As the late great Josh Davis, a fellow traveler, writer, and advocate for alternate football leagues once told me in his charming southern drawl. “When it comes to the XFL and these leagues, you never know what they are going to do.”
Jeffrey Pollack is no longer the President & CEO of the XFL. According to sources close to the situation. It’s something that has been in the works for quite some time. But it wasn’t made official until this past Thursday.
The league itself has yet to respond when reached out for comment. Pollack’s departure may seem shocking to some at first glance. However, it’s fairly commonplace for new ownership groups to want to bring in their own people once a transition process has been completed.
Although, there are a few remaining remnants from the XFL’s 2020 staff, like former New York Guardians President Janet Duch, who is currently the league’s Chief Marketing Officer. By and large, The major players who helped put together the XFL from a business and football ops aspect in 2018-2020 are gone.
So, where does the league go from here?
What’s Next For The XFL?
The assumption is that the XFL already has a replacement in mind to assume the same specific role vacated by Jeffrey Pollack. Well, Yes and No.
While technically, it is true that the XFL’s owners, RedBird Capital Partners, Dany Garcia, and Dwayne Johnson, are in the midst of hiring someone to assume a prominent role in the league’s leadership structure. That individual is not expected to assume the same responsibilities Jeffrey Pollack has held with the league since 2019.
The expectation is that the XFL is going to hire someone to oversee the football and business operation. With RedBird ultimately taking full control internally of the latter.
The truth is that the XFL’s ownership group started this type of process late last year. At the time, it was labeled as a ‘Chief Football Officer‘ search. Overseen and headed up by RedBird founder Gerry Cardinale and a CAA Sports executive team led by Joe Belcher. Former Browns President and RedBird partner Alec Scheiner was also heavily involved in the process.
The CFL Detour For The XFL
But along came the CFL. The XFL’s CFO search was put on hold. Why you ask?. Because the league wanted to iron out and explore a potential business and football alignment with the Canadian Football League, where both leagues would potentially merge as one with potentially CFL commissioner Randy Ambrosie as its football figurehead.
The search for a CFO was put on hold until all the particulars in the XFL and CFL’s alignment were ironed out. Both leagues discussed many different business and football strategies in a potential alignment. But after months of brainstorming, they couldn’t find common ground.
The XFL’s timeline to get back on the field was pushed back for 2023 to allow for a potential hybrid merger that never happened. But the truth is that 2023 was always going to be the target date. The league’s new ownership took a detour but is presumably headed in the same direction initially intended.
With Dany Garcia, Dwayne Johnson, and their team handling the promotion, marketing, and imaging of the XFL. In theory, RedBird Capital Partners will assume the business aspects of the league. The question then becomes, who will oversee the league’s football operations or assume a similar role that Jeffrey Pollack just departed.
That’s why you have arrived at this destination. Let’s look at three potential candidates for what will be a unique position in the league.
Former Houston Texans GM/Executive VP Of Football Ops Rick Smith
We have heard the term before; he checks all the boxes. That’s precisely the resume that former player/coach/executive/general manager Rick Smith has. Smith has even served on the NFL’s Competition Committee.
Rick Smith, a former safety and team captain at Purdue transitioned into coaching when his playing days were done. He quickly moved from coaching in the college ranks at his alma mater to the NFL, joining Denver. Smith went on to win two Superbowl rings as an assistant coaching defensive backs for the Broncos from 1996-1999. In 2000, he transitioned into Denver’s personnel department and became the team’s Director of Pro Personnel. A position he held with the Broncos through the 2005 season.
In 2006, Smith became the youngest general manager in the NFL at the age of 36 when the Houston Texans appointed him the job. Smith served in that role through the 2017 season, after which he left to be with his wife, Tiffany, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Unfortunately, Tiffany Avery Smith, Rick Smith’s wife of 17 years, passed away in 2019. She was 49.
In twelve seasons as the Texans GM. Rick Smith drafted and acquired some of the franchise’s greatest players. Notable players like J.J. Watt, Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins, Arian Foster, DeMeco Ryans, Will Fuller, Jadeveon Clowney, A.J. Bouye, Mario Williams, Lamar Miller, among others. In total, under Smith’s watch. The Texans had 39 pro bowl players. Under Smith’s leadership, Houston captured four AFC South division titles.
