Meet the New Boss…Same as the Old Boss

January 24, 2008 |

It might be unfair to call the guy who signs the checks “meddlesome,” but that’s the word often used to describe owners of pro sports teams who appear to interfere with the inner workings of their teams’ front offices or coaching staffs. A few weeks after Steve Bisciotti allowed his “gut” – and not his front office personnel – to determine Brian Billick’s fate, the Ravens’ hiring of Cam Cameron as offensive coordinator adds to the speculation that Bisciotti is still wielding heavy-handed influence on “the football people” at One Winning Drive.
I agreed with the Sun’s Mike Preston when he wrote a few days ago that it was “disturbing” that new Ravens coach John Harbaugh did not have a tentative coaching staff in place after going through two interviews with the Ravens. Say what you will about Billick, but he – like any long-time NFL coordinator – kept a running list of assistants he would hire upon becoming a head coach; in a matter of days early in 1999 the majority of this list became the Ravens coaching staff (with the exception of Marvin Lewis, who returned to the Ravens after Gunther Cunningham turned down Billick’s offer to become offensive coordinator). The fact that Harbaugh didn’t appear to be as prepared or as organized as Billick at the same point in their careers worried me.
Now, the hiring of Cameron casts the situation in a different light. Perhaps Harbaugh knew exactly who he wanted to hire as his assistants and had them all lined up to come on board…then his boss got involved. That the Ravens so suddenly turned their attention from Pat Shurmur, a young quarterbacks coach with whom Harbaugh is apparently very good friends, to Cameron tells me that people other than Harbaugh are picking the coaches in Owings Mills. Of course, they have the convenient excuse that Cameron and Harbaugh worked together at Indiana University, so the Ravens can spin this as old acquaintances reuniting. It’s the same way they’ll advertise Harbaugh’s hiring of Rex Ryan as Defensive Coordinator (the two spent one season together on the University of Cincinnati coaching staff 11 years ago), even though Harbaugh was clearly interested in bringing in current Chargers linebackers coach and former Bears defensive coordinator Ron Rivera.
The fact remains that Bisciotti wanted to see both Ryan (only as defensive coordinator; not as head coach) and Cameron on the staff in 2008, even before the team had one interview with John Harbaugh. Are we supposed to believe that it’s just a coincidence that Harbaugh also sees them as the best fits for those positions? That 10 years as an NFL assistant coach and the pedigree of coming from a coaching family didn’t provide Harbaugh with a stable of friends and associates ready to take the next step with him? That his top two assistants just happen to have names that had already been mentioned often by Ravens officials (including Bisciotti) before Harbaugh was even hired?
Perhaps it will all work out. Harbaugh seems like a bright, young, enthusiastic leader, and I like both Ryan and Cameron (at least based on what he did in San Diego for several years, albeit with more star power on offense that the Ravens currently boast). I also understand the dynamic of pairing a young, inexperienced head coach with veteran coordinators. But I do not like the feeling that Harbaugh is already having his authority compromised by being forced to hire assistant coaches favored more by “the organization” (i.e. Bisciotti) than the person who will be their direct supervisors. While the head coach’s role in player acquisitions differs with each team, the concept of the head coach having complete autonomy in hiring his assistants is fairly universal…except of course in the case of a meddlesome owner.
It’s easy to take a step back and envision Harbaugh, Cameron and Ryan standing on the Ravens sidelines, and think, “that’s a great picture.” And I agree – that’s damn exciting. So why should we care how they got there? Because right here in Baltimore we have been witness to a 15-year case study of what happens when a sports team owner becomes too involved in on-field matters. These warning signs existed in the early days of Peter Angelos’ ownership of the Orioles, but they were masked by back-to-back playoff appearances in 1996 and ’97.
I am not leery of Steve Biscotti because he fired Brian Billick or because he hangs out with Ray Lewis or because he somehow got extremely tan during the past three weeks while conducting an exhaustive head coach search in frigid Baltimore. I am skeptical simply because my other beloved local team fell prey to a “local boy makes good” owner who thought he knew more than his very qualified underlings, and it resulted in 10 years (at least) of losing. Why would I turn a blind eye to Bisciotti’s actions and allow history to repeat itself? Because Brian Billick’s offense stunk? Because Bisciotti was very successful in another field? Because I have six Ravens PSLs? After all we’ve been through with Peter Angelos, the better question is, how could I?