ATLANTA — Here comes Sean McVay with his big ideas and lustrous skin and good hair, onto the biggest stage in professional sports.
So many questions and lights and possibilities. So much pressure.
“Super Bowl 53 hasn’t been played. Nobody has experience in that game,” McVay said early in the run-up to the Super Bowl, and the way he says things like this — with his quick-fire sentences and innovative way of calling plays and phrasing things — it’s a little hard to argue.
The Los Angeles Rams’ coach is, quite famously by now, young. He got the job at 30. Coached in his first playoff game at 31. Will attempt to win his first Super Bowl at 33. This week he wasn’t just deferential to New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, who is twice McVay’s age. He was fawning over the abilities of Lady Gaga, educated on the status of Travis Scott’s relationship with Kylie Jenner, self-deprecating when asked — again and again — about his age.
“My dad might have to go buy a pack of beer for me,” he said, and the NFL’s millennial boy wonder isn’t just an oddity in a world traditionally occupied by men in their 50s and 60s. He is, according to star running back Todd Gurley II, a “genius,” and more than just winning three-quarters of his games as a head coach, he’s leading a youth movement in a league fiercely resistant to change. His elevation in 2017 and arrival in the championship game come at a time when the halls of Fortune 500 companies, the entertainment industry and even the U.S. Capitol are increasingly populated with leaders younger than 40.
It raises an interesting question: Is experience, that long-valued trait earned and developed across decades, actually overrated?
Late last month, as McVay was leading the Rams through the NFC playoffs, the 37-year-old mayor of South Bend, Ind., announced he was forming an exploratory committee to consider running for president in 2020. Pete Buttigieg’s announcement came a little more than two months after more than two dozen people in their 20s and 30s were elected to Congress. Walmart, General Motors and Goldman Sachs have senior executives who haven’t yet celebrated their 40th birthdays.
“In no point in the last 100 years or in the history of the republic would somebody like me be taken seriously in this conversation,” Buttigieg said in an interview this week. “That means something, and it’s not just about me being special, but maybe this is a moment we’re in where there’s more openness.”
That moment certainly appears to have arrived in the NFL. Largely a byproduct of McVay’s success, franchises seem far more open-minded about turning over their fortunes to young leaders. Of the eight teams that changed coaches, four selected — or, considering that two teams will officially announce hirings after the Super Bowl, are expected to select — a coach younger than 40. Matt LaFleur, McVay’s 39-year-old former assistant, was named Green Bay’s coach, and Kliff Kingsbury, also 39, is leading Arizona. Rams assistant Zac Taylor, 35, and New England linebackers coach Brian Flores, 37, are expected to be named coaches of Cincinnati and Miami, respectively, shortly after the Super Bowl.
Regardless of what happens Sunday, youth and a general freshness of ideas are being pursued with such ferocity, leadership inexperience suddenly ignored with such regularity, that indeed by kickoff of the 2019 season, the average age of the NFL’s 32 head coaches will have dropped by nearly a full year compared with 2018.
“I’m by no means an expert,” McVay admitted this week, and as his most important moment — so far — draws closer, this influx of young eyes and thoughts seems to be the story of a changing NFL.
And, perhaps, a far broader landscape than that.
“You almost have to arrive with a certain audacity,” Buttigieg said, “and maybe even benefiting from knowing what you don’t know.”
Last June, General Motors — a 110-year-old company that has, like other automakers, occasionally struggled and in fact reported losses of $3.9 billion in 2017 — promoted Dhivya Suryadevara to chief financial officer. It was notable not just because Suryadevara became the first woman CFO in the company’s history but also because Suryadevara was 39.
On her first day, when she replaced an executive who had been with GM longer than Suryadevara had been alive, she decided mostly to listen. When she did speak, she did so strategically (“You’ve got to know when to shut up,” she would say months later). Rather than feel constrained by her inexperience, Suryadevara embraced it, methodically diagnosing her own weaknesses and then building a team that could, in effect, support or disguise them.
“It’s as important what you’re not going to spend time on versus what you are going to spend time on,” she said. “You’ve got to make sure you’ve got a team.”
