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

Published: Friday, Feb. 24 2012 12:31 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.

BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall made a bold move by promoting Brandon Doman to offensive coordinator last year, but I think he's limited the development of his staff by assuming the defensive coordinator job. It may work out short term, but he's sacrificing growth long term. Sure, Bronco is the best man for the job, but so is Whittingham at Utah. Whittingham has had the faith to subordinate what's best for his program short term, in order to strengthen it long term and along the way has prepared Sitake to take the next step in his career. Bronco can't make that claim about anyone on his defensive staff.

Before he promoted Johnson to offensive coordinator, Whittingham and I briefly discussed the possibility of our mutual friend and former teammate Robert Anae, an experienced coordinator who was available and familiar with the Pac-12 after a year at the University of Arizona. In the end, Whittingham felt Johnson was ready, deserving and needed the chance to grow and further enhance his resume.

In the decade that's lapsed since Gary Crowton became BYU's head coach, his coaching tree consists of one branch: Bronco Mendenhall.

In that same basic span, Urban Meyer's coaching tree yielded much more fruit: Whittingham at Utah, Steve Addazio at Temple, Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, Charlie Strong at Louisville, Gregg Brandon at Bowling Green, Mike Sanford at UNLV, Tim Beckman at Illinois, Dan McCarney at North Texas, and those are just the head coaches. The tree is bigger if you include coordinators. To be fair, Meyer continued as head coach at Florida after leaving Utah, while Crowton hasn't been a head coach since he left Provo.

If limited to just the Whittingham/Mendenhall eras that run concurrently, Whittingham has already sprouted two branches with Gary Andersen at Utah State and Norm Chow at Hawaii. Sitake is well-positioned to become a head coach after consideration at Hawaii before Chow's hire. Mendenhall has yet to produce a head coach from within his ranks. And the prospect isn't good, at least in the foreseeable future, because Mendenhall is the defensive coordinator and Doman has yet to prove himself.

The point is, the most successful coaches and organizations groom and develop their own talent and people.

As a stake officer for the LDS Church in New Jersey, I'm duty bound to help identify and develop leaders. My stake president, Ahmad Corbitt, likes to say that as a presidency, "We're gardeners — we have an obligation to help people grow."

In my youth, it wasn't that unusual for bishops in the Church to serve 10, 15 or even 20 years. Now, that term is five to seven, which allows more men to serve, providing a bigger pool of experienced leaders as the Church grows. I've been a part of that process, being called as a bishop 15 years ago just three years after retiring from the NFL with limited church leadership experience.

When he called me, my stake president informed me that one of my responsibilities was to help prepare my successor. Two men have since served as my bishop following my tenure: One was a counselor to me and my current bishop was my Young Men's president, so I'm pleased I had a hand in their development.

That process is ongoing. I visited a ward last week where the invocation and benediction were offered by the Relief Society president and the Young Men's president. At the conclusion of the service, I gently counseled the bishop that he should encourage his bishopric and all of his auxiliary leaders to offer those opportunities of public prayer, as much as possible, to ward members who might grow from the experience — the newly baptized, a shy youth or recently activated. We should constantly and consistently look for ways to help others grow in their sphere.

Isn't that what we do as parents? We instinctively know what will stretch our children beyond their capacity so we try to provide and encourage those experiences that will help them learn, grow and develop so they can reach their potential.

It's true in sports, in the church and within our own families.

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