Jaguars Owner/VP Tony Khan bringing a new outlook to sports
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By MICHAEL SCHOTTEY
"I was like a kid in a candy store."
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Tony Khan is the son of principal owner Shad Khan and serves as the team's Senior Vice President of Football Technology and Analytics. He's also the owner and chairman of TruMedia Networks, which is an engineering firm specializing in sports analytics for clients both in sports and sports media.
That kid in a candy store line was how Khan felt when he got to the Jaguars after his dad bought the team in 2012. Khan has been a huge sports fan for a long time and has always married his love of analytics and numbers to his love of sports. Above that transition, Khan said:
When I first got to Jacksonville, something that I wanted to add to football operations was an analytics department. It had been an interest of mine for a number of years. I had contacted [Football Outsiders writers] Aaron Schatz and Bill Barnwell with questions before we actually bought the Jaguars and got to know those guys. Bill had said that I had the most dog-eared copy of the Football Outsiders Almanac he had ever seen.
I had never really had access to the kind of confidential information and rich data that a football team could be sitting on top of. I had only used publicly available data before we took over the Jags.
When the Khans got to the Jaguars, things were in a bit of disarray. Former owner Wayne Weaver and former general manager Gene Smith had presided over a team going in the wrong direction for some time. However, Khan was pleased the team had recently hired a man named Mike Stoeber, calling him "the best person to manage football databases" that he's ever known.
The goal for the Jaguars growing Football Technology department is to build a more robust collection of data, analyze it and then integrate it into the on-the-field product in terms of personnel, scouting or game analysis for the front office and coaches.
"I think we've made really good progress," Khan said.
Perhaps most interesting is the real-time analytics Khan provides head coach Gus Bradley. Khan and his department are actually on the headset with Bradley during games and have been since Mike Mularkey was head coach.
Mike was very open to analytics and he was great on hearing us out as well, but the past three years with Gus have just been awesome. We have several meetings over the course of the week, and if I find any interesting trends, I try to share them with Gus. He's just an awesome person and great to work with."
We may not always agree on what the optimal decision is, but I trust him to make the optimal decision and to use the information from past games to try to decide what the outcome should be. We try to contextualize things. We look at past situations and provide him with real-time decision making.
Khan says he isn't trying to turn Bradley into a coach like the Arkansas high school coach who doesn't punt, and disagreements between the two of them as to what that "optimal decision" might be have gone every possible way—both have been right and both have been wrong–but that the focus is always on the process and not the results.
"And our process is really sound," Khan said.
On the personnel side of things, general manager David Caldwell is in complete control of the decision-making process, but Khan's team has been working on developing useful metrics and ideas that have been integrated more into Caldwell's decisions.
Dan Pompei wrote a feature on the Jaguars' scouting process for quarterback Blake Bortles after last year's draft. In that column, Khan's analytics on Bortles' passing under pressure was mentioned as a factor that helped inform the selection of the team's franchise passer.
Caldwell has also let Khan take on what he calls some "projects"—basically, players in undrafted free agency that the technology department's models say could provide the team some high upside. Khan is proud to say some of those players have either stuck around on the Jaguars roster or have continued to stick in the NFL elsewhere.
One great example is undrafted running back Corey Grant.
Yeah, that Corey Grant...the one who will be the starting kick returner for the Jaguars in Week 1. Khan mentioned Grant to me in our interview, and then later texted me after that game about the highlight above—a great reminder that as talented as Khan is and as high-powered as his position in the NFL might be, he's still a huge fan of the game at heart. As an owner of the team, he'll never have to divorce his passion from the job he's doing.
"Owner," however, is a bit of a misnomer in Khan's world. He uses the word in his Twitter bio, but makes it clear in conversation that his dad is the owner of the Jaguars, and his dad and Caldwell make all the decisions. Yet, the younger Khan is also present at owners meetings and takes his duty to learn things he might one day have to put into practice very seriously.
Khan says there is no one better than his dad from whom to learn everything he needs to know about running a business, growing a business and treating employees the right way. The younger Khan also took the opportunity to re-state his love for Jacksonville after recent reports had the team potentially moving to St. Louis.
We're doing some really great things in Jacksonville, and I don't think it's fair to take the focus off of all the great things that are happening there. I love Jacksonville, and I love what we've done in Jacksonville. My dad has a great vision for Jacksonville and things have gotten a lot bigger for the fans since he took over.
Khan's passion and focus are on Jacksonville and the analytics department he's building:
We just need to keep heading down the path we've begun—utilizing what we know about win probability and expected point data and how we can utilize these models in the decision making of our coaches. Also, working with the things we've found that tend to be predictive for players coming out of college to evaluate their chances of success in the NFL—using those models to develop a pool of young talent.
Yet, his vision doesn't stop with the Jaguars.
A few years ago, Khan invested in a little Boston company named TruMedia Networks. The company had been doing so well, he bought the rest of the company stock last summer, making him chairman and owner. His goal with TruMedia sounds a lot like his goal in Jacksonville: to build the best engineering firm in all of sports analytics in order to provide decision-makers with the best information to make those decisions.
"When you get to a major league baseball team," Khan said, "and see one of the best baseball players in the world preparing for his at-bats against one of the best pitchers in the world by using our platform—searching for different pitch-count situations or tendencies—and you realize that your stuff is being used by one of the best athletes in the world, that's pretty neat."
In fact, while Khan declined to provide the name of the player or the team, that player's team recently implemented a global scouting platform that TruMedia built for them, and they're using it for almost all facets of their baseball operations: scouting, coaching, game analysis and international player development.
TruMedia also provides information to media partners, which gives Khan another chance to see their product in action.
"If you watch ESPN," Khan said, "especially SportsCenter or Baseball Tonight, we do some really nice stuff for them which helps with their presentation of the information, so I get to see our work every day."
If Khan's dad is the perfect mentor for business, he's found just as incredible group of guys to mentor him in his sports analytics career. He calls recently promoted San Francisco 49ers team president Paraag Marathe the "godfather of NFL analytics," and calls him both a friend and mentor.
In addition, he's become friends and fellow sports-analytics illuminati with Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, Golden State Warriors assistant general manager Kirk Lacob, Toronto Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro, Cleveland Indians general manager Chris Antonetti, Boston Celtics Director of Scouting Dave Lewin and Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane.
That is a who's who of sports analytics minds. Add Khan, and you've got some of the brightest (and mostly young) minds in sports.
Whether with the Jaguars or TruMedia, Khan's knowledge and passion are evident in what he does, and it's difficult to bet against someone when you see those qualities in spades. The Jaguars begin 2015 with a chance to be one of the most improved teams in football, and that's thanks (in part) to Khan, even though he'd likely downplay his own role.
I couldn't help but think, as I sat following this interview, that Khan is living the life so many young sports fans dream of. In a limited way, he's playing Madden's franchise mode on the hardest setting. He's helping set rosters in real football while others dream of doing so like they love to do on fantasy football teams.
He's a fortunate man, yes, but he's also quickly proving he's the perfect guy for the job.