SCHOETTLE: Despite doubters, Colts’ Irsay thriving as HR manager

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schoettle guest columnThe situation boiling in South Beach this month is just the sort of mess some within the National Football League and around Indiana feared Jim Irsay might fall into when he took over as Indianapolis Colts owner in 1997 for his recently deceased father, Robert.

Bad hires and poor management have landed the Miami Dolphins at the center of an ugly investigation involving workplace harassment and over-the-top hazing. The blame extends beyond the players involved to the head coach and general manager.

These types of problems are not limited to Miami or the NFL.

The Colts roster isn’t filled with 53 choir boys. Since 1999, at least 16 players who were on the Colts roster at the time have had run-ins with the law. Still, Irsay has proven more capable than many professional team owners at managing his human resources in a way that has limited the types of land mines that can blow up a team.

While Irsay is zany, and at times whimsical, his hires have been methodical and largely successful. Not only have his teams won, they’ve also been populated for the most part with players and coaches who have created a positive locker-room atmosphere and stayed out of trouble off the field.

The higher up the org chart you get, the more impressive Irsay’s track record is.

In 2002, it was Irsay—not team President Bill Polian—who insisted on going first and foremost after Tony Dungy as head coach. And while that decision looks like a no-brainer gazing in the rearview mirror, back then the move was not seen as a sure thing.

After all, Dungy’s Tampa Bay team absolutely quit on him in his last season leading the Buccaneers. He was seen as a soft-spoken guy who couldn’t push a talented team to the NFL mountaintop.

Not only did Dungy bring Indianapolis a Super Bowl championship, he kept the Colts stocked with players mostly of high character. He allowed no fighting at practices and in the locker room—a rarity in the NFL—and kept rookie hazing to a bare minimum.

Dungy was known to have, with Irsay’s endorsement, a list of players he put under the heading DND-C; Do Not Draft-[bad] Character. Richie Incognito—who is at the center of the brouhaha in Miami—made that list during the 2005 draft.

Now that some of the truths about Incognito’s past are surfacing, it seems clear why a team wouldn’t want to draft him. Another no-brainer by Irsay and his staff, right? Maybe not. Many coaches, including former St. Louis Rams coach Mike Martz, said tough guys like Incognito are sought after.

Miami not only picked up Incognito after he was run out of St. Louis, but put him on the team’s leadership council. This is the same person we recently discovered groped a woman at a golf course with a golf club and told a teammate he would defecate in his mouth and kill him.

While you can argue about the talent level of Polian’s later draft choices or Jim Caldwell’s on-field record, it’s difficult to argue that Irsay’s key hires haven’t been helpful if not critical in keeping the team clear of the type of trouble that has bedeviled Miami.

Following in the footsteps of Dungy and Caldwell is head coach Chuck Pagano. All three have handled themselves with class while leading the team. And none of them were high-profile and obvious hires.

Some thought Bruce Arians was on his way out of football when the Colts hired him as offensive coordinator before the 2012 season. Not only did he fill in marvelously when Pagano went out for the season while battling leukemia, he also brought the team a measure of grace and class under pressure. He is now the head coach in Arizona.

Like many of his other hires, Irsay went off the radar in 2012 to hire Ryan Grigson to succeed Polian as general manager. Some within the NFL wondered if Irsay would manage without big brother Polian. He’s managed. Even thrived. Grigson has proven to be another savvy hire.

Is it luck? Is it genius? Does it matter?

Whatever is behind Irsay’s methods, whatever prompts his so-called madness, when it comes to hiring, his results have made him the envy of most of his NFL team-owning brethren.•


Anthony Schoettle is IBJ’s sports-business reporter and writes The Score blog at IBJ.com.


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