The Case for ... The Unusual Hire

January 18, 2016

IN 1965, WHEN John Wooden was at the height of his powers as UCLA's basketball coach, he was recruited by the pros. But it wasn't an NBA team that came calling. It was the Pittsburgh Pirates inquiring about whether Wooden would be interested in becoming the team's new manager.

Wooden (right) declined the offer, of course. But credit the Pirates for an inspired bit of thinking. Wooden possessed extraordinary leadership skills and exceptional emotional intelligence. Surely, figured Pittsburgh's brass, that was more important than whether he'd mastered the nuances of the double switch. Yet Wooden knew that the recruitment was so absurd that, when recounted, a skeptical audience might request proof. So for years he kept a news clipping of the account in his wallet, presumably bunched between his driver's license and his grocery coupons.

A half-century later little has changed. When the Browns hired baseball executive and Moneyball exponent Paul DePodesta as their chief strategy officer last week, the move triggered more discussion and scrutiny than did the team's drafting of Johnny Manziel. Get past the Jonah Hill jokes, and the question we ought to be asking goes like this: Why aren't more teams thinking this creatively?

Well, for one, conformity feels safer. Stick within the parameters of generally expected behavior, and the consequences of falling short are mitigated. But head off in an uncharted direction and you run the risk of the magnificently memorable disaster. (Think the XFL, the McLobster sandwich, Dennis Miller on Monday Night Football.) The motivation to avoid ridicule can be as strong in a team's front office as it is in the middle school hallway.

But we should applaud the outside-the-box hire, much as we do innovations like the spread offense, the infield overshift and Winter Classic hockey. What would the high jump be without the Fosbury Flop, which these days sounds like a misnomer given its ubiquitous success? Hiring the (really) outsider is obviously risky, but at least it brings some big-play potential.

Consider the corporate world. Business school professors often regale students with the story of Lou Gerstner, a Harvard MBA and RJR Nabisco CEO who was hired for the same role by IBM in 1993 despite lacking any technology sector experience. Gerstner's ability to survey a new domain with the dispassionate perspective of someone unencumbered by institutional baggage helped Big Blue reclaim its position as a computing dynasty.

Of course, none of this guarantees success when hiring on the path less taken. Your business school counterexample: After helping rebuild Ford Motor Company, "whiz kid" Robert McNamara was tapped by President Kennedy to serve as his Secretary of Defense in 1961. McNamara's track record in Southeast Asia proved more sobering than it had been in the Motor City.

And so it goes for the unconventional sports hire as well. After the 1996 season, the Astros named Larry Dierker, a former pitcher and the team's longtime TV color man, as manager; he led Houston to NL Central titles in each of his first three years. In 1990 the Detroit Tigers hired former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler as president; in 1992 he was fired—via fax. Still, it's a pity more teams don't take these approaches.

We're left with this irony: Athletes are forever being told to take chances and think creatively. Yet the decision makers themselves are in the end, like many of us, strikingly averse to risk.

L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers are co-authors of the forthcoming book This Is Your Brain on Sports.

A half-century after John Wooden turned down the Pittsburgh Pirates, why aren't more teams considering such creative moves?

PHOTORICH CLARKSON/WIREIMAGE.COM (WOODEN) PHOTOPAUL J. BERESWILL/AP (DEPODESTA)DePodesta

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