Sure, too many coaches write books that try to apply the lessons of football to the world of business. But there really are some management lessons that can be learned on the gridiron.
At 7:30 a.m. on an already humid August morning, I sit down to talk shop with Herman Edwards, head coach of the New York Jets. My eyes are still waxed shut from sleep; Edwards already has been on the job for three hours. His in-season workdays start at 4:30 a.m. Not that he drops his type A ways in the off-season. Earlier this year, he drove 14 hours through a blizzard just to keep an appointment with NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
We walk over to the practice field. Players stretch. Coordinators and assistant coaches confer. I get my bearings courtesy of a Jumbo Elliott-size iced coffee. Edwards bounds around, clapping, barking, cajoling, blowing his whistle, trading barbs with linebacker Marvin Jones, schmoozing the team president, etc. In this, his third year at the Jets helm, the coach's method--part Power of Positive Thinking, part Warren Sapp immovable force--seems to be clicking. The once-wayward franchise made the playoffs for the second consecutive year last season. If Edwards can keep the team in contention, his reputation as one of the bright young minds of the game will only grow.
And so will his credibility as a management guru.
Just as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks go to Disneyland, Super Bowl-winning coaches write business books. There's an insatiable market for tomes detailing the blocking-and-tackling schemes of whoever last smooched the Vince Lombardi Trophy. Jon Gruden's Do You Love Football?!: Winning With Heart, Passion & Not Much Sleep came out in September.
In the off-season and when they retire, coaches also hit the lecture circuit, supplementing their income over flank steak and keg beer at sales conferences in Atlantic City. It is easy to understand why business audiences thirst for managerial lessons from guys donning headsets and neon polyester windbreakers. For starters, coaches get to live out every manager's inner desire to scream at employees, a.k.a. the players--the scraps televised for our enjoyment. Football's top managers also present tantalizing management case studies because their decisions are easy to grade--as they are, regularly, by drunken, shirtless fat guys in face paint. (Honestly, would you like it if a bunch of Packers Cheeseheads were on your board of directors?)
Sure, the expectation that honest-to-goodness managerial techniques can be absorbed from the leaders of the 53 men who play a violent game once a week--and instituted on the manufacturing floor of, say, a xylophone factory--may seem a bit of a stretch to some. But ask yourself, have you ever suggested that an employee "stick to the game plan?" Or "run the hurry-up offense?" Or "dominate the line of scrimmage?" It's curious how many entrepreneurs use language grounded in physicality even though most spend 10 hours a day at a PC.
Defending the business-as-football analogy (the best defense is always a good offense, right?), Lisa Delpy Neirotti, professor of sports management at George Washington University, says that "business is about managing people, and the lessons of a coach can definitely be applied to a CEO." Former New York Giants linebacker and current apparel entrepreneur Carl Banks agrees, telling me, "Successful teams, just like businesses, have an environment where everyone believes in the leader, and they perform accordingly."
So can the NFL sub for an M.B.A.? To find out, I visited training camps in August (average temperature: ungodly) and talked to a handful of the league's elite coaches--guys who have been to the playoffs. Certainly some of them had ideas about managing that seemed relevant to entrepreneurs. For example, Brian Billick of the Baltimore Ravens (author of Competitive Leadership: Twelve Principles for Success) is widely considered an ace at crafting motivational messages.
Now the popular image of a motivational speech in football is that of a red-faced saliva shower from a Mike Ditka-type whose kicker just shanked a game-winning field goal. The league still has its old-school hard apples (e.g., Dallas's own Lazarus, Bill Parcells). But Billick is part of a new school of communicators whose philosophies descended from former San Francisco 49ers head coach and current Stanford business school lecturer Bill Walsh. The new breed employs a more sophisticated approach. Screeching speeches "last about as long as it takes a player to run down and get his ass knocked off," Billick jokes. In the age of money, media, and Randy Moss, a nuanced style works better, Billick explains. "When coaches said, 'Jump,' players used to say, 'How high?' Now they say, 'Why?' and 'Is it in my contract?" he says.
In 1998, as the offensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings, Billick got his team to maintain its focus after winning the division by challenging players to break the league record for points scored in a season. In 2000, he used the same technique on the Ravens defense, which said nevermore, holding opponents to a league-record 165 points. The Ravens won Super Bowl XXXV that year. In 2001, Billick invited HBO/NFL Films to make Hard Knocks, a behind-the-scenes documentary of training camp. He figured the players wouldn't get complacent in front of the omnipresent cameras. It worked--the Ravens made it back to the playoffs the following year. The lesson for business owners here? I'd venture to say HBO isn't going to come in and keep your employees in check unless you happen to be the proprietor of a gentlemen's club. But finding creative ways to challenge your work force isn't a bad takeaway.
