy era of big contracts and Nike commercials and a million other distractions.
"Obviously," Francona says, "our sports are different." Francona likes to bring Pioli into the Red Sox' clubhouse a few minutes before a game and watch him do a slow burn when he hears the loud music and sees how relaxed all the players look. Where's the passion? Where's the fury? What are those guys doing over there—dozing? Are you kidding me?
"I have to tell him all the time, 'Scott, we play 162 of these things,'" Francona says. "It's different in football, where they play one game a week and [game day] is, like, sacred. We do this every day. And if we put too much emphasis on one game, if we have too many team meetings, if we get up for every game the way they do for football, it's not going to work."
In the end Francona feels sure there are more similarities than differences between baseball and football. He and Pioli had met briefly a few times but got to know each other on the night in November 2005 when both were inducted into the New England Chapter of the Italian-American Sports Hall of Fame. That night, Francona says, they talked about a million things and came to realize that they saw them precisely the same way. By the end of the night they were finishing each other's sentences.
"How often does it happen," Francona says, "when you are talking to someone and you realize that you know exactly where that person is coming from, and they know exactly where you're coming from?"
And so they have leaned on each other about what kind of players you need to make a team, what kind of leaders you need, how you handle the roughest situations. Just this year, when the Red Sox struggled in April and early May, Francona would often talk to Pioli about David Ortiz. Ortiz, of course, is a Boston icon, one of the best and most popular players in recent Red Sox history, a leader on the 2004 and '07 World Series winners. And Ortiz was utterly helpless at the plate. He was hitting .143 with one home run on May 1. He looked sapped and old at 34, and Francona felt utterly conflicted.
"What do you do when an icon is not playing well?" Pioli asks. "Terry and I talked about that a lot. That's one of the toughest questions we face. On the one hand the team always matters more than the individual. But on the other hand there are questions about loyalty. I mean, Big Papi, there you have a great player who has done so much for the team both on the field and off. And everyone is watching—the fans, the other players, the media. Everyone is watching."
Francona admits he wasn't sure if Ortiz would come out of it. "I think you just try to be aware," Francona says. "That's one of the things Scott and I talk about. You just try to be aware of everything, let it all in, and you don't make decisions with your emotions. I know David felt we weren't staying with him. And I know a lot of other people thought we were staying with him too much. It's all how you look at it."
In the end Francona mostly stayed with Ortiz—who went on to hit .286 with 31 homers and a .558 slugging percentage from May 1 through the rest of the season.
"It was difficult," Francona says. "I know Scott feels this way. You have to look at the big picture. Then you have to look at the small picture. Then you have to look how the small picture affects the big pictures. Let's face it. There are a lot of pictures."
Scott Pioli comes from the Village of Washingtonville—it's a place old enough that it's still called a village. It is about 60 miles north of Newark, a couple of miles off the New York Thruway, a blue-collar place of about 6,000 people filled with firefighters and police officers and union workers. It is the sort of town Bruce Springsteen sings happily and unhappily about, which is probably why Pioli has had a poster of Springsteen on his wall from his earliest memory.
There are two experiences that stand out from Pioli's childhood in Washingtonville, two events that created this intense desire to build close-knit, rely-on-each-other, us-against-the-world football teams. One was in 1981: That was the year he played on a Washingtonville High team that went 10--0 and won the conference championship. Pioli loves that team. There were only 31 players on it. They weren't especially talented—not one would go on to play Division I—and they had no real history of success to draw on. Washingtonville had never been very good at football.
But those kids had grown up together, and they looked out for one another, and the only thing that mattered to any of them was winning. They gave up 53 points all season. "There were three other teams at least that were clearly, visibly, unquestionably more talented," says Pioli. "We outtoughed them. We outthought them. We outconditioned them."
And this is when Pioli started to think about what a team of intensely devoted and disciplined players could do. Well, actually, he started thinking about it a few years earlier. But the 1981 team crystallized the thought in his mind. Togetherness, real togetherness, could beat all the talent in the world.
"Look," Thomas Dimitroff is saying, "you have to start with talent. That's obvious."
Pioli and Dimitroff became friends out of desperation as much as anything. Pioli's story of getting into football has become somewhat legendary: When he was at Central Connecticut State he would drive 90 minutes to watch the Giants practice, and through a friend of a friend he met Belichick, then a New York assistant coach. The two hit it off—Belichick famously let the kid sleep in a spare bed in the dorm suite Belichick shared with Al Groh—and in 1992, when Belichick was in charge in Cleveland, he hired Pioli for an unclear personnel job with the Browns for the crystal-clear salary of 16 grand a year.
Dimitroff's story is, if anything, even more remarkable. His father, Tom, was a longtime football coach and scout, mostly in Canada. Dimitroff wanted badly to be in the game. He worked for a short while in Canadian football, then for the World League of American Football, and then found himself without a job. He had a chance to go into business and thought hard about it. "But I didn't want to start making money in business," he says, "because then I knew I wouldn't go back to football."
