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Labriola on HOF politics, sins of impatience

Posted Feb 19, 2016

Because it's an election, entry into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is inherently political.

Ready or not, here it comes:

* On Saturday, Feb. 6, Tony Dungy was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2016. Some 48 hours later, Dungy revealed that Donnie Shell was his choice to present him for induction. “Donnie Shell is a great person and he was quite a player,’’ Dungy told Ira Kaufman of The Tampa Tribune. ”He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame someday.’’

* This is how it works, boys and girls. The Pollyanna view of the whole Hall of Fame process is that there is some indisputable set of qualifications that when presented to the Board of Selectors serves to turn some magical key and the door to the Hall will swing wide open. But the reality of it is that it’s an election, which makes the proceedings inherently political.

* So OK, knowing the rules enables you to play the game more effectively, and one of the tactics being used lately when it comes to cobbling together the kind of political support needed to get someone elected to the Hall of Fame is to promote his candidacy by getting his name and face out there. This idea is to find ways to create conversation so as to provide anecdotal evidence in addition to the raw statistics, winning percentages, whatever, the candidate amassed during his career.

* It has worked: In 1999, Eric Dickerson was elected in his first year of eligibility, and he chose longtime OT Jackie Slater to present him for induction. Slater had played 20 seasons in the NFL, all for the Rams, and he had appeared in 259 yards and was voted to the Pro Bowl eight times. Two years later, in 2001, Slater was elected as part of the Class of 2001.

* Also part of the Class of 2001 was Lynn Swann, and he had John Stallworth present him for induction. Stallworth was elected the following year as a part of the Class of 2002.

* Sometimes it can take more than a single appearance. In 2008, 49ers defensive end Fred Dean was elected and he chose former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. to present him. Then in 2010, Jerry Rice also tabbed DeBartolo to present him. DeBartolo was elected a few weeks ago to join the Hall as a contributor as part of the Class of 2016.

* The most direct approach, or blatant, if you prefer that word, was how Rod Woodson advocated for Dick LeBeau. During his acceptance speech, Woodson was running down the list of great players and coaches he had encountered during his NFL career when he said, “Dick LeBeau. Man, I hope the voters, seriously, I hope the voters get it right. First of all, he belongs in as a player, that is the first thing. Secondly, if you don't want to put him as a player, you put him in as a contributor, because he did so much for the National Football League as a player and a coach for over 50 years. He deserves it.”

* LeBeau was inducted the following year – in 2010 – as a player after being nominated by the Senior Committee, which considers only candidates whose careers ended at least 25 years ago.

* Donnie Shell played with Tony Dungy in 1977 and 1978 when they were both safeties in the Steelers’ secondary. Dungy served as defensive backs coach on the Steelers from 1981 to 1983 before being promoted to Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator from 1984 to 1988. Shell was a five-time Pro Bowl safety and a three-time first-team All-Pro for the Steelers before he ended a 14-year career after the 1987 season, so Dungy coached Shell for 7 years.

* A contributor on four Super Bowl championship teams who became more important to the defense as time passed, Shell finished with 51 career interceptions and 19 fumble recoveries. So just saying, 70 takeaways from a strong safety is pretty amazing, and so it’s not as though there are credentials lacking in this instance. Watch for Shell to be much more prominent in Hall of Fame discussions as the 2016 induction ceremony gets closer.

* The Miami Dolphins franchise once employed the man who would become the winningest coach in NFL history, but since Don Shula retired after the 1995 season, the team has gone through nine men in 20 seasons, with the 10th – Adam Gase – having recently been hired by owner Stephen Ross.

* A billionaire real estate developer, Ross is no dummy. Couldn’t be. To accomplish what he has and to accumulate the wealth he has requires an elite skill-set as a businessman, and he said in a recent interview, “It’s a lot easier to succeed in business than it is to create a winning football team. I’m going to get it right yet.”

* But even though professional football is a business, succeeding in the business of football is different. Strategies, procedures that can work in other fields, they can fail miserably in the business where winners and losers are determined by a 120-yard field. For example, after hiring Gase, Ross said, “I was looking for somebody that really could be the next, if you will, Bill Belichick, Bill Parcells, you know, really great head coach, and I think we got one.”

* But then, he said this, ““After three years, if we haven’t made the playoffs, we’re looking for a new coach. That’s just the way it is. The fans want it.”

* Understand that Stephen Ross isn’t the only NFL owner who has, or who ever will, commit the sin of impatience, and he’s being used here as the example only to illustrate the broader point that you simply cannot run the football part of an NFL using the same principles that apply to other businesses. Because as badly as Ross wants to build a winner, and in spite of the dollars he’s willing to spend to make that happen, if the stars had aligned differently, it would have come to pass that Stephen Ross would have called a young Chuck Noll into his office and fired him after the 1971 season.

* Losing records all three years. No playoffs. Sorry, Chuck, but the fans want it.

* And so, Steelers Nation, as you’re saying your bedtime prayers tonight, offer a word of thanks that your favorite team is in the hands of Dan and Art Rooney II, a family whose only business has been the sports business.

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