Rick Smith is not employed by an NFL team and hasn’t been for a while. Surprisingly enough, despite his stellar resume. This past offseason, Smith was interviewed and linked to jobs in Atlanta, Denver, Jacksonville, and Detroit.
Not only does Rick Smith have an outstanding resume covering all facets of every spectrum of football. From playing to coaching to administrating. But he has an impeccable reputation as a person and as an evaluator of talent.
Becoming the head of football ops for an entire league would be a huge step for Rick Smith in his football journey. There have been and will be many who shy away from assuming the role as the XFL’s de facto CFO. And understandably so because of the challenges entailed with many leagues like the XFL that have failed in the past.
But very few people out there have the background or character that Rick Smith does. He can relate to players, coaches, scouts, and execs because he’s walked in the shoes of all of them. Will Rick Smith’s next step be in the XFL?
Former NFL General Manager/Executive Scott Pioli
A five-time NFL Executive of the Year, Scott Pioli has nearly three decades of experience working in the National Football League. Working for six different NFL franchises in multiple executive positions. Most notably, as Bill Belichick’s right-hand man in New England, getting to five Super Bowls and winning three of them.
Scott Pioli’s football resume and achievements speak for themselves. And while that’s certainly a strong enough qualification to be considered for the top football ops role in the XFL. Pioli’s unheralded work in other areas makes him a strong candidate to be a spokesperson and frontman for the league.
In the last couple of years, Scott Pioli, a northeast native, has worked as a TV Analyst for various outlets, including the NFL Network. Pioli has offered his expertise in media, but behind the scenes, he has worked very hard towards advocating and advancing diversity and equality.
Pioli has been a featured speaker and panelist for private companies and at numerous conferences, including the NFL’s Women’s career development, NHL’s Advancing Equity Summit, Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University’s School of Business, among others.
The NCAA honored Scott Pioli as the 2019 Champion of Diversity & Inclusion for his efforts as an advocate for equality in sports. Pioli mentors minority coaching candidates, scouts, executives, and sponsors and provides grants for educational and professional development in football and athletics through multiple endowments for women and HBCU graduates.
It’s no secret that the XFL’s ownership group, with Dany Garcia and Dwayne Johnson front and center, plan on building a league of culture. That’s been their mission statement since they became owners of the league.
The XFL in 2020 was ahead of the curve in terms of equality and providing opportunities. From hiring prominent African American coaches and executives and hiring women in prominent roles throughout the league. The NFL’s first-ever African American official, Maia Chaka, was with the XFL first in that position. The XFL in 2023 would love to build upon what the league did in 2020.
Scott Pioli was a champion putting together football teams on the field. And he’s championed being an advocate for football’s ecosystem off of it.
Former Buffalo Bills/Buffalo Sabres President Russ Brandon
Although, nothing has been finalized. There have been rumblings in the last couple of days that Gerry Cardinale and RedBird Capital partners may be leaning towards hiring former Buffalo Bills President/GM Russ Brandon to assume the role as head of the XFL’s football leadership.
The former Bills and Sabres president has been serving as an advisor to RedBird Capital on XFL matters since late 2020. Some close to the situation feel that RedBird may lean towards hiring a football ops exec in a hybrid role similar to a Commissioner but with less authority. Brandon would fit that role and has been in the loop on league matters for a while now in RedBird’s ear.
One of the interesting elements is that Russ Brandon was brought on as an advisor before the XFL’s search for a CFO began late last year. Presumably, with Brandon helping to assist with that search, it may end up with him taking the job himself. In Brandon, the XFL would be hiring someone who can serve dual executive roles on the business and football sides.
Russ Brandon has certainly had a unique journey as a sports executive. The East Syracuse native’s career started in baseball in the minor leagues before winning a championship in the front office of the Florida Marlins. He then transitioned to the Buffalo Bills, where he would spend twenty years initially running their business and marketing department for then-owner Ralph Wilson. Brandon was instrumental at the time in keeping the Bills in Buffalo by reaching a luxury seating threshold so that the team could remain in the same place they started in 1960.
