Thankfully, in his first news conference after he was introduced as the Bills’ general manager, Doug Whaley spared everyone the bogus sales pitch. OK, so he might have mentioned aspirations of building a winner, but he didn’t make false promises or brace people for years of suffering.
Whaley kept his answers short, vague and, dare I say, boring. He cautiously made sure he didn’t say anything he would later regret or could be used against him. A few times, he stopped himself from expanding on answers, checking his swing on softball questions that a polished speaker would have hit a mile.
I’m not sure how many times he said, “The sky is the limit,” but he surpassed his limit. His reply after being asked what made the Steelers so successful: “They don’t accept losing. They set the standards of winning and competing for championships. If we instill that here, we’ll be in the right direction.”
It was difficult to determine whether he was shy, extremely cool or trying to blanket his nerves, but there somewhere was elegance to his guarded answers and direct message. Whaley has a quiet, unassuming way about him. You can only hope he has enough intelligence and confidence to make the right decisions.
Whaley isn’t going to become a motivational speaker any time soon, but that’s not what the Bills needed in their new general manager. They needed a young, motivated executive who can evaluate players and restore credibility. He has been atop their list for years, which made Thursday’s announcement little more than a formality.
“Our main goal is to give the fans of the Buffalo Bills a team that consistently competes for championships,” he said.
Whaley showed a different side to his personality once the cameras were turned off and the assembled media began heading for the door. Reserved throughout his news conference, his voice began cracking with emotion later when he talked about telling his father he was named an NFL general manager.
It’s an accomplishment for anyone, a greater one for an African-American kid from Pittsburgh who never played in the NFL.
Whaley, who started as an assistant in the Steelers’ personnel department 17 years ago, becomes the sixth African-American general manager in the league.
Bob Whaley told his son it was one of the proudest moments of his life. Coming from him, that’s saying something.
Bob Whaley earned a football scholarship to Michigan State. He transferred to West Point and was among the first black football players. He graduated in 1967 and was an Army Ranger in Vietnam.
“I have the utmost respect for him,” Whaley said. “The things he’s gone through makes me being a general manager seem like nothing. For him to say he was proud of me in his lifetime, for lack of a better term, it’s a crushing blow to my ego. It was emotional for him to say that. Everybody is looking for acknowledgement of their parents.”
You get a better sense of Whaley when you hear him talk about his parents. You understand how he built a reputation as a bright young scout who was destined to manage his own team someday. You can see that he’s a selfless, team-first guy who knows the meaning of hard work and sacrifice. He knows the importance of intangibles.
His mother, Gaynell, was a school administrator who offered a soft touch. A few days ago, she was still telling him to remain humble and stay true to their family values. Bob Whaley spent 30 years in management, overseeing a highway-construction company. Doug grew up tarring roads in the Pittsburgh area.
“Hard work. That’s where I got it from, every summer, working with him,” Whaley said. “We did road construction, heavy highway draining and sewage, laying asphalt. Did you know that asphalt comes off the truck at 220 degrees and you can only stay on it for six minutes before your feet blister in the summer?”
“It was hard manual labor, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he said. “It taught me what work was all about. In the construction business, there’s a tangible asset that you see that you accomplished. You feel like you accomplished something. You look at the long road, absolutely. And when the alarm rings, you answer the bell.”
Whaley has a long road ahead of him with the Bills, who haven’t made the playoffs in 13 consecutive seasons. That, alone, is alarming when you consider how many teams have gone through the cycle of success. The Bills have been stuck in the same ditch with five coaches, counting Perry Fewell, and four general managers.
It’s time for Whaley to answer the bell.
He has remained mostly behind the scenes over his 17 seasons in the NFL after playing for the University of Pittsburgh. He spent a dozen years with the Steelers and showed an eye for personnel before climbing the ladder. The Steelers hoped he would continue growing with them, but he jumped to become an assistant GM under Buddy Nix.
Whaley was Nix’s top aide, which is enough to make any Bills fan leery. Nix made his share of mistakes with Whaley at his side. It was enough to make you wonder whether Whaley played a role in a few blunders along the way. Russ Brandon made it clear that the general manager ultimately makes the final call.
Now, that responsibility falls on Whaley.
Nobody knows for sure how well he will perform when faced with the same pressure, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the responsibility. Five months ago, I suggested that Whaley be given a chance to run the show. I’m certainly not backing off now.
Whaley, 40, brings a new perspective and closes the gap between the old ways of building teams and the new ways of today’s game. Bill Polian was an unproven 44-year-old when he climbed aboard in 1986. I’m not suggesting Whaley is the next Polian, the best general manager of his time, but there’s only one way to find out.
At least the Bills are trying something new, unlike the other major professional sports team in town. Brandon has been given full control of the organization. They hired a new head coach in Doug Marrone. They hired Whaley, who immediately hired Jim Monos as director of player personnel and Kelvin Fisher as director of college scouting.
And they have a rookie quarterback in EJ Manuel.
Bills fans are hoping they can grow together and get this thing turned around. The answers will eventually be revealed in the results.
Let’s face it, there is no better time for a new regime to talk about the sky being the limit than when it’s sitting near the bottom. They might as well start with someone who knows how to build a road.