It’s been widely talked and written about that Hall of Fame players have very rarely become Hall of Fame coaches, managers or executives. More often than not, transitioning from a high level of on-field success to something close to that while wearing a coat and tie simply doesn’t happen.
Oh, there have been a few. Mike Ditka was a Hall of Famer player who won a Super Bowls as a player and a head coach – a rare feat – but never ventured into the front office. Joe Torre was a great player who won multiple World Series managing the New York Yankees. Mario Lemieux won two Stanley Cups as a player, and another as the principle owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but he’s had little to do with day-to-day operations since 2005 (the Penguins won their third cup in 2009.) Larry Bird has done okay in a front office position with the Indiana Pacers, but nothing like his playing days. Michael Jordan has been a nondescript owner with the Charlotte Hornets and Magic Johnson has been far better behind the scenes than he has ever been actually running a team. So there have been a few who have been successful in both roles, but for every Bird or Lemieux here are three or four like Isaiah Thomas and Wayne Gretzky – standout players that fared poorly in the front office.
A successful transition from great player to astute judge of talent – the guy who chooses the head coach, drafts the players and pretty much builds the team – and to have that team win a championship the same way he did as a player, that’s very, very rare. When you think about it, the only truly great player whose career off the field has measured up to this point is Ozzie Newsome.
Newsome was a three-time Pro Bowler at tight end for the Cleveland Browns in the early 1980s. He was chosen for the NFL’s All-Decade team for the ’80s and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1999. After retiring as a player, Newsome moved into the Browns front office, where he remained as the team relocated to Baltimore in 1996 and became the Ravens. He was named Ravens general manager in 2002. He became the first African-American to be named an NFL GM.
With Newsome in the front office, the Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2000 and again 12 years later. You can make the case that this Hall of Fame player has done even better as a front office executive. In terms of the combination of great player/great executive, Newsome’s set a bar higher than most anyone else could reach. Until now.
Super Bowl 50 offers John Elway a chance to one-up Newsome’s tremendous achievements and stamp himself as not only an all-time great player, but an upper-echelon front office man as well. If it’s really possible, Elway has a legit chance to enhance his already stellar legacy to a status beyond almost every other Hall member.
It’s ironic that the other NFL player in this conversation is Newsome. The two men have had an epic rivalry since the early 1980s. It was Elway who three times kept Newsome from reaching the Super Bowl as a player. It was Newsome’s Raven’s who thwarted Elway’s first shot at a Super Bowl as an executive in 2012 on their way to winning Ozzie’s second as a front-office man. Right now, each man has two Super Bowl rings.
Elway gets a shot at his third on Sunday. If the Broncos win Super Bowl 50, he would reach a point even Newsome didn’t: He will have won a Super Bowl ring(s) as a player and as a general manager. Good luck finding someone else who has done that.
Some might shout “George Brett” after the Kansas City Royals won last fall’s World Series… except that Brett didn’t have anything to do with building that team. Nolan Ryan was largely responsible for building the Texas Rangers teams that won the American League – but lost the World Series – in 2010 and 2011, so he comes up just short, too.
I’m sure I’m forgetting a few that belong in this conversation. Surely there have been other great players who have moved into the front office and been part of championships. Even so, it’s a very small and exclusive club that No. 7 has a chance to join on Sunday. Peyton Manning isn’t the only Hall of Fame QB with a lot on the line this weekend.