Brandon’s success helped him rise up the ranks in Buffalo, as he would eventually assume the duties of CEO, president, and even general manager for three seasons with the Bills.
When Ralph Wilson passed away in 2014, Brandon conducted the search for a new owner, and it led to the Pegula family paying 1.4 billion dollars for the franchise. Once the Pegulas took control, Brandon was given additional duties as president of the Sabres and the family’s other business properties in Pegula Sports & Entertainment.
Would Russ Brandon Be The Wrong Fit For The XFL?
After being with the Bills for over two decades, Russ Brandon announced his resignation on May 1st, 2018. However, Russ Brandon’s departure from PSE was not without controversy. A report released by the Buffalo News would shed a different light on Brandon’s resignation.
According to the report, two sources told the Buffalo News that Brandon was stepping down because he had been subject to an internal investigation regarding workplace behavior and allegations of inappropriate relationships with female employees. Brandon emphatically denied the allegations.
Brandon stated that he had always planned to step down after reaching 20 years with the Bills franchise in a statement to the press. And that his resignation had nothing to do with any investigation. Brandon also stated that he put off resigning for a year to fulfill his duties to the Sabres and Bills before departing.
Tim Graham of the Buffalo News reported that Bills and Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula informed Brandon on Friday that an internal investigation was being conducted regarding allegations of inappropriate relationships with female employees. Per Graham, Brandon denied any such relationships when confronted by Kim Pegula. The internal investigation showed, according to Graham, that Brandon “was deceitful about that and other job-related issues that were uncovered.”
The NFL, at the time, released a statement saying that they were satisfied with the Bills investigation. “We are satisfied the club addressed the matter in a timely, thorough, and appropriate manner,” the statement read. “There will be no further action by the league office.”
The NFL’s statement was supposed to clear the air on the matter. But the vagueness of the message left many feeling cynical.
Since the controversy, Russ Brandon has not worked for any other sports team. Perhaps that’s because of his own personal career choice, but the way things ended in Buffalo and his time away has led some to believe otherwise.
Russ Brandon had his detractors when he was in the NFL, especially as it pertained to the Bills’ results on the field. But the allegations off the field could be a problem for the XFL’s public relations if they hire Brandon in a prominent position. It runs in contrast to what an owner like Dany Garcia stands for.
I am only raising this issue because sources have told me that Brandon is one of the candidates that RedBird has zeroed in on. There’s no doubt that he has a respectable work resume based on his business track record in Buffalo, but the hire could end up backfiring on the league.
The XFL’s next step is their most important one. They have to get this right. It’s go time for the league. Despite the impressive sports and business portfolio and prowess of RedBird Capital. Or the business and marketing acumen of Dany Garcia. Or the drive, determination, reach and name value of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson.
This ownership group has never built a league from the ground up or run one. Calling yourself an owner is different than actually taking ownership of something.
The odds are heavily against them making it work. It’s going to be about finding the right partners and making the right moves. Hiring the right people. You can do all those things and still fail. The bigger failure is failing to launch. Until supporters of this concept see signs that the league is headed back to where it was and perhaps beyond, skepticism and doubt will remain. The XFL is the defunct league until it’s not.
The XFL of 2020 is dead. That league was on its way before the pandemic derailed it despite the false narratives out there. The first-year league was doing respectable ratings and competing with established sports leagues fairly well. In some cases, doing better numbers head to head. Attendance was fine and growing in its final week of play (DC/Houston/St. Louis), and ticket sales were going up for the upcoming week of play. (40k plus expected in STL, WK6 in NY etc.)
The on-field play was strong. 29 former XFL players are currently in the NFL. 50 in the CFL. The XFL had a strong social media presence and was an innovative and fun product. It would have only gotten better with time.
But that time is gone. You can’t get it back. The XFL is starting over. Same name. Different vision. It’s time for RedBird, Dany Garcia, and The Rock to make it happen. Or they can sit back and watch someone else try.
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