The challenges facing Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross in the coming weeks are, frankly, over his head.
Ross, who has yet to enjoy a winning season during his ownership tenure, must decide by January whether to keep or fire general manager Jeff Ireland, whether to keep or fire coach Joe Philbin, indeed, whether to keep or tear down the Dolphins’ current football structure.
And based on his numerous and well-chronicled past mistakes, his recent mishandling of the Jonathan Martin meeting, and the results fans have seen on the field the past four seasons, Ross needs help.
Ross needs advice and the wisdom to implement that advice so that the direction of this franchise can turn and the fans that lately have been upset or, worse, increasingly apathetic about the Dolphins, can have something to believe in once again.
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So, today I offer Stephen Ross advice. No, not my advice, although he could probably use that, too.
I sought out the advice of Jed Hughes, who is vice chair of the executive search firm Korn/Ferry and head of its global sports practice.
Hughes coached for two decades under Chuck Noll, Bud Grant and — Ross will love this — Michigan’s Bo Schembechler, among others. He placed CEO Mark Murphy with the Green Bay Packers. He placed general manager John Idzik and club president Neil Glat with the Jets.
Hughes, who has a master’s degree from Stanford and a doctorate from Michigan, has authored three books on leadership, intercollegiate sports and the sports entertainment business.
So Hughes is more than just a headhunter. He’s a head-crowner.
My conversation with Hughes last week covered many of the possible scenarios Ross and the Dolphins will face in the coming months.
Here they are:
On the idea of Ross firing his general manager, Hughes believes there are dangers in this for any team that lacks vision of what the replacement’s role must be — as merely a personnel man or the overall overseer of the franchise. And Ross must be prepared for an arduous search.
“The general manager pool isn’t as well-trained and sophisticated as the coaching pool,” Hughes said. “It’s much more difficult to find a qualified general manager than it is to find a qualified head coach. That’s based on normal development and who’s really out there developing and training people to become general managers.
“I mean, there are so many things you have to do as a general manager now as it relates to finding talent, development of talent, scouting, operations, the pro side, the college side, free agency, contract negotiations. It’s a very, very complex job and requires decisions [by the owner hiring] whether you want talent evaluators or somebody that’s more a leader that will manage the different parts underneath it.”
Ross has said he is going to make changes to the Dolphins. Multiple sources believe this will go beyond implementing new policies as written by the two committees Ross recently named.
One source told the Miami Herald that Ross will consider reorganizing the Dolphins and hire a czar of sorts who would have authority over the coach and personnel department. Ross inherited this sort of structure when the Dolphins had Bill Parcells atop the organization with Ireland and coach Tony Sparano answering to him.
But Ross would want someone he respects and feels comfortable with. Ross would want his hire, which Parcells was not. And the name that continually pops up is Carl Peterson.
Peterson, who is both friend and business partner to Ross, has been rumored a possibility for the Dolphins before. After Parcells left the organization in 2010, Ross resisted going with Peterson based on his trust of Ireland and his coach.
But with the Dolphins weaving losing seasons in 2009, ’10, ’11 and ’12, hovering around .500 this season, and buckling under the weight of an NFL investigation Ross called “a nightmare,” the owner might reconsider handing the franchise reins to Peterson.
Peterson last worked for an NFL team in 2008, but Hughes sees no problem with that.
“Well, Dick Vermeil came back after 10 years and made it,” Hughes said. “People talk about Jon Gruden and obviously he’s stayed connected by doing all the analyst things and other things he’s been doing. I think Carl was in the game so long and has so many good connections, he’s been involved in some of Steve Ross’s businesses, he goes to the league meetings. He’s kind of a football aficionado. He’s grown up around it.
“I’m not sure his ramp-up speed wouldn’t be that difficult if Steve felt he was the appropriate solution.”
The Dolphins’ football structure is such that Ireland reports only to Ross, Philbin reports only to Ross, and club president Tom Garfinkel reports only to Ross. The problem is Ross isn’t around the day-to-day operations of his $1.1billion business to actively oversee the people reporting to him.
Ross lives primarily in New York, where he attends to his real estate and development empire. Sure, the owner says he keeps in contact by phone and attends games.
But the truth is when the current scandal hit the Dolphins and the possibility both Ireland and Philbin could be implicated existed, Ross couldn’t be on the ground to conduct an investigation. He had to request the NFL take over the investigation of the Incognito-Martin mess.
Ross had to outsource the investigation, in part, because he couldn’t count on his generals giving him facts untainted by their personal agendas.
Hughes is not opposed to the idea of an absentee owner but cautioned that approach could present problems.
“I think one of the challenges when you own a team and are not living in the area, it makes it more challenging,” Hughes said.
“Communication has to be that much better in terms of how it’s flowing to the owner and direct reports, how he’s gaining information, how he’s staying informed and putting his blueprint and business strategy on the club.”
Hiring a football czar — someone like a John Elway — is one way Ross could overcome his absenteeism. He would have an overall overseer on the ground and at work every day.
That person, over both the coach and general manager, could decide the fate of both. That person could guide Ross through a talent search to fill either job if the decision is made to go in a different direction.
That person could help Ross manage issues that currently are over his head.