Harris hire part of Pirates' continuing search for outside-the-box thinking
BRADENTON, Fla. — Neal Huntington and Chip Kelly grew up 20 miles apart in New Hampshire — Kelly is five years Huntington's senior — yet the Granite State natives had never met. But they had admired each other's professional work from a distance.
The Pirates are viewed as a forward-thinking organization, and Kelly's Eagles were regarded as perhaps the most cutting-edge team in the NFL, and most controversial, not just in regard to their up-tempo offense but for their attempts to maximize player performance.
Last August, they met and pulled back the curtains on each other's worlds.
The Pirates were in Philadelphia for a series with the Phillies, just down Pattison Avenue from where the Eagles were holding training camp. A handful of Pirates officials, including Huntington, observed a practice and visited with Eagles officials. The two organizations also met at the Pirates' Federal Street headquarters last year, where they “shared notes,” according to Huntington.
Huntington observed that football is “light years ahead of teaching” compared to baseball, citing, for example, the intricacy of schemes and technique. “It's not what are they teaching but how they are teaching,” he said.
In an email exchange with the Tribune-Review, Kelly said “What Neal and Clint (Hurdle) have put together with the Pirates certainly caught our eye.” Kelly, now with the San Francisco 49ers, said he's spent time with the Navy Seals and is interested in studying any “high-performing organization” regardless of the field.
“We are always searching for better ways to do things,” Huntington said. “As a result, we like to connect with other organizations whether it is college or pro sports. ... It's an exchange of information. How do they do things?”
So when the Eagles fired Kelly and members of his staff this offseason, the Pirates approached and hired Kelly's former “chief of staff” James Harris in February. Harris had made an impression upon the Pirates during their meetings. He was an assistant under Kelly since their days at Oregon, working in a hybrid role where he managed nutrition and performance, and helped athletes with off-the-field matters.
“James was a guy that always fascinated us,” Huntington said. “He had a large role with the Eagles on their performance team. He's also an avid learner. He loves to study leadership and driving culture.”
When was the last time Harris played baseball?
“That's a good question. I don't know,” Huntington said. “It wasn't relevant. Leadership, culture, and physical performance are things that cross all of sports.”
The Pirates continue to look beyond baseball for competitive advantages. Last summer, they hired Chris Johnson, a member of the Golden State Warriors' performance staff.
“It's maximizing performance,” Huntington said. “How do we help this player get better every day and perform as consistently as possible?”
How important are Harris and Johnson? The Pirates have made each unavailable for media interviews.
The Pirates were fascinated by Harris' background.
He walked on at Nebraska, where he earned a master's in nutrition and health sciences.
In 2001, he became Nebraska's coordinator of sports nutrition. According to Nebraska's Web site, his duties included: “body composition and frame analysis, nutrition education, meal planning, supplementation and counseling for all Husker athletes.”
He joined Oregon in 2007, hired by Kelly. Oregon advanced to the BCS title game in 2010, and in '13 the Eagles hired Kelly, who brought Harris with him.
According to the Washington Post, under Kelly and Harris, Eagles players' morning routines included “soreness and mood surveys,” urine tests and results from heart rate readings. Some saw the practices as too intrusive. Players also were lectured on the importance of sleep and hydration, and the adverse effects of alcohol and marijuana.
“To us, success is all about the preparation,” Kelly wrote. “James was an integral part of what we were able to accomplish at both Oregon and in Philadelphia.”
The Pirates have taken notice. They have minor leaguers track their fluid intake and hydration. In 2014, the club introduced the Zephyr BioHarness on a volunteer basis into the major league clubhouse to monitor players' heart rate. Mark Melancon has his blood analyzed, and is looking forward to working with Harris. Last spring, the Pirates reduced their players' playing time after studying the rest patterns of the NBA's Warriors.
Harris is working alongside Pirates trainer Todd Tomczyk and stretch coach Brendon Huttman, leaders of what the Pirates refer to as their “performance team.”
Tomczyk believes nutrition and exercise science transcends sport.
Evidence? The club's 12,000-square-foot weight training facility at Pirate City includes a 20-yard strip of field turf complete with a football gridiron. Outside, the Pirates measure prospects' vertical jumping ability.
“It all begins with ‘Why?' ” Tomczyk said. “Why do athletes move the way they move? ... We've been asking the question of ‘Why?' for the five years I've been here.”
Tomczyk said Harris already is making an impact.
“He adds, ‘I experienced this with the Eagles, did you guys think about it this way?' ” Tomczyk said. “The baseball experience, I don't think (matters).”
The Pirates' interest in Harris went beyond maximizing on-field performance. He also helped Oregon and Eagles players with off-the-field matters.
“Preparing for life as a professional athlete doesn't end in the practice facility,” Kelly wrote. “I expect him to have a similar impact in the Pirates organization.”
Said former Oregon running back LaMichael James to The Oregonian of Harris: “If you get into a jam, you call James.”
They called James for issues ranging from managing money, to frustration with coaches and relationships off the field.
Huntington has visited other Division I football and NFL teams, typically during their training camps when coinciding with a Pirates' road trip. The schools?
“The other teams will remain nameless,” Huntington said.
What is apparent is the Pirates will look anywhere for an edge.