These Star Executives Were Athletes Before Joining The Front Office

Athletes | 4/22/20

For a lot of athletes, retiring means the end of their sporting days. They settle into family life or find new careers in a different industry. Every so often, however, an athlete still has the itch and would prefer to stay involved in sports. From Reggie McKenzie moving from the gridiron to winning a Super Bowl in Green Bay’s front office, to John Elway finding his way back to Denver, some stars are destined for a second act. These are the best athletes who became successful executives.

Reggie McKenzie Reinvented The Packers

reggie mckenzie raiders
George Rose/Getty Images and Digital First Media Group/Contra Costa Times via Getty Images
George Rose/Getty Images and Digital First Media Group/Contra Costa Times via Getty Images

Reggie McKenzie played for five years in the NFL as a linebacker for the Los Angeles Raiders and San Francisco 49ers. Drafted by the Raiders in 1985, McKenzie was a starter from day one. His time as a starter was short-lived though, and he was relegated to the bench in 1988.

In 1994, McKenzie moved from the field to the front office, joining the Green Bay Packers as a pro personnel assistant. Eventually, he worked his way up to director of football operations. As a Packer, McKenzie helped craft two Super Bowl-winning rosters.

Nolan Ryan Brought Glory To Houston

nolan ryan rangers and angels
Bettmann/Getty Images and Bob Levey/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images and Bob Levey/Getty Images

Iconic MLB starting pitcher Nolan Ryan had a 27-year professional career playing for the New York Mets, California Angels, Houston Astros, and Texas Rangers. By the time he left the game, he had a league record seven no-hitters and 5,714 career strikeouts.

Ryan was named the team president of the Texas Rangers in 2008, starting his career as an executive 15 years after retiring. In 2010, the roster he helped build reached the World Series. The team repeated the feat in 2011. He moved onto the Astros in 2014. Three years later the team won the World Series.

George Brett Broke A Streak In Kansas City

george brett royals
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images and Owen Shaw/Getty Images
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images and Owen Shaw/Getty Images

George Brett defines what it means to be a Kansas City Royal. As a player, he spent 21 years in royal blue and won one World Series in 1985. In 1980 he was named the American League MVP.

When Brett retired in 1993, he transitioned straight into the KC front office as the vice president of baseball operations. After many years of penny-pinching from team owners and roster-building from the minor leagues, Brett brought the Royals back to the World Series in 2014 and 2015, one of which led to a title.

Doug Wilson Created The Model NHL Franchise

doug wilson
Brian Miller/Getty Images and Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
Brian Miller/Getty Images and Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

A 16-year NHL career with the Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks wasn’t enough to satisfy Doug Wilson. Despite a Hall of Fame-caliber career, he never managed to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Wilson kept his quest alive when he became the San Jose Sharks general manager in 2003. Still holding the position today, the team has become the model NHL franchise, rarely missing the playoffs. In 2016, the team made its first Stanley Cup Finals appearance in history, losing to an overpowering Pittsburgh Penguins team.

Larry Bird Left Unfinished Business In Indiana

larry bird
JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images and Focus on Sport via Getty Images
JEFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images and Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Larry Bird’s 13-year Hall of Fame NBA career saw him play on some of the most dominant Boston Celtics teams of all-time. Coming out of Indiana University, Bird was a revelation in the league and a leader in the locker room.

Perhaps feeling like he had unfinished business in Indiana, Bird became the Pacers’ head coach in 1997, then the president of basketball operations in 2003. As an executive, he was responsible for hiring Frank Vogel as the team’s head coach as well as drafting Paul George.

John Elway Lured Peyton Manning To Denver

john elway rboncos
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images and Rick Doyle / Gerry Images
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images and Rick Doyle / Gerry Images

Legendary Denver Broncos QB John Elway ended his Hall of Fame career in the Mile High City with back-to-back Super Bowl championships. Overall, he led the Broncos to five Super Bowls as a player, and his winning ways didn’t stop when he moved to the front office.