When the Rams hired McVay to replace Jeff Fisher, who once had been elevated as a 36-year-old upstart himself before his message seemed to stall, McVay effectively did what Suryadevara would. He apologized neither for being young nor for having never coached defense or special teams. Instead, he hired a defensive coordinator who seemed to be McVay’s exact opposite: Wade Phillips, who had coached football since his new boss’s father was in high school. McVay was 30, and Phillips was approaching 70. If McVay applied liberal amounts of hair product to collect it into a stiff peak, Phillips’s unremarkable white mop just hung there. And if McVay’s job had been to score points and attack, Phillips’s job — in fact his specialty — was to halt even the most creative offenses.
“With the inexperience I do have,” McVay said this week, “I feel so fortunate to be around Wade Phillips.”
The young coach made no grand pronouncements, at least not in public, but he seemed intimidated by nothing. If something conventional felt wrong, such as forcing Gurley into the lineup after the Rams’ most talented offensive player hurt his knee, he just wouldn’t do it. And what if his whole gambit fell apart? He would be fired. So what? At least he had time to regroup; Pittsburgh’s Mike Tomlin was 36 when he became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl.
“We don’t even fear failure,” McVay said this week, and maybe that’s a road map toward the mountaintop.
A little more than a dozen years ago, a brash financial wunderkind named Joey Levin walked into one of his first board meetings. “Joey,” yes, and when he was assigned an email address in his first job that called him “Joe,” he quickly rectified that.
“Trying to force me to be older,” said Levin, now the chief executive of IAC, a media and technology holding company, and a month from turning 40. Back in that first board meeting, he didn’t understand all the rituals and expectations of sitting on a board: when to speak up, when to defer. A good thing, he would recall later, and when a few of his peers got angry at him for threatening to sell a chunk of shares, Levin didn’t care.
“I didn’t make any long-term friends,” Levin said, not exactly sounding regretful now as he runs a company that brought in $3.2 billion in revenue in 2017. “I might have tried to be more accommodating or polite.”
Then again, he was right. And looking back, he said he believes a more experienced individual might have been tentative. Too quiet. Not so audacious. Maybe boldness, in meeting rooms or on sidelines, is starting to overpower some of those dusty old rituals.
“What’s valuable is having nothing to lose,” Levin said. “For me, at worst, I screw up. But I didn’t feel like I had something to protect.”
Nearly two years ago, Andy Dunn found himself in an interesting place: cash in or stand pat? Bonobos, the popular menswear brand he had co-founded a decade earlier, had an offer to sell from — of all corporations — Walmart, and it led him to a question: Is it better to be rich or cool?
Maybe 30-year-old Andy would have answered in a different way, but middle-aged Andy made his choice: $310 million and a job as a senior vice president in the mega-retailer’s e-commerce division. As tends to happen, Dunn had outgrown his youth; he was no longer the young disrupter, though even as he aged and some of his company’s fans complained that Bonobos had sold out, Dunn attempted to hold his grip on one thing 30-year-old Andy had plenty of.
“What you don’t want to lose,” he said a few weeks before turning 40, “is the same audacity.”
Dunn can say that now as he sits within the Venn diagram of increasing wisdom and eroding boldness, and someday even McVay will no longer be young. Belichick — a first-time head coach in his late 30s not terribly long ago, full of fresh ideas and wide-eyed enthusiasm — is now one of the NFL’s oldest coaches. It happens fast and without warning, and as the Rams coach sits here surrounded by cameras and voice recorders, his words surely replayed in retrospectives down the line, what will he think of himself and the way he handled all this? What will he remember about the choices he will make Sunday, those that will either validate the league’s youth movement or remind front offices why they have traditionally valued experience over fresh eyes? What will he say about that hair?
“This is exhausting already,” the young fellow said, and just wait until he’s in his 40s or 50s at one of these or, worse, until he’s not. Fisher, McVay’s predecessor, led a team to a Super Bowl once, too, before jobs were lost and reputations warped, and year after year in retail and politics and football, time remains undefeated.
“To some extent, it’s just what happens,” presidential hopeful Buttigieg said. “The world starts to look different.”
But for now, it looks like this: Experience on one sideline Sunday and youth on the other, and at some point the ball will go up, and, after a while, everyone will learn which side is stronger, for the moment, anyway.
“Maybe,” Buttigieg said of McVay, “he can score one for the millennials.”
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