By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
(Second of two parts.)
The Morning Kickoff …
Back in the saddle: Bill Kuharich has been a ball boy and a club president and just about everything in between in his pro football career -- except a coach, which his father was with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1964, the last year the Browns won the NFL championship.
I counted 10 different titles on Kuharich’s resume, starting with the United States Football League 30 years ago.
Now this: Executive chief of staff. Kuharich was given that title by Browns GM Ray Farmer, his protégé, who has resurrected his career. There isn’t another one in the NFL. Not even Commissioner Roger Goodell has an executive chief of staff.
“Ray came up with that one. Ask him (what it means),” Kuharich, 61, said with a laugh.
“Whatever I can do to help the head coach, help Ray Farmer and help the organization. That’s kind of what I see my role as. Because I’ve had so many different experiences, if asked, I can have an opinion, whether it be contracts, training camps, whatever it is.”
The CliffsNotes version of Kuharich’s pro football career:
* At 30, he was second in command to organization-builder Carl Peterson when the Philadelphia Stars dominated the United States Football League over its three-year existence from 1983 to 1985.
* At 43, he was chief executive of the New Orleans Saints, succeeding his mentor, the late, great Jim Finks, after the franchise won its first division title.
* At 53, he reunited with Peterson and was named executive vice president of the Kansas City Chiefs.
* At 61, Kuharich was coaching high school girls lacrosse in Kansas City, in his fifth year out of the NFL, when Farmer called for help to get through his first draft as Browns GM.
There are a number of reasons Kuharich was shut out of the league for five years. Peterson speculated owners trended toward younger and cheaper executives. There is also the reality that insecure team officials shied from adding an experienced executive with Kuharich’s credentials.
“Ray is perceptive enough and smart enough to know this guy can help him,” Peterson said. “Ray is definitely the decision-maker, but he respects the heck out of Bill. Bill’s probably put 10, 11 drafts together himself. That’s invaluable. You can’t buy that, in my opinion, in the NFL.”
A broad base: Kuharich was interviewing for high school and college coaching jobs in the Philadelphia area when “a perfect storm” resulted in the creation of the USFL in 1982. The NFL suffered a player’s strike and a fledgling all-sports cable network (ESPN) hungered for spring programming.
Kuharich applied to three teams and Peterson hired him to be his top lieutenant in forming the Philadelphia Stars. They would appear in all three of the league’s championship games, winning two.
“It was really good from the experience of doing multiple things – arranging travel, evaluating players, doing contracts,” Kuharich said. “I was getting a broad-based painting of what it was like starting an organization. All the players came past my desk. I was a young guy getting on the job training with Carl. It was good for me to learn but also to have to make decisions. It was tremendous. You couldn’t ask for a better entrée into pro football.”
Four assistant coaches on that Philadelphia staff headed by the senior Jim Mora are still coaching in the NFL.
The USFL’s downfall was the movement led by New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump to compete directly with the NFL in the fall, with the hope of merging eventually into the NFL.
“I might be wrong, but I firmly believe had they gotten past year five, they would have carved a niche and we’d still have spring football today,” Kuharich said.
Joining Da Coach: Finks hired Kuharich in New Orleans partially because of his familiarity with USFL players who emptied into the NFL. One of them was 5-9 linebacker Sam Mills, a Browns training camp castoff who parlayed his three seasons in the USFL to a 12-year career in the NFL. (Mills died of cancer in 2005 at the age of 45.)
After Finks died in 1994, Kuharich eventually was promoted by Saints owner Tom Benson to president, GM and COO. But when Benson sought a big-name coach in 1997, Mike Ditka was given all the power. In 1999, Ditka fell in love with running back Ricky Williams and offered his entire draft – plus two high picks the following year – to get him.
Kuharich was the point man in finding a suitor. He called the expansion Browns, who owned the first pick in the 1999 draft and declined. The Saints made the trade with the Washington Redskins.
After a disastrous 1999 season, which included a loss to the Browns on a Hail Mary pass – the new franchise’s first-ever win -- Benson fired everybody.
Kuharich wouldn’t throw Ditka under the bus, calling the “unconventional” trade an organizational decision.
“We had spent ’97 and ‘98 building up the offensive line. Mike wanted to put an elite runner behind what we had done. The ‘99 season didn’t go well, but it wasn’t a bad team, just a team with a bad record. In 2000 they went to the playoffs (at 10-6). So the building process was the same. The new group just picked up what we had planned to do with that war chest,” he said.
Back with Peterson: In 2000, Peterson hired Kuharich again as Kansas City Chiefs pro personnel director. Kuharich was with the Chiefs in the 2002 season opener in Cleveland that saw Browns linebacker Dwayne Rudd toss his helmet prematurely, thinking a win was secured. The Chiefs kicked a field goal with no time remaining to win, 40-39.
After a promotion a few years later, Kuharich hired an up-and-coming scout with the Atlanta Falcons to fill his former role – Ray Farmer.
As Chiefs executive vice president, Kuharich supervised drafts that netted future Pro Bowl players Tamba Hali, Jamaal Charles, Dwayne Bowe, Brandon Albert and Brandon Flowers.
When Peterson announced his retirement in 2009, the Chiefs, now under the control of late owner Lamar Hunt’s son, Clark, made sweeping changes, bringing in Scott Pioli as chief executive. Kuharich was fired.
“I think Clark Hunt made a terrible mistake letting Bill go,” Peterson said.
Farmer stayed with the Chiefs until 2013, when Joe Banner brought him to Cleveland. When Farmer was promoted to GM by owner Jimmy Haslam in February, he was secure enough to add Kuharich as a right-hand man and sounding board.
“Ray is comfortable in his own skin,” Kuharich said. “He doesn’t feel threatened by anybody in this building. I would like to say I have a lot of experience and a lot to bring to the table. I think I can help all facets of the organization and hopefully we can be successful quickly.”
|Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com. |
He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Use the hashtag #HeyTony on Twitter or email your “Hey Tony” questions to firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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