behind the face mask
10 Things I Learned About Being a General Manager
behind the face mask

10 Things I Learned About Being a General Manager

Former Chiefs’ GM Scott Pioli on juggling the unseen demands of the job, listening to fans complain about their fantasy teams and what it’s like bringing your family along for the unpredictable ride
WORDSTK (Joe Mahoney/AP)

Fired by owner Clark Hunt in January after four seasons as the Chiefs' general manager, Scott Pioli worked for Cleveland, the New York Jets and New England prior to his appointment as Kansas City’s GM in 2009. This season he’ll work for NBC as a contributor to the Football Night in America pregame show, and as an analyst for NBC Sports Network and SiriusXM NFL Radio. The MMQB asked for his insight into the life of a GM and his takeaways from his time in Kansas City.

By Scott Pioli

1. I learned that the title “general manager” is actually a very accurate name for the role because of the wide variety of tasks you do every day. Less time is spent doing the job you fell in love with, which in my case is the purity of the game and competition. A general manager’s duties differ from team to team, based on the hierarchy in the organizational structure. Regardless, much more of a GM’s time is spent managing situations, crises and circumstances involving the players, coaches and everyone else in the football operation. Once in my tenure, we had to advise a player to disassociate himself from friends who were living with him. They were raising pit bulls on his property—very aggressive pit bulls. He did not want the dogs on his property, but didn’t know how to get rid of the dogs or his friends. We had to help him solve both problems and that was not an easy task. It cost us at least 10 hours of work, the equivalent of a full day we could have been spending trying to make our team better. It also cost the player a lot of money.

During my first season we had a player make comments via Twitter that were terribly offensive. This was back in 2009, when Twitter wasn’t as huge as it is now. So our PR chief (no pun intended) first had to explain to me what a “tweet” was. The player’s comments had apparently “gone viral’’ (another new phrase for me) and we had big problems. The time lost due to meetings and phone calls and diplomacy was three to four hours a day for about a week, but that wasn’t the end of it. The player filed a grievance that unfairly cost the organization and me at least another 40 hours in prep time for the hearing, and time spent with in-house and league attorneys, and with owner Clark Hunt. Think of that: A tweet cost us a good week of work time.

These are just two examples of the dozens and dozens of situations that take a lot of time and energy away from a general manager doing his football job. Most remain behind closed doors and never make it to the public. However, they can create enormous distractions.

2. I understand much better that the sport of football is no longer just a game. It is entertainment. I am an old football soul and I ignored this reality for a long time. Too long, actually. Aside from NFL Films and game day broadcasts during my years as a fan, I have always loved the competitive element, the day-to-day culture and the brotherhood of the team more than the entertainment component. However, I can no longer ignore the place that football resides in our culture as entertainment.

Those of us inside of the football world live in a bubble and we often hide from the entertainment element. It is something we try to avoid because of the distractions it can create for our coworkers and, truthfully, ourselves. Yet, at times, we succumb to its allure and nibble on the cheese. The entertainment industry has added another layer of maintenance that did not used to exist. It has been a blessing—and a curse for the game when not handled appropriately.

On February 1, 2004, one of the great Super Bowls in NFL history was played in Houston. I was with the Patriots, and we beat Carolina. The story lines in the game were plentiful, including the one about Brian Kinchen, the Patriots’ long-snapper on the game’s final play who had been retired for three seasons before I called him a month earlier, in need of a snapper. We talked him away from his job as a junior high school Bible teacher. But the bigger story after the game was one of the halftime entertainment and the infamous “wardrobe malfunction.’’ Most of the world still doesn’t know the Brian Kinchen story, the kind of story that oozes everything good about the game. He’s not Janet Jackson, so the story went untold. However: After working as a GM for four years, though I may not like it, I do understand the entertainment facet has helped the game grow into the greatest game in the land.

3. We are in an age when the degree of accountability of the general manager is now closer to that of the head coach. GMs are no longer permanent employees; they are temporary employees. The clock is ticking much faster today for GMs than at any other time in NFL history. You might be surprised to hear me say this, but I believe that’s the way it should be. I’ve always felt  there should be a closer degree of accountability between the GM and the head coach for the results of the football operation. That now exists.

4. Every day a GM is on the job, more than five things are going to cross his desk that he didn’t expect. Bill Parcells told me right after I took the Chiefs job: “Every day there will be five things that happen that you didn’t plan on happening.” Bill also mentioned this in his Hall of Fame speech. I wish that his estimate of only five a day were more accurate!

For instance, on a day in late January 2012, I had just received some medical information on two of our players that I was not expecting, and we also received news about one of our players who was involved in a legal issue (one I can’t discuss) that could have turned very serious. Just when I thought to myself, This is one of those days that you can’t explain to people, offensive line coach Bill Muir walked into coach Romeo Crennel’s office and announced his retirement. Bill Muir is one of the finest football coaches I’ve ever been around, and we knew trying to replace a coach and a man like him was going to be nearly impossible. Nearly every day as a GM is a lesson in changing on the fly.

