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John McDonough: Organizational mastermind or something else?

Kevin Kaduk
Kevin Kaduk

Good morning, frents …

Thoughts and prayers to the poor unemployment office worker John McDonough finally gets on the phone after trying to file for benefits today.


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What to make of the John McDonough era?

Writing a eulogy for John McDonough’s career is a tricky task.

To start with, it’s presumably not fully dead. Chicago’s most visible marketing man is only 66 and likely has a few more deals to swing for whatever future employer hires him to change the way they’re viewed.

But like millions of other Americans, McDonough is now without a job after Rocky Wirtz dropped a stunner in Chicago after firing him late Monday afternoon. The split  created the type of headlines for a hockey team that McDonough would have loved in a time when the Bears and Bulls have dominated all sports conversation in town.

If it weren’t his head on the pike, of course. McDonough was the reported victim of a power struggle with team vice president Danny Wirtz, according to The Athletic’s Jon Greenberg. Rocky’s son will now serve as the interim president as an interested and slightly disgruntled fanbase waits to see which direction the team goes.

After spending the first 30 years of my Hawks fandom under the not-so-benevolent leadership of Danny’s grandpa, I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t slightly alarmed a Wirtz is back calling the shots for the Blackhawks.

But I’m reserving my judgment until we see what else is done as the Hawks try and move back into contending position for the back half of Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews’ careers.

That leaves us to assess the McDonough era.

As I said, writing a eulogy for a team president that didn’t have a say in personnel decisions — *cough* Bryan Bickell Brent Seabrook *cough* — is difficult because 1) most team presidents aren’t as visible as McDonough and 2) most team presidents aren’t as successful as McDonough was.

McDonough cleans out his desk at 1800 West Madison after 13 seasons, three Stanley Cups and a top line of his resume that might read “savior of franchises” if it’s written on a day he’s feeling particularly proud of himself.

After all, it wasn’t long ago that I was sitting with a few of you in a near-empty 300-level at the United Center. We were all there on the $8 student ID ticket deal that most of us wield as a proof we’re not frontrunners.

Today? That same ticket costs 10 times as much on my season-ticket plan and there are at least 100 times as many people in the seats. There are also twice as many Stanley Cup banners as there used to be, which makes the previous two facts easier to swallow.

How much credit can McDonough take for the championship era?

From a hockey standpoint, it’s hard to make a big claim. As his critics are quick to point out, McDonough slid in through the rocket’s door as the countdown neared zero and enjoyed the ride that three future Hall of Famers already on the roster helped lead.

My view, however, has always been that McDonough deserves neither the credit he thought he might have deserved nor the total slighting a lot of people want to stick him with.

Was it an easy call to put the home games on television? Putting Pat Foley back behind the mike? Making peace with Stan Mikita and — ugh — Bobby Hull?

Of course. All of those actions were on the wish list of every Hawks fan the day Bill Wirtz died. McDonough was simply listening to his new clients after taking the gig.

But it’s one thing to say you’re going to do a bunch of easy things and another to put in the team to actually get them done. McDonough walked into a situation that resembled a low-rent version of the mom-and-pop Bengals and leaves a franchise that’s closer in brand to the Patriots and Yankees.

That doesn’t just happen by putting games on television and calling it a day, either. After getting the easy stuff out of the way, McDonough and his team really got to work.

He made sure those televised games could actually be seen, forming partnerships with bars across the city and suburbs to make sure the channel got changed to the Hawks when it was game time. (Ask Bulls fans now: Not a small thing.)

As social media exploded, the team became a master of creating content that went viral, selling the personality of their players and making them gigantic stars past the small demographic of palookas who used to sit in that empty 300-level.

The team got a goal song, the fate of which I now wonder about.

In short, McDonough did the job he was hired to do. After a decade-plus of neglect, the United Center became the place to be. Hawks jerseys became the thing to wear. Toews and Kane became the pitchmen to move Camaros and season-ticket packages.

As someone who grew up wearing his Hawks support as somewhat of a curious-looking birthmark, I didn’t hate seeing my team become the cool thing in town.

So what’s next for McDonough?

As Jon Greenberg wrote in his column, McDonough is a famously demanding boss, one that spurred as much murmured disdain as begrudging respect. He can bully underlings and media members with the worst of them.

He’s also now worked for two of the city’s sports franchises, having surfed the wave of Harry Caray, Sammy Sosa and Beanie Babies as he turned Wrigley Field into the place to be during the 80s and 90s.

It seems like a longshot that McDonough would go to work for any of the other five major franchises given their current personnel, but each of them present situations that McDonough could be adept at handling.

• Like the Hawks under Bill Wirtz, the Bears haven’t yet acknowledged that they’re a hermit kingdom that can’t run a football team. But McDonough could certainly help spin that strong brand into something bigger if he put the right football people in charge. I asked my Twitter followers on Monday which team they’d like to see McDonough lead and the Bears were the winners by a wide margin.

• Like the Hawks 13 years ago, the Bulls are in strong need of mending relationships with a big portion of the fanbase that has drifted away the past half-decade.

• Like the Hawks with a young Kane and Toews, the White Sox boast a young roster full of personality and possibly on the brink of something great. McDonough grew up a Sox fan and probably wouldn’t mind chasing the World Series title he never got on the North Side. (Brooks Boyer has got this one, though.)

• Like the Hawks playing in front of an empty United Center, the Fire will have a lot of seats to fill at Soldier Field whenever the MLS returns to playing in front of fans.

• Like a young Hawks team fighting for relevancy in a crowded sports landscape, the Sky have a good product that deserves to be seen by more people.

The current pandemic, though, likely means that McDonough will have plenty of time to consider his next move. Maybe he runs a high-powered consulting shop for all of the brands that call Chicago home.

Or maybe something opens up in a league office or with a network.

Wherever he lands, though, McDonough will be wearing three rings — the opening and closing arguments for anyone who’s unsure what legacy he left with the Hawks.


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Mark Lazerus on what McDonough’s firing means for Stan Bowman and Jeremy Colliton. (The Athletic)

Lori Lightfoot said she can see baseball returning to Chicago this summer, just without any fans. (NBC Sports Chicago)

The Michael Jordan saving Dennis Rodman from Las Vegas story didn’t really happen that way. (NBC Sports Chicago)

Isiah Thomas made the media rounds on Monday and said he’s “paid a heavy price” for not shaking the Bulls’ hands. (Slam)

Cutty and K-Cav divorce details, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Page Six)

OK, I laughed.

Dan Wiederer weighs all the issues surrounding the Bears upcoming decision on Mitch Trubisky’s fifth-year option. (Tribune)

Matt Miller’s early 2021 mock draft has the Bears taking Ohio State QB Justin Fields at the 13th spot. No mention, though, on if Ryan Pace will be the GM selecting him. (Bleacher Report)

The oral history of the 1981 McDonalds All-American game, when Wichita turned out to see Aubrey Sherrod — and walked away talking about a teenaged Michael Jordan instead. (Wichita Eagle)

• I haven’t been at a restaurant for so long that I was almost jealous of my man Jay Busbee being sent to a Waffle House in Atlanta on assignment. Almost. (Yahoo)

That’s it for today! As always, thank you for being a #frentofthenewsletter.



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