Looking to cement the connection between football and management a little more, I drop in on the Philadelphia Eagles camp in Bethlehem, Pa. Enroute to lunch, Andy Reid spells it out for me. Football "is a profession, a serious one," he says, ignoring the fact that one of his employees wears a bird costume on the job. "It's the way these fellas and I make our living, so I approach it like a business." A quiet bear of a man, Reid can lay claim to the title that every New Age-y business expert prizes most--that of a "transformational leader." The coach has taken the Eagles from a 5-11 mess to the winners of more regular-season games than anybody else in the NFL since 2000. Reid chalks up his success to "staying consistent and being honest with one another. I want guys that do their job." Sound advice that the Eagles adhered to during the highs and lows, and it looks as though the businesslike approach has spread throughout the ranks. "Be it the boardroom or the football field, you've got to cut your burn and drive your revenue," declares Eagles cornerback Troy Vincent (who owns several businesses, including a financial services company).
New York Giants coach Jim Fassel, like Vincent, is another budding entrepreneur (he and his son own two Quiznos sandwich shops in New Jersey). In 2000, Fassel famously guaranteed that his team, despite a midseason slump, would get to the playoffs. At first the declaration was mocked on sports talk radio. But Fassel's squad used it as a rallying cry, putting together a seven-game winning streak that lasted until the Super Bowl, which they lost to the Ravens.
Fassel has mastered the art of knowing when and how to deflect outside criticism away from the players. By making a dramatic guarantee, he focused attention on himself, which gave his team a chance to regroup. "I want fans with passion," says Fassel, "but the downside is, if you don't do well, I've seen guys tarred and feathered, it's brutal." (Particularly so in New York--coaching here "is like dog years, three for every one," the Jets' Edwards says.)
Fassel says he got into the coaching racket because he always wanted to be his own boss, to "be the bell cow" in his words. But the truth is, no NFL coach owns his team--and three of them work for bosses Bill Bidwell, Dan Snyder, and Al Davis. With a cantankerous capitalist lording over you from a luxury box, the appeal of gridiron managing starts to lose its luster. And while regular business owners can define success in a variety of ways--profits, growth, a better life, even their own luxury box--coaches only have touchdowns, field goals, and the occasional safety. CEOs also have the freedom to set milestones according to their own schedules. But in football, as Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher emphasizes to me, "it's a difficult sell to tell the fan base to have patience."
"When coaches said, 'jump,' players used to say, 'how high?' now they say, 'why?' and 'is it in my contract?" says Billick.
On the plus side, fired coaches usually end up as coordinators, in the collegiate ranks, or as color commentators--rarely do they watch their life's work go belly-up and cease to exist (XFL alumni excepted). Still, it's a short life span. Fisher is in his 10th season at the helm of the Titans, and only Bill Cowher of the Pittsburgh Steelers has more seniority. The Titans coach's mustachioed cool enabled him to get through three cities and four stadiums, leaving the ghosts of the Houston Oilers to haunt the Astrodome. "It was tenuous, stressful, but we're ready to handle any distraction," says Fisher, who managed to stay in charge this long mostly because of the razzle-dazzle play now known as the "Music City Miracle" that the Titans pulled off a few years ago to get into Super Bowl XXXIV.
Maybe the reason football coaches hold sway over so many business owners boils down to passion. Entrepreneurs can sense that, like themselves, coaches embrace their grueling existence with the belief that one day they'll be carried off the field in a stream of championship confetti. Back at Jets camp, listening to the enthusiasm flowing from Edwards as he details how he pulled the trigger on a quarterback switch and saved the 2002 season--"You change the right guard, nobody cares, but changing quarterback is a big deal"--I think I finally get it. Even though all those rah-rah clichés that find their way into management-speak have very little substantive meaning, there is a lesson that entrepreneurs can take from football. "The big thing is be yourself," Edwards says. "You really can't be anybody else." Watching him sweating through his socks on a patch of Long Island grass just off the Hempstead Turnpike, it's obvious there is nowhere else he'd rather be.
Patrick J. Sauer is an Inc. staff writer.