SBJ/February 28 - March 6, 2005/Forty Under 40

Tom Lewand

TOM LEWAND, DETROIT LIONS

BY BILL KING
SENIOR WRITER

In one of his first meetings with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, Tom Lewand pulled out a business card that elicited a chuckle. In his second year working full time as an executive with the Detroit Lions, Lewand had been promoted to a newly created position.

Tom Lewand
• Titles: Executive vice president and chief operating officer
• Team: Detroit Lions
• Age: 35
• Education: B.A., University of Michigan, 1991; law and business degrees, University of Michigan, 1996
• Career: Worked one year as an environmental adviser to Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh in 1991; hired by the Lions in 1997
• Family: Wife, Suzanne; daughters Cayleigh, 7, Paige, 5, Shannon, 2, and Erin, 6 months
• Last vacation: One week in northern Michigan in June 2001
• Last book read: "America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation" by Michael MacCambridge
• Last movie seen: "Million Dollar Baby"
• Greatest achievement: My wife and four kids
• Greatest disappointment: Not winning the Super Bowl
• Fantasy job: I'm in it.
• Executives most admired: William Clay Ford Jr. and Roger Penske
• Business advice: Hire people smarter than you and let them do their jobs.
“Director of salary cap and stadium development,” Tagliabue said, reading from the card. “Five years ago, you wouldn’t have existed. There was no salary cap, and we weren’t building stadiums.”

The implementation of the NFL salary cap — and the resulting emergence of the capologist’s position for which Lewand was hired in 1997 — yielded a new career path within NFL franchises. A sharp young lawyer who understood contracts and economics could marry those skills to an interest in football. The Lions also were working toward a new stadium and chose Lewand to spearhead its development.

Lewand parlayed those skills and that opportunity into a combo role that remains rare in the professional sports world. As executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Lions, he has maintained responsibility for cap strategy while adding oversight of most of the franchise’s day-to-day business functions.

“I wouldn’t trade what I do for any other role,” said Lewand, who spent the days leading up to the Super Bowl working on cap strategy and budgeting for the offseason. “I made a conscious decision to dedicate myself to the salary cap whenever it’s necessary, because really, your long-term success in this league will always come back to that.

“And, since I’m so involved in revenue, it gives me a perspective on all facets of the organization. If you can oversimplify it into a discussion of two sides of a curtain, I’d say I see behind both sides.”

Lewand came out of Michigan with the ideal pedigree for the job as capologist: a joint J.D./MBA, along with a stretch of experience that set him apart from anyone that Lions owner Bill Ford Jr. had encountered. Lewand was manager of the football team at Michigan throughout his four years as an undergrad and then through grad school, first with Bo Schembechler and then with Gary Moeller.

That gave him an understanding of coaches, players and scouts that most entry-level executives are lacking.

“He told me when he hired me that he had seen people with an MBA and with a law degree, but never anybody who had both and also had a football background,” Lewand said. “I think that at least provided a degree of credibility for me with the coaches and personnel people here. You understand how a football team functions and what your coaches’ needs are and your GM’s needs are. You understand that your role in managing the salary cap is to support them.”

The emergence of the salary cap in the NFL and NBA and greater attention paid to resource allocation in Major League Baseball has created opportunities for executives like Lewand who until recent years would have been shut out of the personnel side of most organizations.

“The cottage industry of the salary cap has opened the eyes of a lot of people,” Lewand said. “Now, they can more easily see a nexus between a business or law background and sports.”

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