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GM v. Coach: Optimal Disagreement

2007 February 13
by Brian Goff

Marty Schottenheimer’s firing last night came down to conflict with general manager A.J. Smith. SI.com reported Schottenheimer as saying

“There is and has been no relationship” with Smith. Since when? “How long’s he been here?’ …

Schottenheimer tightened up the time frame a bit, saying: “In the last couple of years, there has been very little, if any, dialogue.”

In San Diego, the GM survived the feud. A month ago, bad feelings between head coach Jeff Fisher and GM Floyd Reese led to the “resignation” of the the longtime GM. In the Reese v. Jeff Fisher bout, it appears that owner Bud Adams, who liked both, viewed a good coach as harder to replace than a good GM. In the Schottenheimer v. Smith case, the coach’s age already made him a short-timer, so the GM won out.

Coaches and GMs walk a fine line. Some very successful partnerships, such as Joe Gibbs and Bobby Beathard in the 1980s were reported to be constantly on the brink. As economists, we like pointing out how there is an optimal amount of just about everything, even “bad” things like pollution. Disagreement between coach and GM fits the tag line. If they agree on every personnel matter, the GM is superfluous. If they disagree too much, well, you get Schottenheimer-Smith or Fisher-Reese.

In earlier days, the coach-GM duties often resided in a single person. (Lombardi may have been a better GM than a coach, but that’s a different post.) Once revenue growth made specialization of the jobs and “decision rights” the norm, there has been continual friction. This friction led to a movement in the 1990s where successful coaches sought “total control” over football-related matters (the same happened in other sports also). Although the idea worked in a few cases such as Belichick (the second time around), it tanked for coaches like Mike Holmgren. I have preliminary evidence that combining the roles, on average, hurts performance. This makes some sense for several reasons. One is shortage of time for coaches to evaluate players. With combined roles, coaches must also struggle with personal relationships influencing personnel decisions — cutting disliked players too quickly or holding on to liked players too long. The latter problem is especially acute in the salary cap era where holding on to good, but not great players for too long can quickly lead to salary cap purgatory. The Reese-Fisher breakdown likely had a lot to do with such issues.

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