The news that the Cleveland Browns have hired longtime baseball executive Paul DePodesta away from the Mets was pretty surprising. And has led to some early mocking. Which seems silly. Mocking the Browns is probably pretty fun and definitely deserved in some way after all of these years, but mocking a perpetually bad organization for trying something different for once seems harsh.
Besides, it’s not like there haven’t been successful cross-sports executives in the past. The first one that springs to mind is Jerry Krause, who after spending years as a scout for the Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls left pro basketball to scout pro baseball instead. Then he went back to basketball and helped build the 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty. Then he went back to baseball, scouting again for the Yankees, Mets, White Sox and then, finally, took a job in the Diamondbacks organization.
Krauss is a success story, as DePodesta may be. An example where cross-sports success was not so great? Bo Schembechler and the Detroit Tigers.
Schembechler needs no introduction. At Michigan he was one of the most successful coaches in college football history, compiling a record of 234–65–8 between 1969 and 1989, winning or sharing 13 Big Ten titles. He was and remains a legend and an icon in the state of Michigan, not unlike Bear Bryant in Alabama or Woody Hayes in Ohio.
Then the Detroit Tigers hired him as their team president for some dang reason.
The real reason, probably, was that Schembechler was good friends with then-Tigers owner Tom Monaghan. Monaghan’s Domino’s Pizza empire was based in Ann Arbor, so you know the two of them hung out a lot. Good friends don’t always make for good business partners, however, and Schembechler’s tenure with the Tigers was short. The “highlight?” Firing beloved broadcaster Ernie Harwell. To be sure, Schembechler had his own side of the story which made Harwell out to be the bad guy, but that probably just tells you even more how unsuited for the job Schembechler was. He was fired via fax machine, because it was 1992 and that’s just how everyone rolled in 1992. To be fair to Schembechler, Jim Campbell, chief executive officer who has been with the Tigers since 1949, was also fired at the same time and no one could say he wasn’t a baseball man.
Schembechler would always be remembered for letting Ernie Harwell go, but he was not a complete disaster running the Tigers. According to reports at the time, he was credited with “restructuring and rebuilding a once-woeful farm system by upgrading facilities, introducing strength and conditioning programs and beefing up the coaching and medical staffs.” That didn’t translate to a lot of talent, of course. With the exception of a veteran and power-laden 1993 team which exceeded expectations to a large degree, the Tigers were positively woeful for more than a decade after Schembechler was canned. Maybe the players in the organization trained wonderfully in Bo’s sparkling new facilities, but the talent assembled by a series of bad GMs, topped by the worst, Randy Smith, was, to be kind, limited.
None of which is to say that hiring a guy from one sport to be an executive in another sport is a poor idea. Sometimes, as with crony-of-the-owner Schembechler, it is. Sometimes, as with renaissance man Jerry Krause, it’s not.
Where Paul DePodesta falls on that spectrum is unknown. But God knows that he can’t harm the Cleveland Browns any more than the football guys already have.