5. I learned that the BIG business of football is here to stay and it will only grow while continuing to change leadership dynamics within organizations. Fortunately, I have worked for two franchises and owners who understand the natural internal divide between football and business. However, I have witnessed friends deal with this dynamic that fosters internal politicking and reveals insecurities on both sides of an organization.

The football side creates a constant drain on an owner’s finances. We are walking expenses. Most of the time we approach an owner with something that is going to cost him money: signing a player, hiring a new assistant coach, hiring a new scout, requesting new technology, new video, new equipment for player performance. Everything we do costs the owner money. The business side is charged with generating revenue so the entire business can operate, including the football side.

Very often people on the business side of an organization have similar backgrounds to the owner. They speak in a language much more familiar to an owner. An owner might be more naturally inclined to gravitate toward the revenue-generators, and that can fuel insecurity on the football side. However, owners love the allure of the sport. This is why they own teams. The owner’s passion for the game of football and desire to be close to the gladiator component feeds the insecurities of the business side.

Often, the two sides are trying to poke one another in the eye or win favor in the eyes of the owner behind closed doors. The relationship between business and football is one of interdependence and the two sides truly need one another in today’s NFL.

6. Agents, at least some of them, are not as bad as they are made out to be. There are a lot of agents with genuine integrity and they are an important balance on the scales. The agents I respect? Those who care about a player’s future when they’re finished earning 3% of the player’s income. In New England, we were always among the NFL leaders in players with college degrees and/or working toward degrees. It was also a point of emphasis in Kansas City. During the 2011 lockout, we had almost as many players enrolled in continuing education classes, working toward their degrees, than the other 31 teams combined. This could not have been accomplished without the assistance of several agents who pushed their players back to college, to do something constructive during the lockout.

7. I learned that there are additional ways for the NFL, the players, the teams and the NFLPA to collaborate better on behalf of the greater good—and not just as a PR platform. There are too many programs and seminars that are more about sizzle than substance. Sometimes people need to simply lay down their arms and do the right thing. As Bob Berg wrote in his book, The Go-Giver: “Most of the time, what people call ‘win-win’ is really just a disguised way of keeping track—of keeping score. Stop keeping score.” We all need to take the risk of trying to do the right thing and understand that we may end up looking foolish at times in the process.

8. The impact of Fantasy Football has shifted fan reaction and behavior in a way that makes it much more difficult for fans to understand the real jobs of a GM and coach. A large number of fans want NFL teams to be built “fantasy style” with top name players and top stats players. Over the last 10 years, I can’t tell you how many times I have heard comments from fans about the lack of opportunities that “their” players were getting. I’m sure Fantasy Football is good for the business of football, but it’s not good for players to hear they should be getting the ball more—or for teams just trying to do whatever it takes to win a game, not just compile stats.

9. One big lesson I’ve tried to pass on: When you sign up to be a GM, for better and for worse, you sign your family up as well. They get dragged into every good thing and every bad thing that you are a part of. NFL kids are blessed with privilege and opportunity. However, they will also be exposed to the ugly underbelly of our society and they will experience things that children shouldn’t have to. My 10-year-old daughter has been standing with me and heard adults say unconscionable things to me.

This past spring I was asked to speak during the NFL’s Career Development Symposium for potential NFL head coaches and GMs at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. It is a great place for sharing and learning. My message to the group was short and pointed. I told the people in the room about some of my specific mistakes and miscalculations. For example, I told them that I was naïve to not understand that part of the job description of a GM included being one of the media faces of the organization. In my previous experiences, the head coach, the players and the owner filled that role. I was wrong. The game has changed and the appetite for content and the desire for faces and voices is insatiable, and I should have been more out front with the Chiefs. I also said I had a great job with a historic Kansas City franchise that I loved, in a city that I love. However, it takes a great human toll on you and a greater toll on your loved ones. I told them to be sure they understand this when they sign the contract to take one of these great 32 jobs. You’re signing other people up, too.

10. One of the most important things that was reinforced to me over the last four years is this: Football is the best teacher of any sport in the world. It teaches us about teamwork and about ourselves. It can also reach the public in profound ways. In May 2011 a catastrophic EF5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., killing 158 people and destroying everything in its path. At the time, the NFL and the NFLPA were in the middle of a lockout and an ugly battle against one another. However, both sides ceased the temporary madness and came together for the greater good of an NFL community. The players and the Chiefs organization came together for the people of Joplin. We worked together to clean and rebuild. Some of our work was simply hugging them and showing our support, just like they had shown us for years at Arrowhead.

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