Prospective NFL head coach, GM candidates get business lessons at league symposium

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

PHILADELPHIA – The simplistic view of the NFL's coaching and management symposium is that it was meant to help train mostly minority candidates for head coach and general manager positions.

But the most important color on display was neither black nor white.

It was green.

Or as one owner put it during a session, "I want to know how you're going to handle the money."

For many men who derive their passion from arranging X's and O's and then teaching players how to execute those arrangements, the three-day session at the prestigious Wharton School was about anything but that part of football. This was about business. This was the button-down, tie-adorned side of the game that has become nearly as important as the other side.

"The most important thing that you should take away from this is look at everything they are explaining to you, that they're showing you and then ask yourself, 'Do I want to do this?' " said Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach Hue Jackson, who was head coach of the Oakland Raiders in 2011. "This is about a lot more than what a lot of us originally got in this to do. It's about dealing with the media, dealing with marketing, dealing with the salary cap – all of these things that are really important to the overall structure of the team.

"You have to want to do that. I know from my experience doing it, I want to do it again. I thought I was prepared the first time. But it's like anything you do – you think you're ready, but you're not. I have a much greater sense of the challenge now."

Or as Atlanta Falcons special teams coach Keith Armstrong, who interviewed with both the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles following the 2012 season, it's about being prepared for the moment.

"When you're in the middle of the season and you're grinding and grinding and then all of a sudden people come up to you and say, 'Your name is popping up here or there,' you're just not in that frame of mind," Armstrong said. "You really have to think through this in June or July, during the downtime. You think not only about how you would handle something, but even the words that you use to explain your position."

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While Jackson and Armstrong are both black, the issues are similar for Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, who is white. While highly respected for his football acumen, Zimmer has been fighting the image of his profane style on the field from when the Bengals were on "Hard Knocks."

"People think that's who I am all the time, but I don't act that way when I'm walking down the halls of the building or in front of women," said Zimmer, a guy who some people have endearingly labeled as someone who doesn't shave before an interview.

Zimmer smiled wearily at that joke.

"People get this image of you and really that's not the case," he said.

But the bigger part of all this is that being a head coach goes well beyond the scope of game-day strategy. The coaches and executives went through various situations, starting with owners talking about expectations.

Among the owners on hand were the Jacksonville Jaguars' Shad Khan, John Mara of the New York Giants, the New York Jets' Woody Johnson, Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Bob Kraft of the New England Patriots. In addition, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell came for part of the meeting.

Many coaches were particularly impressed with how frank Mara was with his assessment of what he looks for in a coach.

"There were some words that came out of his mouth that I wouldn't have expected," one coach said of Mara. "But that was good because it made you understand just how important all of this is and how much he has thought about it."

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The over-arching point of the entire session was that this is no small endeavor. It is not merely enough to be good at calling plays or designing a game plan. In fact, that's a very small part of the whole equation, as Armstrong found out during his two interviews.

When asked how much time he spent talking about actual football strategy, Armstrong said, "Very little."

"What gets you to this point where you get a chance to be a head coach is the X's and O's," Jackson said. "What allows you to get the job is understanding everything that goes into the business of a team. What allows you to stay in the job is winning."

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