When I started coaching in the NFL in 1981, there were fourteen African American assistant coaches in the whole league, and no head coaches or coordinators. I didn’t show up my first day of work thinking that I was going to be a head coach and win a Super Bowl, but I did think about the future and reaching goals. I wanted to learn as much as I could and do my job well. I believed if I did that, I’d get promoted within the organization. And I didn’t let the fact that there were no black men in those high-level jobs put a damper on my thinking. I always believed that, because of who I was working for and the people around me, I would learn enough to be an excellent coach.
I used to talk to my teams regularly about perception versus reality. Valuing style over substance happens in football a lot, just as it does in life. Certain players are perceived by fans and the media as different people than the ones their families and friends know. Certain teams are looked at in ways that may not be accurate. Analysts are always using terms like “a finesse team, a physical team, a dome team, an offensive team,” and so on.
Tyndale House Publishers, who published all of my books, came to me and asked me if I would like to write a commentary on a topic for the Every Man’s Bible. I chose integrity because that was so important to my parents and they drilled that into us. As I wrote and shared on my blog several months ago, integrity is not determined by your past or your position in life. It is determined by a decision to be a person of integrity or not.
You can achieve more with a team than without. I’ve seen it time and time again: A team that is functioning well is more than just the sum of its parts. In fact, the Colts team that won the Super Bowl in 2007 was not the most talented team I had during my years in Indianapolis. But it was the team that came together best and played at a higher level than you might have expected from the sum of its individual pieces. Each member of the organization had bought into our clear vision and the way we planned to accomplish it, both on and off the field.
Every year when I was a coach, I would challenge the players to remember that our goal was to be the best team we could be, and that eventually we would need contributions from everyone. We saw the fruit of mentor leadership when we got to the Super Bowl. Nick Harper, our veteran defensive back, got hurt and couldn’t finish a game. Young Kelvin Hayden went in for him and made the game-winning interception. Kelvin was prepared for that moment in part because Nick had spent time with him and helped him to be ready. That’s the kind of chemistry great teams have.
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Chuck Noll didn’t try to be all things to all people. He didn’t try to change who he was or alter his approach. Instead, he hired coaches with different personalities. I must admit that I didn’t notice this when I was playing for him in Pittsburgh, but it became apparent once I was on the Steelers’ staff for a while. He always looked for good football coaches who were also good people and who had different strengths that they brought to the team.
As a former coach I am often asked, what do you do with a player or what do you do with children or what do you do with anybody who isn’t trying their hardest? I have found when coaching players the most effective technique is not brow beating. If someone wasn’t trying it was important that I didn’t say, “Try harder!” or “You have to do this!” while threatening them with consequences. Instead, I came up with the following system when motivating kids and players, and it has worked well.
A couple of months ago was the NCAA March Madness Basketball Tournament. One of the teams that had a great run was South Carolina. During a press conference, a budding reporter from Sports Illustrated Kids asked a great question to head coach Frank Martin. He asked about in teaching team defense which is more important: technique or attitude. It was a terrific question and Coach Martin gave a great answer.
Under a clear, blue sky, a man sprints to catch a speeding train. He has fired a machine gun at his pursuers-Nazis-and thrown grenades at them, setting various other charges and traps for them as well. Now, he has almost caught up with the German transport train that he and his fellow prisoners of war have commandeered and are riding into Switzerland. He closes in on the train, running with his hand out…and is shot and killed with his hand just inches from his fellow prisoners and only feet away from the Swiss border and safety. Death by inches.
Please join Benjamin Watson and me for a special event called Under Our Skin: A Forum on Race and Faith. The current state of affairs in our country has highlighted the continual need to bridge the racial divide.