Firing Bill Polian about more than Winning

Jim Irsay wanted more than winning, Greg Cowan tells us why Bill Polian didn’t fit into the owner’s new vision.

 Colts owner Jim Irsay sat and watched his team struggle through a painful season. He read all of the negative headlines written in their honor, he heard all of the experts proclaim the end of the Colts amazing run of success. He felt the glow of the spotlight that had shone on them – as if to make all of their flaws glaringly apparent to the entire world – since the team lost QB Peyton Manning prior to the regular season opener.

And when the dust had finally settled on the 2011 season, when the Colts had earned their 2-14 record and secured the number one pick in the 2012 draft, Mr. Irsay wasted little time in assuring that the spotlight would shine directly on him in the upcoming days, months, and years.

On Monday, shortly after 1 PM, the world would learn, through Chris Mortensen’s twitter feed – and please note the divine irony of the situation where a man who was hated by the local media for being left out of the loop on breaking news had news of his firing broken by the national media – that Jim Irsay had fired team President Bill Polian and his son Vice President and General Manager Chris Polian.

In that instant the direction of the Colts had changed, Jim Irsay had cleaned house. Gone was the man who drafted Peyton Manning, the man who built the team that won 143 games between 1998 and 2011, the team that went to 3 AFC Championship games, 2 Super Bowls, and won one Lombardi Trophy. We would later learn, through key phrases in his 5 PM Press Conference, that the house cleaning was merely a prelude to tearing down the house in preparation for rebuilding it.

While this off-season will be the most important off-season for the Colts since 1998, the rebuilding process will be long and involved, and will be discussed and scrutinized for years to come. There will be a time in the future to analyze where the team is heading and the best way to get there – it won’t be a fun conversation, unless you really enjoy losing – but for now we want to focus on one question: was firing Bill Polian the correct decision?

Bill Polian, a man whom no one could logically deny was great at building football teams, was not without flaws. He was stubborn, seemingly arrogant, and set in his ways. His dealings with the local media are well known. The Colts routinely leaked information to national media outlets – most notably Chris Mortensen and John Clayton of ESPN – while keeping the local media in the dark. He would deny simple interview requests, citing a lack of interest in the requested topic. And while it may seem self-serving, the fact of the matter is, Bill Polian was dismissive of blogs during his tenure with the Colts.

While many people would probably respond, “so what?” to all of this, the fact is, the media – both mainstream and blogs – was the one group that could have made the 2011 season go smoother. Had Polian fostered a healthy relationship with the Colts, had he treated those that covered the team with respect, there is a very good chance that the tone and nature of the coverage would have been different, and that he and Chris Polian would be the ones in charge of the rebuild.

Aside from his dealings with the media, Polian, appeared, at times, unaware of either how to deal with fans or just how seriously they took the sports and the Colts. Look no further than Week 16 of 2009. The Colts, in the eyes of their fans, gave up the chance for the perfect season and for history, by pulling their starters against the Jets. And while the Colts would eventually make their way to the Super Bowl that season – and lose it – their post-season success did very little to relieve the sting some fans felt from Week 16.

Compounding their pain was the fact that Polian seemed to go out of his way to dismiss it. He noted that the Colts made decisions based on what was best for them, and that they weren’t concerned with outside influences. To many, this seems like the logical, practical approach to not only running a sports franchise, but to running any business. The problem with Polian’s message was polish, or lackthereof. He could have handled the situation in a manner which conveyed regret and remorse – even if he felt none – for a decision that clearly angered some of his “stockholders”, a term Jim Irsay would use to describe fans during his Monday press conference.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are rumors that Bill Polian’s actions and attitude were not conducive to a great working environment. Some have suggested that Polian was so stubborn and set in his ways that he would isolate himself from other front office employees, that his temper would create angst and nervousness on a day-to-day basis. While some may dismiss this by saying, “I don’t care if the General Manager of the Colts is a jerk, as long as the team wins,” remember: the Colts were 2-14 this season. A lot of people were concerned about their jobs on a daily basis. If the rumors are true, Polian did little to help his staff through a difficult time. As President of the Colts, Polian was a leader, and compounding stress in a stressful situation is not what good leaders do.

Much has been made about why Bill Polian was fired. You’ll hear mention of failed drafts, of an inability to find a backup quarterback, and of a man that has lost his ability to really build a great team. That is merely looking for a zebra in a herd of horses. The truth is, Bill Polian was fired because he failed to remember the golden rule of success, “Be nice to people on your way up because you meet them on your way down.”

Look no further than Jim Irsay’s press conference for proof. Irsay spoke about the vision of the next General Manager,

One organization pulling in the same direction. Unity. Realize the community and everything has to work together. In a smaller market, you need someone who has a vision of how the organization is connected.”

“One organization pulling in the same direction. Unity.” Jim Irsay looked at how his organization was run, he took the mood of the office, and he decided that it was time for change. Time for a new voice that could unify the organization – with no angst, drama, or politicking – through the tough rebuild that lies ahead.

“Realize the community and everything has to work together.”  Be nice to the fans. Perhaps you don’t like the fans, perhaps you don’t like dealing with them, but our jobs are nothing without them. Foster those relationships, foster that trust, and they will support you, in the good times and the bad.

In a smaller market.”  The Colts are the biggest draw in town right now. Indianapolis lacks the distractions you might find in Boston, New York, or Los Angeles. Be nice to the media and – even if you don’t like them – treat them with respect. They are the voice to the fans; they can help you if they like you, and they can make life difficult for you if they don’t.

When Irsay announced that he was firing Polian and, for the moment, retaining the services of Jim Caldwell – the coach whose game management has cost the Colts some of the most important games in their history – citing how well loved he is in the organization, he made it clear that he wasn’t interested in winning, but in “winning the right way.”

The house has been cleaned. The roof, walls, and floor are about be torn down. A new foundation is about to be laid. The spotlight is squarely on you, Mr. Irsay. The coming days, months, and years will determine whether or not you made the correct call by firing Bill Polian. You’ve made it clear that there is more to what you do than just winning. You want to win the “right way.”

And fans will always support “winning the right way”…

As long as you are winning.