Written by Frank Gogola | @FrankGogola
Video by Zach Wagner | @zachwagner22
Sports Capital Journalism Program
INDIANAPOLIS – Bill Polian can still draw a crowd in Indianapolis. Even when he’s not speaking about who should be the No. 1 pick in the draft or who the Colts should take.
Polian and Mark Dominik, ESPN NFL Insiders, spoke to approximately 250 attendees from IUPUI and the Sports Management Worldwide NFL Combine Career Conference on Thursday at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis. Seats nearly filled up half an hour before the event, which was sponsored by IUPUI’s Sports Capital Journalism Program and became standing room only.
The former NFL front office personnel spoke for 75 minutes. See, the event was only scheduled for 60 minutes. But, they didn’t seem to mind going over the limit.
And, again, they weren’t speaking about the draft, evaluating potential offseason moves or projecting teams’ success in 2016. Attendees were more interested in hearing them speak about relationships, standards and the ever-changing media landscape in relation to the NFL but applicable to a wide range of career fields outside football.
Dominik, who joined ESPN in 2014 after spending five years as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager, allowed Polian to do most of the talking. Polian, who joined ESPN in 2012 after serving as the Colts president and vice chairman from 1997 through 2011, spoke with openness and insight.
One of the management tenants Polian said he strongly believes in is one that’s applicable outside of sports.
“If you are a senior manager, always get other opinions,” Polian said. “And get opinions from people who look at the world differently than you do. … Bring people in who have a different viewpoint than you do, who can add to it.”
When asked what he’d emphasize if putting together a course for GMs on how to deal with the media, he had three keys. One is to have a demeanor and learn how to handle yourself in what could become an adversarial situation, which he joked he was bad at. Second, is to be emotionally prepared because the media has a job to do, which includes asking tough questions. Lastly, he said it’s imperative to present your point of view in a positive way.
“Don’t let them see you sweat is the No. 1 rule,” Polian added.
Dominik added it’s imperative to avoid taking personally what the media says and to avoid bringing those negatives home.
“When I came to grips with that, it changed my approach pretty dramatically,” Polian interjected.
Polian also shared advice that’s equal parts a word of caution yet potentially beneficial. And that is to remember that someone is always observing and noting what you do. That’s not confined to the NFL; it can be in any situation.
“Somebody’s always watching,” Polian said. “You just don’t know who it is or how they’re going to affect you.”
If Polian were running a club today, he said he’d set up a press office like ones politicians use. That includes a press secretary to deal with the media, people who comb through the news to alert the coaches and GMs to what they need to and don’t need to pay attention to, and people to make sure every media contact comes through the media relations office instead of contacting a player or coach directly. He also said team websites are crucial to bypassing the media and putting out the messages you want out there.
“You have to have a formalized press office and a press operation,” Polian said. “And that’s not handing out lineups at the game; it’s meaningful work that monitors what’s going on and makes sure that your message gets out.”
Polian said if he were to go back into the NFL he’d emphasize social media training and awareness, having sessions with the players on a weekly basis. He left the Colts before social media really took off, but the Colts [and he, begrudgingly] changed media policies with the emergence of social media, which he said changed the rules and paradigms regarding media.
Below are a few highlights from the Q&A session. Check out the video at the end of the article to view the event in its entirety.
On Peyton Manning, who Polian and the Colts drafted No. 1 overall in 1998…
In their first pre-draft meeting, Manning met with Polian, head coach Jim Mora, offensive coordinator Tom Moore, quarterback coach Bruce Arians and director of player personnel Clyde Powers. Manning brought with him a yellow note pad, pencil and briefcase, and he spent the entire 15 minutes asking them questions: What would the offensive system be? What would the practice regimens be?
“He said, ‘By the way, if you draft me I will be in the next day, the day after the draft.’ And I said, ‘Peyton, you can’t do that; it’s against the rules,’” Polian said. “He said, ‘Bill, I’m going to be there the day after the draft. We’ll figure out how we’ll bend the rules.’”
Peyton continued to ask questions until the horn blew, marking that a team’s 15 minutes to interview a player was up.
“We looked at each other and said, ‘He interviewed us. We never asked him a question,’” Polian said.
This all came the day after Ryan Leaf had blown off his interview with the Colts.
Polian added that Manning’s 1996 incident at Tennessee never came up during the draft process.
“I judge a person by the body of their work,” Polian said. “And what I know is that he’s as fine a person as I’ve ever been around.”
On Super Bowl 50…
Polian on him and Dominik picking Denver to win Super Bowl 50: “You did it for a good reason. I did it because my heart was with 18.”
Polian poking fun at himself: “Look at Cam Newton. The guy lost a Super Bowl. I’m an expert at that. I lost five.”
On social media and journalism…
Dominik, while Tampa Bay GM: “We followed every tweet of every one of our players. And every morning we would get a printout of everything that they sent out the night before.”
Dominik: “Twitter has become the bathroom wall.”
Polian: “Good reporters don’t have feelings. They report.”
Polian on criticism of players through social media: “There’s nothing quite so volatile as an upset fantasy football fan.”
Polian on lack of privacy for NFL players: “The minute you sign the contract you have given up your privacy, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 12 months a year. … Understand that the minute you put that logo on of a professional team, you have given up your privacy. You are public property. Period. And you have to act accordingly.”
On the NFL Draft…
Polian on being a GM/front office executive running the NFL Draft: “It’s a little like playing five hands of poker at the same time. And you’re doing it for roughly eight hours a day.”
Polian on the movie “Draft Day”: “The only thing that was realistic about that movie was that during the draft you eat a lot of bad food.”
On the future of the NFL…
Dominik said the sport he thinks may give the NFL a run at one point – although he doesn’t think it will overtake the NFL – is lacrosse, which he said has elements of football.
“It’s a very physical and athletic game that is exciting to watch,” Dominik said.
Polian said he does worry greatly about the overexposure of the NFL, comparing it to what happened with boxing in the 1950s. He said he also worried about the decline of youth in football
“The fastest way for a sport to decline is for young people not to play it,” Polian said. “… If we lose youth participation, then the future is not as bright as it could be.”
ESPN NFL Insiders Bill Polian and Mark Dominik shared their thoughts on the current state of professional football and issues related to the media’s coverage of the sport in a discussion organized by the Sports Capital Journalism Program. The discussion took place in Grand Ballroom 2 on Level 3 of the JW Marriott and was attended by members of the IUPUI campus community, as well as attendees of the Sports Management Worldwide NFL Combine Career Conference.
Polian spent 14 seasons as the president and vice chairman of the Indianapolis Colts from 1997 through 2011, the franchise made 11 playoff appearances, won eight division championships, played in two American Football Conference championship games and won Super Bowl XLI. He also had stints with the Buffalo Bills and Carolina Panthers. In 2015, he was enshrined as a Contributor in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Dominik was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 19 seasons, including five as general manager. The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl during the 2002 season when Dominik served as director of pro personnel. In 2014, he joined ESPN as an NFL Front Office Insider.
During the conversation, both Polian and Dominik commented on how they chose to approach social media over the course of their careers as executives, the different ways they handled the constant attention from the media and even whether or not they think the NFL could ever be passed over as the premier sport in the United States.