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Buried in the news of the Redskins’ recent signing of offensive coach Al Saunders was word of who will likely be the team’s next coaching hire: Bob Saunders. That’s Al’s son. Given the team’s personnel pattern since Dan Snyder took over, this twofer would fit right in.
When Snyder hires a coach, he also hires the coach’s kid. Lately, every day at Redskins Park is Bring Your Boy to Work Day.
You can look it up. The first head coach Snyder hired was Marty Schottenheimer. And Schottenheimer quickly named his son, Brian, as the team’s quarterbacks coach. That was Brian’s first NFL coaching gig.
Then, when Snyder decided Schottenheimer was no good because he wouldn’t let the owner hire a general manager, along came Steve Spurrier—and Steve Spurrier Jr., who cashed Snyder’s checks for two seasons as receivers coach. Steve Jr. hadn’t coached in the NFL before catching on with his dad.
After the 2003 season, Snyder called an end to the Spurrier family plan. He brought the original Skins offensive genius, Joe Gibbs, back from the coaching grave. Gibbs, already a Hall of Famer, confessed he was returning to football because he wanted to help his son start a coaching career. So Coy Gibbs joined the coaching staff.
Coy’s main professional qualification, other than sharing DNA with the head coach, was a fairly good year driving for his dad’s team on NASCAR’s truck circuit. Yet his first job coaching football at any level came with an NFL team. Coy has been earning his keep as the Redskins’ quality-control specialist—whatever that is—for two seasons.
And now comes Saunders & Son. Bob Saunders is more qualified than the sons that came before him: He was with Father Duck on the Kansas City Chiefs staff, too; there he held the generic title “offensive assistant.”
Snyder has more coaches with loftier titles and bigger incomes than any other NFL owner. Next year’s Redskins will likely surpass the 2005 staff as the biggest and best-moneyed in the history of the NFL. This coach-hiring binge indicates that Snyder thinks he’s found a flaw in the salary-cap system: Money paid to coaches doesn’t count. And it appears that one of the chits Snyder uses while recruiting coaches is the freedom to put Junior on the payroll.
By now, though, it’s looking as though the folks that Snyder’s using to exploit the system are exploiting Snyder, too.
Nepotism hasn’t always had a good name in Washington. The federal government put an end to family entitlements after President Kennedy tapped his brother Bobby to be the attorney general. JFK’s body hadn’t been cold for long before Congress passed a federal anti-nepotism statute that Lyndon Johnson signed into law. According to Title 5, Part III, Subpart B, Chapter 31, Subchapter I of the U.S. Code, “A public official may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement, in or to a civilian position in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control any individual who is a relative of the public official.”
Snyder’s predecessor, Jack Kent Cooke, left a decidedly anti-nepotistic legacy: He drew up his will in such a way that made it impossible for his son, John Kent Cooke, to inherit the team when the old man died. Snyder, however, took over the Skins around the same time the current presidential administration took over the country—and nepotism enjoyed something of a comeback. Some would argue that George W. Bush, though the son of an ex-president and grandson of a senator, got his job the old-fashioned way: He got elected. (Again, some would argue.) But others in the executive branch sped along the family route on their way to power: Colin Powell’s son was handed the top job at the FCC; a daughter of Dick Cheney was given the title of deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs at the State Department; and a son of Supreme Courter Antonin Scalia was named the lead attorney at the U.S. Department of Labor. An article in the August 2003 edition of the Atlantic by Adam Bellow describes our era as “a nepotistic Golden Age.”
Bellow says he finds “a lot of hypocrisy” in the anti-nepotism crowd.
“It just comes down to envy,” he says. “There’s no real moral principle behind it. They’d do the same for their kids if they had the chance, but damned if they’d let you get away with it.” (Bellow, now an editor-at-large with Doubleday, is the son of Nobel-winning novelist Saul.)
So perhaps Snyder, who is a big giver to Republicans and their causes and seems to take his cues on how to handle the media from the White House, is just being trendy by allowing the caretakers of the football side of his operation to give jobs to their heirs.
But trendy or not, nepotism remains a potentially destructive force in the workplace, say personnel wonks.
“A lot of us do what our parents did,” says Kathryn Morris, an assistant professor at Butler University in Indianapolis who has worked on several nepotism studies. “But doing the same thing that your parent did is a bit different than doing the same thing that your parent did for the same organization.”
Morris most recently co-authored a study published last summer in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies titled “Keeping it ‘All in the Family’: Does Nepotism in the Hiring Process Really Benefit the Beneficiary?” The researchers found that workers who were perceived to be the beneficiaries of nepotism weren’t taken as seriously as others in the workplace, and she concludes that, in practice, a dad might not be doing a kid a favor by handing him a job. Though a football coaching staff wasn’t monitored for this study, Morris says, she believes her group’s findings should hold true even if the workplace were a gridiron.
“Sometimes things that you think benefit people really don’t benefit them,” she says. “A family-friendly policy like [nepotism] can come along with these negative side effects that people don’t think about. People would assume the beneficiary of nepotism would be less qualified, even if they’re more qualified. And they would have to work harder to gain the same credibility as the people they work with. In the case of a football team, I would think a coach might have to work harder just to get the respect of the players.”
Mark Blumenthal, a partner at the Chicago-based accounting and consulting firm Blackman Kallick who specializes in nepotism issues, says that the golden age of nepotism, if it ever existed, died the day Bush nominated Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court.
“This wasn’t even a blood relative—it was his personal attorney—but look at the reaction to that, and look what happened to her,” says Blumenthal, after hearing a description of the Redskins’ recent hiring practices. “I’m not saying she wasn’t qualified or was qualified, but the American public immediately was saying, ‘He could have picked anybody in the U.S., and we’re supposed to believe it’s a coincidence that he picked his personal attorney?’
“That’s obviously not the exact situation as a football coach hiring his son, but you could make an analogy: If a head coach is choosing his son to coach, it may very well be the son is the best-qualified person for that position, and he better be. The players need to know you’ve got the person that’s going to help them win. So if you’re going to engage in nepotism, your kid better be a superstar—not just average, not just good. And it needs to be apparent early on that the kid’s a superstar.”
There’s no historical evidence that hiring from within the family will pay off for a football team. It didn’t work for Schottenheimer and Spurrier (combined record: 20-28), and the jury’s still out on Gibbs (an even .500 after two seasons). Neither Bill Cowher nor Mike Holmgren employ any offspring as assistant coaches, and an informal survey of the staffs of all previous Super Bowl winners failed to turn up any championship team that featured a father–son coaching duo. (The 1969 New York Jets did have head coach Weeb Ewbank’s son-in-law, Charlie Winner, as linebackers coach.)
The closest thing to a paternal pair among the Super Bowl winners was on the 1970 Chiefs, where Dale Stram, son of head coach Hank Stram, could be seen along the sidelines. He wasn’t there to help Dad plot X’s and O’s, however.
“I cleaned cleats and brought water,” Dale Stram says, with a laugh. “I was just a kid.”—Dave McKenna