Pelicans’ hiring of David Griffin feels like a landmark moment

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METAIRIE – New Orleans Pelicans officials called it “a new day,” “a landmark day” and “a monumental day.”

Just how significant Wednesday, April 17 proves to be will be determined by the franchise’s success in coming seasons.
But it’s easy to understand why the Pelicans brass was downright giddy in introducing David Griffin as their executive vice president of basketball operations.

Unquestionably, it marked a new day for New Orleans’ NBA franchise as there is now a clear delineation between it and New Orleans’ NFL franchise. As far as Gayle Benson, the owner of both franchises, is concerned, the Pelicans and the Saints are on equal footing.

Just as the Saints are in the capable hands of Mickey Loomis and Sean Payton, the Pelicans are now in the capable hands of Griffin, who spent 17 years in Phoenix working with and learning from NBA all-stars such as Jerry Colangelo and Steve Kerr before putting his fingerprints on the Cleveland Cavaliers’ historic 2016 NBA championship.

Griffin’s hiring as a replacement for Dell Demps, the celebratory mood of the formal announcement and details of the search and mutual attraction between organization and executive recalled a series of other hires that proved to be landmark and monumental.

The hiring came with the franchise idling at a crossroads and was conducted with a thoroughness and sense of urgency reminiscent of the selection of Payton as Saints coach by Loomis and Benson’s late husband Tom in early 2006.

The Pelicans’ current state doesn’t quite match that of the Saints during the early days of the franchise’s return from its Hurricane Katrina-induced displacement to San Antonio.

But the manner in which the search was conducted in order to point a listing franchise in a forward direction did recall the search that produced Payton.

Pelicans/Saints President Dennis Lauscha said the organization evaluated more than 100 candidates to run the basketball operation. Six were interviewed and, Lauscha said, the endorsement of Griffin was extremely strong from the league office as well as other franchises, much as it was for Payton, then a highly regarded assistant in Dallas.

The arrival of Griffin, though, might be more analogous to the first major hire that Mr. Benson made shortly after purchasing the Saints in the mid-80s. When Benson hired Jim Finks, who was well on his way to becoming a Pro Football Hall of Famer as an executive, it sent a message around the NFL that the moribund franchise had to start being taken seriously.

That hire was the first step in turning the Saints from a laughingstock into a respectable franchise. Griffin doesn’t have as many skins on the wall – to use a Finks expression – as Finks had when he was hired, but the NBA and the Pelicans fellow organizations had their eyes opened by the hiring of Griffin.

One more hire that comes to mind has nothing to do with New Orleans’ professional franchises, but seems relevant nonetheless.

Griffin said, half-jokingly, that Mrs. Benson didn’t flinch when he made “outrageous demands” during his interview. That was one of the primary reasons, he said, that 30 minutes into the interview he started telling himself to “not screw this up” because he decided he wanted the job very badly.

When former LSU athletic director Skip Bertman was searching for a new football coach in 1999 he interviewed then-Michigan State coach Nick Saban, who famously brought with him a legal pad featuring a lengthy hand-written list of commitments he would need from the university in order to take the job.

The Tigers would have to commit to major improvements in facilities and staff if they wanted to become a national-championship contender and, more importantly, if they wanted Saban to lead that effort.

Bertman quickly realized what LSU had to do to elevate its football program to the status of legitimate national-championship contender and he also realized he was sitting with the person best able to accomplish that.

Barely four years later, Saban was inside the Superdome hoisting the BCS championship trophy as the coach delivered the school’s first title in nearly a half a century.

We don’t know if the hiring of Griffin will be as significant as that of Payton, Finks or Saban.

But it sure feels like one that someday will be a measuring stick for other hires.

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Les East

Les East

CCS/Times-Picayune

Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. His blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists and Louisiana Sportswriter of the Year by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association. You can follow…

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