Elway was named the general manager and president of football operations in 2011. Shortly after taking the mantle, he lured free agent QB Peyton Manning to Denver, giving the former Colt one last shot at glory. The Broncos reached the Super Bowl in 2013 and 2015, winning once.

Bobby Cox Went From Front Office To The Diamond

bobby cox
Sporting News via Getty Images and Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images
Sporting News via Getty Images and Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images

Bobby Cox had a short and unmemorable MLB career with the New York Yankees that lasted for two seasons. Never destined to be a great player, Cox stayed in the game, managing the Braves briefly, and then the Toronto Blue Jays.

In 1986, Cox moved into the front office, re-joining the Atlanta Braves as the team’s general manager. For four years he rebuilt the roster before moving back onto the Diamond as the team’s manager in 1990. He held that position for 20 seasons, winning one World Series and 15 straight division titles.

Ozzie Newsome Made The Ravens An NFL Power

ozzie newsome
Focus on Sport/Getty Images and Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images and Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Ozzie Newsome played his entire Hall of Fame NFL career with the Cleveland Browns. From 1978 until 1990 he made three Pro Bowls and was twice named a First-Team All-Pro.

In 1991, he made the smooth transition to the Browns’ front office as an executive. When Cleveland moved to Baltimore in 1995 and became the Ravens, Newsome stayed with the franchise. In 2001, the Ravens won their first Super Bowl. In 2002, Newsome was named the teams’ general manager. Ten years later, the team won Super Bowl number two.

Danny Ainge Has Done Great Things In Boston

danny ainge
David X Prutting/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images and Focus on Sport/Getty Images
David X Prutting/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images and Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Danny Ainge was a key component of the Celtics’ dynasty in the ’80s. He wasn’t always the best player, but he knew how to get under the skin of his opponents to give his team an advantage.

As an executive, Ainge proved how strong his basketball acumen really was. Boston hired him as the executive director of basketball operations in 2003. In 2008, the team won the NBA Finals and Ainge was named the Executive of the Year.

There’s A Reason Jerry West Is “The Logo”

jerry west lakers
Bettmann/Getty Images and Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images and Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Jerry West played 14 seasons for the Los Angeles Lakers and today is known not only as one of the best ever but also as “The Logo.” That’s right, the player that is the logo of the league is modeled after Jerry West!

West began his front-office career as the Los Angeles Lakers general manager in 1982 and won five championships there. In 2011 he was named to the executive board of the Golden State Warriors, where he won two more championships in 2017 and 2018.

You Can Thank George Halas For The NFL

george halas
Focus on Sport/Getty Images and Bettmann/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images and Bettmann/Getty Images

George Halas did it all in the NFL. He was a player from 1920 to 1928 for the Decatur Staleys and Chicago Bears. He wasn’t just a player, though. Halas also owned the team and was the head coach.

Before taking on ownership of the Bears, Halas was a member of the founding meeting of the NFL, meaning without him the league might not exist today. He coached and managed the team until 1967.

Pat Riley Brought LeBron To Miami

pat riley
John Parra/FilmMagic and Focus on Sport/Getty Images
John Parra/FilmMagic and Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Pat Riley played for the San Diego Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers from 1967 until 1976. He won a championship with the Lakers alongside Jerry West in 1972 and became the team’s head coach in 1981 winning four more.

In 1995, Riley was hired by the Miami Heat to be the head coach and team president. By 2003 he stepped down as head coach and made his real lasting impact, convincing LeBron James to form the “Big Three” with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Mario Lemieux Brought Greatness To The Penguins

mario lemieux
J Leary/Bruce Bennett Studios and Minas Panagiotakis/NHLI via Getty Images
J Leary/Bruce Bennett Studios and Minas Panagiotakis/NHLI via Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins were a franchise ready to relocate when Mario Lemieux was drafted in 1984. They were averaging less than 7,000 fans per game and were desperate for a makeover. From his first game on the ice, it was clear he was the player to lead the change.

By the end of his career, the team was back in dire straights, so Lemieux proposed to defer $30 million in salary to take part ownership in the team. Again, he saved the franchise, turning them into a perennial powerhouse. With Lemieux as co-owner, the Penguins won titles in 2009, 2016, and 2017.

