Vai's View: Recognize others' potential and help them develop it

Published: Friday, Feb. 24 2012 12:00 p.m. MST

In the Nov. 5, 2011, photo BYU head coach Bronco Mendenhall, left, and Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham talk.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

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Few things are more damning for a professional sports organization than identifying, drafting and signing a player, only to release or trade him, then watching him flourish on another team or in a different system.

That's part of the phenomenon of Linsanity in New York. Jeremy Lin went undrafted out of Harvard yet passed through the camps and rosters of the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets before becoming a star in the Big Apple. There's a long list of athletes who didn't flourish until their second or third team.

The Philadelphia Phillies are often cited for making one of the worst trade blunders in baseball history when they shipped off a future Hall of Famer for porridge. In 1978, the Phillies drafted a two-sport high school star from Spokane, Wash., named Ryne Sandberg, a Parade All-American quarterback who had already signed a football letter of intent with Washington State.

Sandberg was expected to be the heir apparent to the Cougars' All-American quarterback Jack Thompson, the "Throwin' Samoan," who finished ninth in the Heisman voting that year. Sandberg chose baseball and, in 1981, made his Major League debut with the Phillies as a shortstop.

The Phillies' own scouts saw Sandberg as little more than a utility infielder and with Mike Schmidt at third and Manny Trillo at second, didn't see him beating out Larry Bowa at shortstop either. So when they traded Bowa to the Chicago Cubs in 1982 for a journeyman shortstop named Ivan DeJesus, the Phillies figured Sandberg was expendable. Cubs general manager Dallas Green, who had been the Phillies' manager when they drafted Sandberg, insisted that Sandberg be thrown in as part of the deal. Not knowing what they had, the Phillies obliged.

Bowa and DeJesus were both out of baseball within a few years. The Cubs moved Sandberg to second base where he played 16 years, made 10 consecutive All-Star appearances, was a perennial Gold Glover and was inducted into Cooperstown in 2005.

Of the four major sports, the NFL is probably the worst at developing its own talent, though by far the most lucrative enterprise. Its business model successfully uses college football as its own private farm system.

Major League Baseball and the NHL employ minor league systems to supplement college talent; the NBA uses colleges but also relies on its own developmental league and European leagues to develop its players.

A young franchise quarterback is typically the only player on an NFL roster who is groomed and developed. Nearly everyone else has to play immediately because of the short life span of an NFL career. That's why NFL teams would rather a quarterback stay in school all four years but if a running back is deemed ready as a redshirt sophomore, he'll be snatched up in the draft.

Running backs are more instinctive, therefore don't require the development of a more cerebral position like quarterback, goes the thinking. The conventional wisdom among NFL people is that running backs can either play right away or it's unlikely they ever will.

The NFL would rather the colleges do as much of the developing and grooming of its quarterbacks, even if it takes an extra year, primarily because of cost. A university may incur $50,000 for a player's senior year compared to millions by an NFL club for someone who may only carry a clipboard on the sidelines.

Recognizing talent early is one thing but developing it is entirely different.

It happens with coaches, too. University of Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham recently raised eyebrows when he promoted 24-year-old Brian Johnson to be the Utes' offensive coordinator. A few years ago, he promoted linebackers coach Kalani Sitake to be his defensive coordinator. Bold moves indeed, but in my conversations with Kyle, he's all about developing his young coaches and giving them opportunities. It's worked out with Sitake, and Kyle believes it will with Johnson as well.

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