There is always a question about the ability of athletes to perform as general managers (GMs) and front office executives. Most question whether great athletes can make this transition. There are plenty of examples of great athletes who were awful executives such as Matt Millen and Michael Jordan. Great athletes are often questioned in regards to their understanding on how to build a team. Detractors point to the fact that these athletes utilized their talent above all else and do not understand all the nuances of their respective sports. Several professional teams have turned to executives who have never played at a professional level.
While some high profile athletes have failed as executives, others have found great success. The following list shows ten notable former athletes who have achieved a level of success as general managers or front office executives. Most of these former athletes were great during their playing days, while some were marginal players. While there were several candidates for this list, the focus was on former athletes with a good pedigree.
10. Nolan Ryan – Former President, Texas Rangers
Nolan Ryan‘s success as an executive could not match his success as a player. Ryan is the MLB all time leader in no-hitters and strike-outs, while he has also had his jersey retired by the four franchises he played for. Nevertheless, Ryan’s stint as a baseball executive was highly successful. Ryan was the President of the Texas Rangers from 2008-2013. The Rangers who perennially missed the playoffs finally made two consecutive World Series appearances in Ryan’s tenure with the team. On February 11rg, 2014, Nolan Ryan accepted a position as a special assistant to Houston Astros owner Jim Crane.
9. Billy Beane – GM, Oakland Athletics
Billy Beane was the 23rd overall selection of the New York Mets in the 1980 MLB draft. He would have been the first overall selection, except it was believed he would attend Stanford University. While scouts lauded Beane as a great talent who possessed all the tools to be a great player, he struggled in the majors and never lived up to his projections. After years as an advanced scout, Beane became the GM of the Oakland Athletics in 1997 and has been at the center of the saber metric movement in baseball. Beane has continually built playoff teams with very low payrolls for the Athletics since he became the GM. While the Athletics have only won one playoff series under Beane, many other teams have followed their saber metric approach and been successful, most notably the Boston Red Sox under Theo Epstein.
8. Steve Yzerman – GM, Tampa Bay Lightning
In his Hall-of-Fame playing career, Steve Yzerman won three Stanley Cup trophies with the Detroit Red Wings. He was an executive with the team when they won their last Stanley Cup in 2008. The Red Wings extended the contract of their incumbent GM, resulting in Yzerman accepting an offer to be the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2010. In his first season, the team reached the Eastern Conference Finals and Yzerman was named the GM of the Year. Yzerman’s GM duties are not just limited to the NHL, as he was the GM for the Canadian Men’s National Hockey team. As GM, Yzerman has had great success and Canada has won consecutive gold medals in the 2010 and 2014 Winter Olympics.
7. Larry Bird – GM, Indiana Pacers
The spectacular failures of Michael Jordan as an executive has given ammunition to those who believe great players are not suited to manage or run a basketball team. For some reason, those people ignore the accomplishments of Larry Bird. Bird is the only person in NBA history to have been an MVP, been named Coach of the Year and been named Executive of the Year. As an executive, he has built the Indiana Pacers into legitimate NBA title contenders. They pushed the Miami Heat to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals and they have emerged as the main threat to the Heat’s bid to appear in four straight NBA Finals. What makes Bird’s achievements even more impressive is he assembled the Pacers without a high lottery pick or a marquee free agent signing. Most of his players were drafted in the middle of the first round or later.
6. John Elway – GM, Denver Broncos
Since John Elway became the GM of the Denver Broncos, the team has had a stranglehold over their division, the AFC West. They have won their division three straight seasons and have had two consecutive 13-3 seasons. Last season ended in a Super Bowl defeat to the Seattle Seahawks. Elway’s signature move was convincing Peyton Manning to sign with the Broncos after he was released by the Indianapolis Colts. This was a tough decision as Broncos incumbent starter Tim Tebow had won a playoff game the season before. Despite Tebow’s marketability and success, Elway decided to go after Manning to the benefit of the Broncos. The Broncos have been one of the most active teams in free agency this off-season and have already signed big name free agents Aqib Talib and DeMarcus Ware as they gear up for another Super Bowl run.
5. Danny Ainge – GM, Boston Celtics
Before winning the NBA title in 2008, the Boston Celtics had not won a championship since 1986, and had not appeared in the finals since 1987. Two moves propelled the team to championship levels; trading for Ray Allen and trading for Kevin Garnett. Danny Ainge pulled off those trades because he spent years acquiring assets while the Celtics struggled on the court. He has gained a reputation for making lopsided trades in his favor. During the 2013 NBA draft, Ainge traded away Paul Pierce and Garnett for three first round picks. During the current season, he traded away shoot first guard Jordan Crawford for another first round pick. While the Celtics have been awful this season, they are set up well for the future with a bevy of first round picks thanks to the trades made by Ainge.
4. Mitch Kupchak – GM, Los Angeles Lakers
Even though the Los Angeles Lakers are mired in their worst NBA season, there is little blame attached to GM Mitch Kupchak. Most of the blame has been put on the shoulders of the new owner Jim Buss. Kupchak won two titles with the Lakers as a player and was the assistant GM when they won titles in 1987 and and 1988. He was the GM when they won three straight titles between 2000-2002, but most of the credit went to the Vice President of Basketball Operations, who is the number one person on this list. Kupchak received and deserved all the credit for the last two Lakers championships in 2009 and 2010 and for acquiring Pau Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies in one of the most lopsided trades in NBA history.
3. Ozzie Newsome – GM, Baltimore Ravens
Ozzie Newsome was one of the NFL’s best tight ends. He played for the Cleveland Browns between 1978-1990. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection and was selected to the All-Decade team of the 1980’s. When his playing career ended, Newsome moved up to the Browns front office. When the team moved to Baltimore, Newsome moved along with the team. In 2002, he became the GM of the Baltimore Ravens, becoming the first African-American GM in the history of the NFL. Newsome has managed to keep the Ravens as contenders for the Super Bowl in virtually every season since he was named GM, which culminated in the team winning the big game after the 2012 season.
2. Pat Riley – GM, Miami Heat
Pat Riley has one of the most accomplished careers in sports. Riley won a championship as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972. He then coached the team to four NBA titles and presided over one of the most exciting teams of the 1980’s. Riley won one more championship when he coached the Miami Heat to the NBA title in 2006. He subsequently became the GM of the team and was responsible for attracting star players Chris Bosh and LeBron James to join Dwyane Wade in Miami. The Heat team he assembled has managed to appear in three straight NBA Finals and are currently the two-time defending champions. Riley’s prowess as an executive is universally acknowledged and he is celebrated as one of the best GM’s in basketball.
1. Jerry West – Head Consultant, Golden State Warriors
When Pat Riley was leading the Los Angeles Lakers to multiple championships in the 1980s, the person responsible for assembling the roster and drafting the players was Jerry West. Not only did Jerry West assemble the ‘Showtime’ Lakers, but he also was the architect of the Lakers teams that won three straight NBA Finals between 2000-2002 as the Vice President of Basketball Operations. West drafted hall of fame players such as Magic Johnson, James Worthy and Kobe Bryant. He convinced Shaquille O’Neal to leave Orlando and sign a free agent deal with the Lakers. When Pat Riley was named head coach, owner Jerry Buss wanted Jerry West to be an offensive coach and Riley the defensive coach. West wisely declined and the Lakers became the team of the 1980s. West is currently a head consultant for Golden State Warriors owner Joe Lacob.
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