Dick Haley Brought The Steel Curtain To Pittsburgh

dick haley steelers
George Gojkovich/Getty Images
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

A defensive back for the Redskins, Vikings, and Steelers in the ’60s, Dick Haley carved out a name for himself in the NFL as a tough-nosed player. When he transitioned to the front office of the Steelers, he put that reputation to work.

Haley was the general manager and director of player personnel for Pittsburgh from 1971 until 1990. In those years he created the “Steel Curtain,” drafting several compliments to star players like “Mean” Joe Greene. During the 1976 season, the team went through a span where the defense only allowed 3.1 points per game. Haley’s Steelers won four Super Bowls.

Glen Sather Built A Legacy In Houston

glen sather oilers
Focus on Sport via Getty Images
Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Glen Sather won zero Stanley Cup Titles as a player in the NHL for 11 seasons. In that time he suited up for the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota North Stars, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Rangers.

Two years after retiring, Sather joined the Houston Oilers’ front office, and he finally won that title he had been chasing for so many years. Under his guidance, Houston won Stanley Cup Titles in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, and 1990.

Gene Michal Kept The Yankees Dominant In The ’90s

gene michael
Focus on Sport/Getty Images and Sporting News via Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images and Sporting News via Getty Images

A shortstop and second baseman for ten seasons in the majors, Gene Michael earned the nickname “Stick” because of his slender frame. Drafted by the Pirates, he made his debut for the team in 1966 and would also play for the Dodgers, Yankees, and Tigers.

Michael became the Yankees general manager in 1990 and bucked the organization’s trend of trading away young talent. Instead, he signed, traded for, and developed stars such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte. With these franchise pieces in place, the Yankees won the World Series in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000.

Joe Dumars Gave Motor City A Title

joe dumars
Focus on Sport/Getty Images and Michael Kovac/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images and Michael Kovac/Getty Images

Joe Dumars spent his entire NBA career with the Detroit Pistons. When the team won back to back titles in 1989 and 1990, unseating the Lakers as the league’s best team, he was there.

When Dumars became the Pistons’ president of basketball operations in 2000, the team was in a playoff drought and looking for a cure. He quickly set to work, and in 2004 brought the NBA Title back to the Motor City.

John Lynch Was The Voice The 49ers Needed

john lynch
Elsa/Allsport and Michael Reaves/Getty Images
Elsa/Allsport and Michael Reaves/Getty Images

John Lynch’s NFL career was full of big hits. He was a borderline Hall of Famer who played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Denver Broncos. When he retired, he joined the Fox family in the broadcast booth, leading many to believe his NFL career was over.

Then Lynch was hired by the 49ers to become the teams’ general manager. He signed a six-year contract to help bring stability back to the flailing franchise alongside new head coach Kyle Shannahan. In his third year on the job, the team that Lynch built went all the way to the Super Bowl, losing a heart breaker to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Al Rosen Was A Pioneer

al rosen
Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Al Rosen had a healthy MLB career with the Cleveland Indians. He was a member of the 1948 World Series winning team and was named the American League in 1953.

As an executive, Rosen jumped around the league and had his best year as the general manager of the San Francisco Giants in 1989. The team that year won the National League Pennant, then got swept in the World Series by the Oakland Athletics. Rosen is the only person to ever win an MVP as a player and an Executive of the Year award as a GM.

Doc Rivers Lifted The Clippers’ Sales

doc rivers
Scott Halleran/Getty Images and Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Scott Halleran/Getty Images and Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Doc Rivers was a consistent player during his NBA career. Over 14 seasons he played for four different teams, bouncing back and forth from starting lineups to the bench. He then coached for several seasons, winning his first title as the man calling the shots with the Boston Celtics in 2008.

In 2015, the Los Angeles Clippers traded a first-round draft pick to the Celtics for Rivers. Not only was Doc the new head coach of the struggling franchise, but he was also named the vice president of basketball operations. The Clippers have become perennial contenders since.