On Coaching

One of my alma maters isn’t performing too well in football these days. It’s difficult to watch, to say the least.

Numerous factors play into this of which I’m likely both ignorant of their existence and complexity so I’ll refrain from commenting on my former institution specifically. What I think I can speak on is the ineptitude in adapting coaching strategies to well studied management and motivation theories.

My own two cents is that coaches are generally evaluated on wins and losses. Wins and losses are results. Hiring of head coaches often times seems based on previous results (points scored, yards allowed, number of players that have gone pro). The logical fallacy here is that nothing else went in to winning than the performance of the coach on gameday.

Hiring based on wins and losses ignores a crucial fact: the majority of training takes place out of season. In fact, by the end of training camp — before a single game is played — half of the season’s padded practices have passed.

Player behavior — when not under the constant scrutiny of position and head coaches — is controlled by culture. This rings true for the business world as well. Recruitment and development is really driven entirely by culture.

The overwhelming majority of college football cultures are fear based. The threat of punishment or reduction in playing time are motivation tools of poor leaders and teachers. Easier in the short term but never sustainable in the long term.

Don’t blame coaches though! They’re very rarely incentivized by their bosses to think both long term and about processes instead of results. A constant athletic arms race and a replaceable labor force leads to short sighted decisions. But hell, if you had a money printing machine backed by the state government would you start messing with the gears?

We see great corporations develop cult like workforces, and yet ask any University how many football graduates give back to their alma mater and the response will hover close to 0%. Maybe the internal opinion is that these graduates probably won’t be worth much in the future so who cares. More likely it’s a misunderstanding that many athletes feel that they were grossly under compensated.

All this diatribe is about a singular point. In athletics, as well as business, culture matters more than wins or profits.

Defining an organizational culture has a number of benefits. In the long run recruitment costs dramatically fall, as do training costs and churn rates. We’d see much more efficient and innovative behavior and lower levels of binge drinking- a serious issue for athletes of which I constantly participated.

Identifying and recruiting the right athlete is still of utmost importance but developing those athletes holistically and empowering them to make decisions, even if sometimes wrong, without fear of extreme retribution is essential to turning around struggling athletic departments.

Schools that can’t seem to find a winning coach and are always waiting for him or her to get their players into the system are completely ignoring systemic culture problems. Look to consistently high achieving departments, not just sports, to learn from cultures of success (defined independent of wins and losses).

While I can’t speak to the specific cultures, both Stanford and Oregon have continued to dominate even after coaching changes. USC on the other hand has fallen on hard times. Stanford’s academic prestige should inhibit from succeeding given their restrictive admissions and yet among all sports they constantly excel.

We’re now seeing stagnant Web 2.0 giants, like PayPal and Yahoo, completely overhauling company culture in an effort to rekindle innovation and stave off fast approaching startup competitors. Almost all news coming out of Yahoo after Marissa Mayer left Google to become the CEO in Summer 2012 has been culture related.

The science behind building great culture and long term success is available in troves and yet many companies and athletic departments fight tooth and nail to not evolve in order to preserve their money printing machines. Even if they’re not well oiled and occasionally break down, a quick kick jumpstarts them to start coughing out smoke again.

One day, sooner than later, these machines will start to fall apart and competitors that invested in infrastructure will quickly outpace these aged giants.

To my alma mater- you’re in a people business so start investing in them!