PHOENIX — Coyotes General Manager John Chayka will be 27 years old when he manages his first NHL Draft in June in Buffalo, and his first NHL free agency period beginning July 1.
That may sound crazy to you. It doesn’t sound crazy to Jerry Colangelo.
The Arizona icon was named general manager of the expansion Phoenix Suns in 1968, at the tender age of 28. It’s fair to say that hire worked out pretty well.
“I was very fortunate to get a beginning in the NBA with the Bulls when I was 26, and then to be the youngest GM in pro sports at the time when I was 28 with the Suns,” Colangelo said Monday. “That was a wonderful opportunity and I am still thankful for it.”
Colangelo was quick to note the vast differences in the pro sports landscape between 1968 and 2016. When the Suns and Milwaukee Bucks (who also offered Colangelo their GM spot) joined the NBA, it brought the league total to 14 teams.
“In 1968, things were very unsophisticated,” said Colangelo, who worked as a marketing director, scout and assistant to the Bulls president for about a year and a half before joining the Suns. “The leagues were more mom-and-pop leagues rather than well-managed, well-oiled machines.
“Today, when you consider that each league has roughly 30 teams, and the advent of sophisticated technology and sports science and analytics — none of these things existed back then so there’s a lot more to consider.”
Chayka’s duties may be more complex than Colangelo’s were, but the Suns staff was far smaller than the Coyotes’ current staff and Colangelo didn’t have an experienced coach to lean on like Chayka has with Dave Tippett. Nor did he have a veteran assistant GM the likes of which the Coyotes expect to hire in the coming weeks to shepherd Chayka through the process.
The Suns’ first coach was Johnny “Red” Kerr, who was 36 when he was hired. Kerr’s first NBA coaching gig came with the Bulls, who had entered the league two years earlier in 1966.
Colangelo remembers the first question Suns co-owner and Tucson attorney Don Pitt asked him when he came to Phoenix for his job interview.
“He said, ‘what makes you think you are ready to run the whole show?'”
Colangelo’s answer was priceless.
“I said, ‘unless I’m confused, you’re the one who thinks I can and that’s what I’m doing here,'” Colangelo said, laughing. “I didn’t lack for confidence. Because of my participation as an athlete and being competitive and self-confident and hard working, I believed I was ready and I still do.”
Colangelo said there was never a moment when he felt intimidated by the task laid before him.
“I don’t think I thought in those terms,” he said. “There was just a job to do. We needed a coach and trainer. We had a small staff but we grew over a period of time to hundreds of people. We were so busy getting things done that we didn’t even realize we were kind of trail blazers.”
Colangelo currently serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for USA Basketball, and as a senior advisor for the Philadelphia 76ers. He understands that many outsiders are making Chayka’s age and experience level a major issue, but as a businessman with myriad interests beyond basketball, Colangelo sees the same trend taking shape all across the corporate world.
“Life evolves in every walk of life so why should sports be immune to that?” he said. “With the advent and importance of analytics and new technologies, you have to incorporate that information into your thinking when you’re trying to build a team or a company and trying to get an edge.”
“There’s still the instinctive side of things that plays a very important role; things that can’t be measured but there are more tools at your disposal in the evaluation process.”
It’s impossible for Colangelo to evaluate Chayka’s particular circumstances without working inside the Coyotes organization and knowing the team’s new GM, but he believes that judging Chayka purely on his age and experience level is a dangerously narrow analysis.
“It’s much more commonplace to see young people in their late 20s being hired in similar positions, and I can tell you this definitively: They’re much more qualified today than I was in ’68,” he said. “I was a product of the times and so are they. They are more educated and more in tune to the modern world than I was back then. I was just trying to make ends meet.”