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Sports Business

With Polian gone, Irsay must absorb criticism

January 3, 2012
KEYWORDS Sports Business

Jim Irsay told IBJ earlier this season that his leadership style was driven more by intuition than by science.

That intuition has driven his Twitter musings and led to the bold move earlier this year to make Peyton Manning the highest-paid NFL player.

“A lot of times, I just do what feels right,” Irsay told IBJ.

On Monday, that intuition told Irsay to fire Bill Polian, who has built the Colts into a dynasty minus multiple Super Bowl championships, and Polian’s son, Chris, who joined the front office in 1998 and took over as the team’s general manager this year.

Irsay is now the unquestioned leader of the franchise. He went from the benevolent deep-pocketed owner to the guy where the buck stops. There is no more Polian to block arrows from Irsay and his intuitive decision making.

League executives were stunned by Polian’s dismissal. Many of the surprised were the same people that voted Polian an NFL six-time team executive of the year.

In the years since Polian’s hire it became unclear who was really running the team. Polian pulled the strings at every turn. He even had his own radio show, which is an anomaly among NFL general managers. There was no shortage of people who wondered if the Polian-Irsay relationship had turned unhealthy.

Certainly Irsay sought a new direction with Polian’s firing. Quite possibly he sought to clear the air as to who is driving the Colts’ bus.

Irsay and his intuition have a busy few months ahead of them.

First up will be who to hire to replace the Polians. Shortly after that, he has to decide what to do with coach Jim Caldwell. If he hires a coach/GM, that solves the Caldwell dilemma.

Next, he’ll have to decide what to do with his franchise quarterback. Manning is due another medical check up by March 1. Some sources have said he’ll have another check up by Feb. 8. The next contractual check point is March 8, when Manning’s $28 million bonus is due.

Irsay, who has long been known as a players’ owner, will be faced with the decision of whether to trade, cut or keep Manning.

The Colts are due to make the first selection in the NFL draft, which starts April 26. If quarterback Andrew Luck is chosen, as many believe, Irsay must decide if he will try to keep him and Manning in the same stable—at least for a couple of years.

There's also the issue of Jim Tressel. The former Ohio State head coach became a special assistant for the Colts this fall. League sources said Tampa Bay and Jacksonville are interested in hiring the man known for his dapper sweater vest. Irsay must decide quickly if Tressel is worth pursuing, either as a head or assistant coach.

There’s a roster to re-make, sales pitches to formulate, sponsors and season ticket holders to schmooze among other things. And now, Irsay owns all of it.

The challenges facing Irsay don’t end after this upcoming off-season. The league’s new television deal means a great deal more money will be coming into the teams. That money must be managed. The new TV deal—and the new collective bargaining agreement—also means the salary cap will soon escalate greatly. With that, there will be significant pressure for owners like Irsay to raise ticket prices and sponsorship revenue.

With Polian gone, you now have to wonder who Irsay's main advisor(s) will be. Or will it just be left up to Irsay and his intuition?

There was tremendous uncertainty surrounding the Colts when Bob Irsay died in January 1997. It was unclear, according to NFL sources, whether Jim, then 37, was prepared to take over the franchise.

When the team hit the skids during the 1997 season, Jim Irsay announced the firing of general manager Bill Tobin and the hiring of Bill Polian. Sources within the NFL said league executives orchestrated Polian’s arrival in Indianapolis to help Irsay make a potentially difficult transition to chief executive.

Now Irsay is 52. He’s clearly grabbed the reins.

Which decisions Irsay makes are as uncertain as Manning’s health.

But one thing is certain. Irsay’s intuition tells him he’s all grown up. And he appears poised to prove that to the rest of the sporting world.

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