Nice Guys Don't Always Finish Last
I'm going to say something truly nasty about a head football coach... he's a nice guy. Now, I know that may be a Wade Phillips-style kiss of death. Phillips is widely considered a truly great defensive mind and genuinely nice guy but was said by many to have failed as a head coach due to that exact quality. It stinks, but it's just life in the NFL. So maybe I shouldn’t say this, but the new coach of the Portland Thunder, Matt Sauk just struck me as a genuine, honest, and decent fella.
Let me drop a great example on you. While seeming to have zero inclination to bring in a name for the sake of having a “name,” on the team, Sauk has an excellent grasp on the league's need for separation from the multiple sources of entertainment around it and the AFL’s critical need to bring to bear its own organic star power. The example of signing Huston Lillard is one of rare chances the coach is taking on players that he just doesn’t have to take.
I understand that Coach Sauk's recognition of the benefit of having the older brother of the Portland Trail Blazers' Rookie of the Year point guard on the squad isn't exactly groundbreaking. However, the way he seems to be treating the young man -- who really does have some ability -- is refreshing. I didn’t get the sense at all that the coach saw him as a marketing tool or someone to be used. In fact, Sauk made it clear that, though he gave the 26-year old quarterback a real punchers chance, it was going to be a tough haul for Lillard to make the team. I also understand that I'm covering the Thunder, and perhaps people expect me to play nice. The fact is, that sort of brutal honesty is the integrity move.
Furthermore, by putting Lillard's chances in such terms, he makes Lillard someone we can root for. Football fans love winners and won’t tolerate losers, but we dig the underdog most of all. One of the other things that really stood out during my recent interview was that Coach Sauk seems to truly consider himself the captain of the ship, lock, stock, and barrel. I could tell he spent a lot of his time worrying about everything, as he said, from socks to office space, though they are not necessarily his direct responsibility. In fact, I witnessed Sauk asking the operations guy if a local business could be the official this or that of the Thunder. It doesn’t matter what the product or service. What matters is that he was asked, and he followed through.
Now, it is at this point that somewhere in the all-knowing football public, there's a guy on a couch saying, “He’s doing too much! He needs to delegate!” Maybe, but here's a better point: It's this type of attention to detail that makes a winner on the field. It's this type of detail oriented mindset that insists receivers run crisp routes and block down the field and that quarterbacks carry out their fakes. In short, a guy who believes in making sure every detail is handled leads to a championship mentality.
As far as on field considerations go, Sauk's attitude towards the game itself seems to be half gambler and half chess player with some swashbuckler stirred into the mix. In fact, he enthusiastically espouses a red zone defensive policy of basically mugging wide receivers and taking the occasional flag as part of the cost of doing business in the AFL. Given the tight spaces, and in the Thunder's case, rounded end zones, this Al Davis attitude seems to make a ton of sense. When Sauk explained that the best an offense can hope for is to try again from a little closer with less room to operate, I stopped interviewing and started having fun talking football. It was here that I saw a glint of the pirate in his eyes, and this ratcheted up my anticipation of the season another notch. In fact, this seems to be the coach's attitude towards his own offense as well. Sauk seems to be very willing to let athletes be athletes and, given the brevity of pass protection and length of the field, it's fairly clear to me that the coach is going to feature a wide open offense.
Let's face it. Sauk has at least one quarterback in camp in Darron Thomas who knows how to run the top fuel package, right? In the final analysis I found talking to Sauk like talking to "that" guy at your kids little league game. Not the loudmouth, berating the 17-year old umpire guy, but that guy you know has gone further and done more in the sport you love than you have and yet chooses not to be an insufferable jerk about it. I'm lucky enough to have befriended Arn Ferguson, the head coach of Western Oregon university's fine football team, so I kind of know the type. I guess it's cool to meet someone who is doing what you would love to be doing if you had the training, the time, and the talent, and find out he’s a really nice guy.
That brings us back to nice guys and where they finish. Wait a minute... Pete Carroll's a really nice guy.