Instead he joined the Browns' grounds crew. Yes. The grounds crew. That's where he and Pioli met and almost immediately began to talk about their philosophies about building football teams. They were invisible then, probably not making $30,000 between them, and nobody else cared what they thought about building teams. So they talked with each other, often about the odd relationship between talent and winning.
"I think Scott and I both believe it's much easier—much easier—to build a team when you're throwing character issues out the window," says Dimitroff, who rose from volunteer scout with the Browns to New England's director of college scouting before becoming the Falcons' G.M. in January 2008. "There are some very, very talented players coming into this league through the draft, through free agency, and the easy thing to do is to bring in the most talented players whether they fit or don't fit. You can win that way, no question about it."
"But," Pioli says, "the key is sustainability. Do you want to build a team that will win once and then implode? I don't think that's the job. The job is to make the difficult decisions so you can build the kind of team that can be in position to win every single year."
This has been a major point of contention in Kansas City. The Chiefs have not won a playoff game since the 1993 season. But former team president Carl Peterson had a knack for finding superstars. Linebacker Derrick Thomas is in the Hall of Fame, tight end Tony Gonzalez and offensive linemen Will Shields and Willie Roaf figure to join him there soon. Priest Holmes set a single-season record for rushing touchdowns. Joe Montana and Marcus Allen and Larry Johnson—there were always talented players in Kansas City, led by successful coaches like Marty Schottenheimer and Dick Vermeil. And still the Chiefs did not win even one playoff game.
And so when Pioli got to Kansas City, he announced that the day of the individual was over. His mantra was, "We don't want the best 53 players, we want the right 53 players." Every G.M. talks about building families, but Pioli believed it. He wanted to be surrounded by lifelong football men. He found that he saw eye to eye with Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, son of football legend Lamar Hunt, who had grown up around the pro game. As his coach he hired Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Haley, whose father, Dick, was a longtime scout and one of the architects of the 1970s Steelers.
Haley in turn hired offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, who held those same positions for New England when the Patriots won three Super Bows. And while Pioli insists the Chiefs are not a good team yet—"We have so far to go," Pioli says—he does say that he can begin to see things coming together.
He brought in Tom Brady's backup, Matt Cassel, to be the quarterback. "Matt represents all the things we are trying to do here," Pioli says. "He is completely unselfish." The Chiefs have found a few jewels left over from the Peterson regime, starting with linebacker Derrick Johnson, cornerback Brandon Flowers and running back Jamaal Charles.
And Pioli has clearly changed the drafting philosophy. The Chiefs have passed on bigger names to bring in "the people who fit the kind of team we want to become." Six of the seven Chiefs picks in 2010, from first-round safety Eric Berry of Tennessee to fifth-round safety Kendrick Lewis of Mississippi, were everyday captains on their college teams. That percentage led the NFL.
Not surprisingly, four of Atlanta's seven draft choices in 2010 were also college captains. "I want to stress this again and again," says Dimitroff, whose Falcons, at 9--2, are tied for the best record in the NFL. "None of us are saying we are right. There are countless ways to build teams, and no one of them is better or more right than the others. I'm just saying it's the right way for me and the Atlanta Falcons. It's the right way for Scott and the Kansas City Chiefs.
"I think we learned this in New England—we just have a hypersensitivity to distractions," Dimitroff adds. "Character issues can be a distraction. Selfishness can be a distraction. There are a thousand of them. And they can tear down what you're trying to do. Talent is essential. But it really comes down to what talent means."
KNOWING WHO YOU ARE
"I think we had a connection because of our relationship to [high-profile] coaches," says R.C. Buford, who met Pioli a few years ago through Cleveland's Shapiro. "Bill Belichick. Gregg Popovich. I think we connected because we were trying to realize the vision both of those guys have."
In 1994 Popovich made Buford the Spurs' head scout, and he quietly moved up to director of scouting, then vice president, then general manager. But as with Pioli, the titles don't matter. The titles—San Antonio's four NBA championships—do. The Spurs, like the Patriots, became the industry standard for unselfish team play. And what Buford found in talking with Pioli is that they shared a thrill about winning a certain way: with hardworking players who played for one another, and for that larger purpose.
They were stunned at how similarly their teams played. For instance, you would not think Tom Brady and San Antonio star Tim Duncan are alike at all. Brady seems fiery and outspoken, Duncan cool and withdrawn. But what Buford and Pioli found is that both players inspire similar feelings: The guys around them want to play better. This is probably what people mean when they say that a player "makes his teammates better," but that's too vague and simplified. Buford and Pioli believe that the best players inspire teammates in very direct ways.
"You don't want to disappoint them," Pioli says.
"A [teammate] naturally doesn't want a great player to be working harder than he is working," Buford says.
