It sounded so bold that day, when Ryan Saunders wrote down his ambition and tucked it into a drawer. By the time he was 34 years old, Saunders privately declared, he wanted to be a head coach.
Six weeks into his tenure as the Timberwolves’ interim bench boss, he still finds it hard to believe he shaved two years off that timeline.
“I always try to aim high, and this was always a goal,” said Saunders, promoted last month after Tom Thibodeau was fired. “But I didn’t think it would happen at 32.”
Though Saunders is the youngest head coach of a major sports franchise in the Twin Cities, he has plenty of fresh-faced company. New Twins manager Rocco Baldelli is 37. The Gophers have a trio of thirtysomethings heading up flagship programs; football coach P.J. Fleck is 38, and the men’s and women’s basketball coaches — Richard Pitino and Lindsay Whalen — are both 36.
Young hires are suddenly all the rage in the NFL, after 33-year-old Rams coach Sean McVay got to the Super Bowl and set off a stampede of copycats seeking the next wunderkind. College football powerhouses have joined in, too; 35-year-old Lincoln Riley leads Oklahoma, and Ohio State picked 39-year-old Ryan Day.
While teams might not be explicitly looking for head coaches under 40, candidates that might have been dismissed as “too green” in the past now have in-demand skills. They’re typically proficient with social media, comfortable with technology, adept at communicating with the current generation of athletes, and energetic enough to handle a high-pressure, round-the-clock profession.
That’s not to say older coaches can’t adapt. Recently, Cubs manager Joe Maddon, who celebrated his 65th last week, revealed he is reading “Managing Millennials for Dummies.” But a new generation is now getting its turn in the boss’s chair.
“Things have changed in our society,” said Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, who made Saunders the youngest active head coach in the NBA. “Before, until a person was 50, maybe, they weren’t considered ready for leadership. I think the stigma of appointing a young person has gone away.”
Type of experiences over years of experience
Some of the most revered names in sports were once whiz kids. Basketball coaches Bobby Knight and Mike Krzyzewski were both leading college programs at age 24, and Woody Hayes became Ohio State’s head football coach just after his 38th birthday.
Veterans have often been viewed as the safer choice, though, particularly in an age when a botched hire can cost millions of dollars. That is beginning to change, as the ritual of ladder-climbing and dues-paying is fading in many professions — including sports.
Former Wisconsin athletic director Pat Richter now leads coaching searches as a consultant for DHR International, an executive search firm. The 21st-century coach must be able to “win the press conference,” he said, generating excitement and energy around the team. Standout candidates know how to use social media to build the team’s brand, and they can relate to athletes and fans raised in the internet age.
“I think there’s more willingness to take a risk now on someone younger,” Richter said. “The number of years of experience isn’t as important as the type of experiences a coach has had.
“Younger people are more attuned to communication skills. They’re more worldly. They’ve grown up around technology. It’s much different than the old days, where you had your nose to the grindstone in coaching, and that was about it.”
That kind of varied personal toolbox is what sold the Twins on Baldelli. Derek Falvey, the team’s executive vice president and chief baseball officer, said the trend in Major League Baseball is to hire managers who can act as a partner with the front office. The ideal candidate has worked inside and outside the dugout, in roles such as scouting and player development.
Most older managers, Falvey said, don’t have that breadth of experience. The Twins’ finalists covered a range of ages, but Baldelli had everything they were looking for, and they believed his youth could be an asset.
“Our game is changing,” Falvey said. “There are so many things that have come into play that are outside the norms that existed in baseball for a long time. In Rocco’s case, his age relative to some of our players may help him in terms of connecting to what they’re dealing with, especially around changes in the game. He’s had experiences similar to theirs.”
Though Baldelli’s age did not give him pause, Falvey said it was important to ensure the Twins gave him proper support as a young first-time manager. The team has surrounded him with experienced coaches, as the Timberwolves did when they hired veteran Jerry Sichting to assist Saunders.
Taylor said he has heard concerns — mostly from older people — that Saunders is too young to lead the Wolves. To him, it’s just an extension of his decades-old practice of hiring recent college graduates for management positions.
“I was 21 years old and just out of college when Mr. [Bill] Carlson asked me to run his business,” said Taylor, who also owns the Star Tribune and a stable of other companies. “I don’t think older leaders are less important. I think it’s just that we’ve opened some new doors that have allowed us to think that someone younger is very capable.”
Believing in self, learning to take charge … and still win
When Saunders was hired, he spoke with other young Twin Cities coaches and discovered a common thread.
“They’re strong in who they are,” he said. “People who stand on firm footing and believe in those around them, that’s a big thing.”
Pitino learned that lesson while he was an assistant under his father, Rick. Though coaches in their 30s face extra scrutiny because of their youth, Richard Pitino said age is only a factor if a coach is unprepared. To succeed, he believes it’s imperative to maintain a strong sense of self, along with the courage and confidence to follow your instincts.
“I can’t coach like my dad,” said Pitino, who was 30 when he was hired as the Gophers’ head coach in 2013. “He’s an old-school, 66-year-old man, and I’m 36. At the end of the day, you’ve just got to be yourself, not try to be somebody you’re not.”
You also have to be the authority figure, a role that most young coaches must learn on the job. In her first season at the U, Whalen has had to navigate a significant role shift, from a player with the Lynx to coach of the Gophers. That’s required her to be a more direct communicator.
“It’s taken me some time to really understand what that’s supposed to look like and feel like,” she said. “You’re not a teammate. Somebody has to be in charge and directing things. That’s been something I’ve had to learn pretty quickly.”
Ultimately, younger coaches will be judged the same way as their older peers: on their ability to win. That point is not lost on Saunders, nor is he shying away from it.
“I do look forward to younger people getting more opportunities,” he said. “A lot of that depends on how people in our positions right now do. I’m enjoying the challenge. And I’m thankful for the trust that’s been put in me.”