WOODS HOLE – There is a large body of evidence that suggests Bill Polian is a master at making decisions. Choosing to have a summer home in Falmouth, and then joining the Woods Hole Golf Club fits the pattern.
The legendary NFL talent evaluator and former vice chairman of the Indianapolis Colts sat on the spectacular outdoor patio at the golf club one summer afternoon and laughed when asked to describe his own talent on the golf course.
“One step away from awful,” said Polian.
Glenn Kelly, the head golf professional at the club, who could be considered a talent evaluator of golf, said of Polian’s game, “It’s a lot better than that.”
Polian owns a summer home in Falmouth, and has been a member of WHGC for nine years.
“I fell in love with the course,” said Polian. “I became excited about the course the first time I played it. For an old guy like me, it’s challenging, but not overwhelming.”
According to Kelly, Polian is “one of the low-maintenance members we have.” Despite Polian’s legendary NFL credentials, as well as his now high profile position as an analyst at ESPN, Kelly said Polian “is permanently low key. He doesn’t come in in some grand fashion. All of a sudden, he’s just standing there next to you. He’s very kind, especially to the staff.”
Polian explained his path to a Falmouth summer home this way: “I was born in the Bronx. We did have relatives in Stonington, Connecticut, so I visited in the summer. So I sort of became attached to the New England summers.”
Eighteen years ago, he and his wife, Eileen, took a vacation to Brewster, and they fell in love with Cape Cod.. They tried a few more vacations in a few different towns, and eventually settled on Falmouth. “In the NFL, you only get one month vacation,” he said, so it was important to pick somewhere they both loved.
Of course, it happened to be in Patriots’ country, where for more than a decade the rivalry between the Indianapolis Colts, with Peyton Manning, and the Patriots, with Tom Brady, was among the best in football. At the club, occasionally, “people would joke and ask how’s everything with the enemy?” said Polian.
Picking Peyton Manning
Bill Polian built the Buffalo Bills into a team that went to four Super Bowls in a row. He built the expansion Carolina Panthers into a team that made it to the NFC championship in its second season in existence.
But perhaps most famously, he drafted Peyton Manning.
Hindsight, says it was a no-brainer to draft Manning, one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. But at the time of the 1998 draft, plenty of people thought Ryan Leaf was the better choice.
In fact, when Polian held his first draft meeting of the scouting staff of the Colts, “I asked everybody in the room who they would pick. It was 50/50. And people who favored Leaf felt really strong.”
“People who liked Leaf said Peyton had a weak arm, was not athletic, couldn’t win the big game, and was a product of the system,” said Polian. “Product of the system, I don’t know what that meant.”
“Leaf, according to conventional wisdom, had a much stronger arm, was more athletic, and more of a natural football player,” said Polian. “I don’t know what that meant either. But they said he had more upside.”
Polian watched every throw each quarterback made in his college career. And then he watched them again. The more he looked, the more conventional wisdom turned out to be upside down. Manning actually had an excellent arm, as we’ve all since learned. “It was a heavy ball with a lot of rotations, which is very valuable in the wind,” said Polian
When he saw Leaf throw in person, Polian’s reaction was, “Holy mackerel, his arm’s not as strong as Peyton’s.”
And then there were the interviews, the “disparity in maturity” that he saw in the young men. Manning came with questions, and interviewed Polian. Leaf didn’t show up for his initial interview. “There were storm warnings,” said Polian of Leaf, who is currently in prison in Montana.
So Polian picked Manning, who “turned out to be as great of a quarterback and as great of a leader who has ever played.”
Of course there’s another quarterback who has played during the same period as Manning who has been every bit as successful – Tom Brady. Polian acknowledged they are equals, but added, “I’ll take my guy.”
But Brady, said Polian, led to many frustrating moments for the former Colts GM. “I swear to God, he had eyes in the back of his head,” said Polian of Brady. “Dwight Freeney would get right near him and then, without even looking, he’d start moving away. Get a guy near him, and you still can’t sack him.”
Polian still painfully recalls the 2004 AFC Championship game, which the Colts lost 24-14 to the Patriots in Foxboro. “[That] game was the toughest one to take,” he said, remembering, all the defensive holding that was not called.” Polian said the rivalry changed when the Colts acquired safety Bob Sanders. “The worm turned and we were the better team over the last half of the decade.”
Expecting To Conquer Adversity
Polian has been involved in football for his entire life. Right out of college, he became a scout where he learned a systematic way for evaluating players. “It’s always subjective,” he said, “but you try to make it as objective as possible.”
Polian cited the Malcolm Gladwell book, “Blink” in which Gladwell theorized that to become good at anything, you have to put in 10,000 hours of practice. Gladwell cited the Beatles in Hamburg, Germany, and a teenage Bill Gates in a local computer lab, as examples.
“If you put in your 10,000 hours and you learn to follow the template and you’re assiduous and dedicated to your work, you can become good,” said Polian. “In order to become great, you have to have a talent for it.”
And Polian said, it helps to work with others who are dedicated and talented. “Everything I’ve learned about football and life, I learned from Marv Levy,” said Polian. “He is my football father.”
Although Polian’s Colts won a Super Bowl, he was involved with a number of teams that almost won a Super Bowl – meaning they lost a Super Bowl. Meaning they made it to the Super Bowl. His teams have been to six Super Bowls. They have won one. The Buffalo Bills went to four straight Super Bowls and lost all four.
“The euphoria you feel when you win the conference championship is pure and unadulterated,” said Polian. “The Super Bowl is a completely different experience. There is so much surrounding it that has nothing to do with the contest. There is almost a surreal feeling to it.”
“And no loss is like it in any other sport. The loser may as well be 1-15. but in the building you recognize it’s just one game. Anything can happen in one game. Secondly, you realize that you were good enough to win your conference.” Still, said Polian, “It takes a long while to get over the loss.”
Citing Levy, Polian said, “One of Marv’s strongest dictums was, “Expect adversity, and expect more that you will conquer adversity.”
Losing a Super Bowl and then getting back to it again is a very rare feat.”It takes six months to get over it,” said Polian. “Then once training camp approaches, you have to answer all the medial questions. It lingers longer than any other loss.”
Polian talked about his football childhood hero – Frank Gifford – and how his tenure in Indianapolis ended after the season in which Peyton Manning was hurt and the Colts moved on to a new general manager and a new quarterback in Andrew Luck. If Polian had stayed, he said, “I would’ve chosen Luck and let him back Peyton up.”
And he noted the reason why the NFL is so popular is that, despite all the tangential money-making things that surround the game, “the constant is those 16 weeks, and those subsequent five weeks in the playoffs. The NFL is the ultimate reality show,” said Polian, “but you can’t ever lose sight of the quality of the game.”
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— Brian Tarcy