"If a great player doesn't care openly about his individual achievements—and it's clear Tom Brady and Tim Duncan don't—then other players can't care about their individual achievements either," Pioli says.
And, finally, there's the realization in New England and San Antonio that Brady and Duncan are such great players that the team has a real shot at a championship every year. That, too, lifts players up.
"I think Scott and I would agree that it doesn't happen by accident," Buford says. "It comes from knowing who you are. It comes from knowing what you want to be."
Pioli believes—all these guys believe—that the whole idea of building a team has turned into a cliché. It's as if when people think about a team, they picture a homogenized collection of hustlers and gamers and choirboys who do everything right on the field and off. That's not exactly what any of these guys want. What they want are players who reflect what they believe sports are about.
"I think if you are an authentic leader," Mark Shapiro says, "you can't separate the man you are from the leader you are. You can't separate what you believe from the kind of team you're building. That's all we are really talking about here. We're not looking for robots. We're not looking for perfect people.
"You know what we are looking for? I got this from [longtime major league G.M.] Pat Gillick. We want players who are dependable. I don't necessarily mean they give dependable performances. Performance varies, and some of that is beyond a player's control. We want players who are dependable in the way they go about their lives. Players who treat the parking-lot attendant right, players who talk to their teammates, players who will go about their business in practices, in their video work, in their strength and conditioning work. Dependable. Players you can depend on."
This is at the heart of what Pioli and Shapiro talk about most. They have been friends the longest—they go back to their Cleveland days, when they were both just starting out, and Shapiro was a front-office staffer with the Indians. Pioli has talked to Shapiro at great length about his Washingtonville High football team. They both know he's never going to replicate that, not exactly. He's never going to be able to build a team filled with longtime friends who grew up tough and care only about one another and want to win because winning is the biggest thing in their imagination. No, this is pro football, this is major league baseball, this is the NBA, and there are billions of dollars involved and millions of fans and salary caps and free agency, and you can't cut through all of that and build a team like Washingtonville.
All you can do is try.
A few years ago the Indians had talented but volatile outfielder Milton Bradley. Shapiro and Pioli had long talks about him. Bradley was probably Cleveland's best player in 2003. He was also a constant distraction. The Indians lost 94 games that year. "I really leaned on Scott then," Shapiro says, "and it came down to this: Are you going to stand behind what you say? Is this about mission statements or is it about what you really believe?"
Shapiro traded Bradley to the Dodgers before the start of the 2004 season. The Indians won 93 games in '05, with Bradley's centerfield position taken by the consummate Shapiro player Grady Sizemore, and two years later they made it to the American League Championship Series, where they lost to Francona's Red Sox in seven games.
"In the end," Shapiro says, "the question is, Are you going to stand for anything?"
THE BIG DESK
When Scott Pioli was eight, his father's union at the phone company went on strike. Ron Pioli was out on strike for half a year. Those were tough times, the sort of times an eight-year-old never forgets. There were four kids, a mortgage, mother Diane trying to keep it all together. Everything felt fragile. Nobody was sure how it would all turn out.
Ron Pioli took on three jobs. He pumped gas at Doc's Sunoco on Route 208. He drove a cab. And he worked for a plumber, Mr. Picone, on weekends. None of the jobs paid great, but together they paid enough to get by for those long months.
And this—more even than the unbeaten high school football team, more than the lessons from Belichick, more than all the talks with all of his friends—stamped the idea of team in Pioli's mind. Why? Well, Pioli says, it's obvious, isn't it? Doc didn't need anyone to help him pump gas and couldn't really afford to take on help. The cab company didn't need another driver. Mr. Picone did not need a part-time assistant.
But they all gave Ron Pioli work because he needed it, because he had a family to feed, because times were tight. They didn't do it because it was the right thing to do or because it was the charitable thing to do. They did it because that's what people did in Washingtonville and thousands of other places like it. That, Scott Pioli believes with all his soul, is what great teams should do. They take care of one another. They stand behind one another. They rely on one another. Linebacker misses a tackle, a safety is there to make the play. Quarterback is in trouble, a receiver comes back to help. Running back is too beat up to block, a guard takes on two men. It's the same thing.
"I've been part of winners," Pioli says, "and I've been part of losers. I've seen every side of this thing." He sits behind the big desk, and tears are in his eyes, and he points at the wall with the rest of the Winesburg, Ohio quote.
He closed his eyes and leaned back in the car seat. He stayed that way for a long time and when he aroused himself and looked out of the car window the town of Winesburg had disappeared and his life there had become but a background on which to paint the dreams of his manhood.
"You know, there are a lot of ways to win," Pioli said. "But there's only one way for me to win and be proud of winning." And then Scott Pioli apologized for getting emotional, and he stood up and took the long walk around his desk and toward the coaches' offices, and went back to work.
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Joe Posnanski blogs about ... well ... everything, at joeposnanski.SI.com