INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Bill Polian relied on simple, solid principles to build winners.
He went from successful general manager to Hall of Fame executive by developing one more trait: becoming an astute salesman.
After persuading Buffalo coach Marv Levy to throw in an extra second-round pick to get linebacker Cornelius Bennett in a 1987 trade, Polian sold Colts owner Jim Irsay on taking Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf in the 1998 draft. Those two moves turned long-languishing franchises into perennial title contenders, giving Polian a reputation that will culminate in his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday.
“Marv Levy came to my office and I said the Rams won’t do it unless we throw in our two. He said, ‘No, that’s too much, they’re being greedy.’ I said, ‘I know, but would you rather win the Super Bowl or the deal?’” Polian said.
“The funny thing about Peyton was that Jim was probably inclined to go that direction anyway. But I said, ‘Let’s take it from the worst-case scenario. If we take Ryan Leaf, the worst case is that he’s going to be a complete bust. If we take Peyton Manning, the worst case is Bernie Kosar.’ Jim just laughed and said ‘Kosar? That’s not too bad.’”
Polian’s track record turned out pretty well, too.
In Buffalo, Polian constructed the only team to appear in four consecutive Super Bowls. In Carolina, he designed a game plan for the most successful expansion team in league history. In Indianapolis, he beat the salary cap he helped create by putting together a team that won one Super Bowl and produced the league’s highest victory total in a single decade (115).
But the short, fiery New Yorker with the strong Irish heritage and the penchant for making all the right moves never bowed to conventional wisdom.
“He was the guy at the race track in the raincoat with the crumpled-up newspaper who would mutter to himself, ‘That one there,’” Irsay said. “He had the ability to evaluate talent as good as anybody. His strength was his ability to identify those seven or eight players who could be the nucleus of your team.”
Initially, Polian didn’t plan on going into the front office. The Bronx native started his football career as an assistant coach at nearby Manhattan College and Columbia. He eventually wound up working for the late George Paterno, Joe Paterno’s brother, at the Merchant Marine Academy, where he was asked to do advance scouting.
Polian loved the work and soon began a unique journey.
His meticulous scouting reports were so impressive that Levy hired Polian for full-time work in Montreal. They both left for Kansas City in 1978, and after both were fired in 1982, Polian returned to the CFL as personnel director for Winnipeg. In 1984, he joined the USFL’s Chicago Blitz as personnel director before taking the job as Buffalo’s pro personnel director that fall. Two years later, he was promoted to general manager.
“He had to call a lot of shots,” said Levy, who will introduce Polian on Saturday. “I think he’s the best GM in the history of football.”
Polian found cornerstone players in each of his first three drafts in Buffalo: Will Wolford, Shane Conlan and Thurman Thomas. He got his franchise quarterback when Jim Kelly returned from the USFL in 1986. And after dealing for Bennett and James Lofton, Polian finally had the nucleus to win four AFC titles, though no Super Bowls.
“There’s nothing in the world of sports that hurts as badly as losing the Super Bowl,” Polian said. “It takes at least six months to get over it and function it at a high level. It’s a wound that almost never heals.”
After two years in the league office, Polian left for Carolina to build a team from the ground up. He found his franchise quarterback, Kerry Collins, in the 1995 draft, and spent wildly in free agency to bring in veteran help. The result: Carolina lost in the NFC championship game in just its second season.
Polian was so good at his craft that Irsay gave away a third-round draft pick to hire him after the ‘97 season. Polian immediately drafted Manning ahead of Leaf in ‘98, and Edgerrin James ahead of Ricky Williams in ‘99, confounding the so-called experts yet again. Those draft picks led to one of the greatest runs in league history: 11 playoff appearances in 12 years, seven consecutive seasons with 12 or more wins, and his one and only Super Bowl title.
“It was a wonderful thing for him to experience, and a little bit of it spilled over to me because I thought I had something to do with that guy,” Levy said.
Now, many of those that Polian bet on, including Levy and Manning, are expected to be in Canton, Ohio, as Polian celebrates the greatest honor of his career.
“You never dream of this,” Polian said. “But the thing I’m most proud of in all three stops is how well we did, who we did it with, and how we did it.”