- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Among the intelligent, cogent and generally brilliant observations he has shared with a grateful public, basketball coach Bob Knight once noted that if he ever needed a brain transplant, he would request that it came from a sportswriter. That way, he said, he would get one that had never been used.

If such pristine logic is to be believed, then it helps explain why Marty Hurney is doing so well as general manager of the Carolina Panthers. When he came to his senses and quit being a sportswriter, all that unused brainpower was waiting to be tapped.

Hurney covered the Redskins for The Washington Times during the team’s glory days in the late 1980s. A radical career change later, two years into his job as GM he is helping create a new tradition in Carolina. Coach John Fox, running back Stephen Davis, perhaps the best defensive line in the league — all are reasons the Panthers, 1-15 in 2001, will meet the Rams in St. Louis on Saturday, with the winner playing for the NFC championship and a trip to the Super Bowl.

All bear Hurney’s formerly ink-stained fingerprints.

“He’s doing a marvelous job,” said former Redskins general manager Bobby Beathard, who saved Hurney from a life of deadlines and locker room stakeouts.

This was back when the Redskins, skillfully directed by Beathard and coach Joe Gibbs, were winning Super Bowls and Hurney was breaking stories and beating his larger competition. In 1988, Hurney said, he got a call from Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke asking if he wanted to work in the team’s public relations department. But he knew Beathard was behind it.

“None of this would have happened without Bobby Beathard,” said Hurney, who at the time was ready for a change. “He gave me my chance.”

Said Beathard, now a consultant to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank: “We had developed a friendship over a couple of years. He was such a fun guy to be around. Very trustworthy. He really had a good — probably the best — feel about what was going on, or looking ahead to what we were doing, and I sensed that.”

Hurney, who grew up in Wheaton and played guard for Catholic University’s club football team, worked two years for the Redskins. Then he went west with Beathard, who was hired as San Diego’s GM in 1990.

Beathard had bigger things in mind for Hurney. He brought him into football operations, and Hurney soon became the Chargers’ salary cap expert.

“He was really good at anything we asked him to do,” Beathard said. “He’s got a lot of energy, a lot of ideas. He just really helped pull everything together.”

San Diego made its first and only Super Bowl appearance after the 1994 season. Meanwhile, under the influence of the California-bred Beathard, whose passions included running and surfing, Hurney experienced a change in lifestyle. He donned a wetsuit and tried to surf — using a somewhat unconventional three-point stance — and competed in two marathons.

Hurney doesn’t surf any more, and last year he told a writer he gave up running, too. Told of this, Beathard seemed surprised. “I know he carries his running shoes with him,” he said.

Hurney cleared up the matter.

“I don’t run at all,” he said. “But I always take my stuff.”

Hurney, whose wife, Jeannie, is from Cleveland, wanted to get back East. Charlie Dayton, Hurney’s old PR boss with the Redskins, was now with the Panthers, and he put in a good word. In 1998, Hurney took his stuff and joined the Panthers as capologist. He became general manager when George Seifert’s reign as coach/GM ended after the 1-15 abomination and has since helped construct a team good enough to win the NFC South and beat Dallas 29-10 in a wild card game last week.

“He has a great ability to see the big picture and see how things interact,” Dayton said. “More than anything, that’s what he’s brought to the organization.”

Hurney, 48, hates to talk about himself (he grudgingly but good-humoredly consented to this interview) and emphasizes he is but one part of the decision-making process. And there were some big decisions. In 2002 the Panthers drafted defensive end Julius Peppers, which solidified the front four, and hired Fox, then the New York Giants’ defensive coordinator. The move looks brilliant, especially considering the popular sentiment to hire Steve Spurrier. This year was marked by a strong draft and the free-agent signings of Davis, a former Redskin who set a Carolina rushing record, and improving quarterback Jake Delhomme.

The work is done by committee. Hurney and Fox, who have known each other since both worked in San Diego, consult regularly. Joining in are Mark Koncz and Tony Softi, the heads of pro and college scouting, respectively, and scouts from both departments.

“Everyone has a voice,” Hurney said. “The neat thing here is how we all work together as a group. This is so difficult, it takes a lot of people working together to be successful. We have a great atmosphere and a lot of people who contribute.”

“When it comes down to making a decision, the decision is fairly obvious because it’s talked out and everyone feels like he can give an opinion. It’s a very open atmosphere.”

The Panthers’ founder and owner is Jerry Richardson, who used to catch Johnny Unitas’ passes with the Baltimore Colts. One son, Mark, is the president of the team. Another son, Jon, heads the Carolinas Stadium Authority. If you expect an owner to really get involved in football decisions, perhaps to the extent that owners far less schooled in the game get involved, it would be this one. But that’s not the case. Like most owners, the Richardsons have sign-off authority, but they let the football people do the football work.

“We obviously communicate with them daily, and they know everything,” Hurney said. “We have a good structure, and the decision-making process seems to work.”

As with New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, another ex-newspaperman, Hurney’s writing days seem a long time ago. But they were meaningful, both personally and professionally. He met his wife while both worked at this newspaper. As a reporter, Hurney was able to examine every aspect of a successful NFL franchise. He didn’t know it then, but observing a team doing things the right way made a lasting impression.

“The way the whole structure was, it was very similar to the structure we have now,” he said. “Bobby and Joe always had very open discussions, and when it was over, everyone was on the same page. I like to think we’re very much like that.”

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