Life and Leadership in Football’s Silly Season

by Lee Buford on January 6, 2011

For those of you who follow football this time of year you are probably aware that we are experiencing the daily uncertainty of the annual “silly season.” Even if you aren’t familiar with the terminology, you are seeing it play out in front of your very eyes. And in the midst of all the chaos and uncertainty there are quite a few lessons on life and leadership to be learned.

Football’s “silly season” commonly refers to this time of year because uncertainty reigns supreme. In the college ranks there are way too many bowl games, battles among sub-par teams in games for which predicting a winner is less difficult than naming the title sponsor funding the madness. Coaches are jumping ship or being fired en masse. And across the land underclassmen are faced with the decision of whether or not to continue their college careers or declare themselves eligible for the NFL Draft.

Playoff madness is upon us in the NFL, while coaches, GMs, and other executives are playing an extended game of musical chairs. And, as if this year’s “silly season” needed a little extra intrigue, fans are watching intently as billionaire owners are threatening to lock out their millionaire players if a new collective bargaining agreement cannot be reached. Oh, and almost all of this, college and pro, is riddled with manipulation, double talk, smoke and mirrors, and mass confusion. It can be, in fact, downright silly!

That said, as is this case in the midst of all chaos and confusion, there are some good lessons to be learned for those willing to take a closer look. Here are three examples we can learn from, all from the past week or so:

LEAD FROM THE FRONT

I’m a big Jim Harbaugh fan….not so much for his success at Stanford, but as a long-time Chicago Bears fan. He has taken Stanford to new heights and is now the ‘toast of the town” from a coaching perspective, currently weighing his options and offers from several suitors, college and pro alike. I want to see Harbaugh succeed and I’ve confident he will continue to do so, but I must say I was extremely disappointed in how he handled his role as a leader following the team’s Orange Bowl game this week.

When faced with the obvious questions on his future he repeatedly blew them off as if he couldn’t believe they were being asked. If you watched the post-game interview or press conference you noted several times where he dodged a question and threw it over on his players, as if saying, “talk to these guys…it’s all about them.” In his defense, the questions were obvious and certainly better suited for another time and place, but there was clearly a better way to lead.

Harbaugh should have addressed the issue up front, by saying something to the effect of this (my words):

 “Let me say from the start, I understand there are a lot of questions about my future at Stanford as well as that of Andrew Luck (Stanford QB), but we will not address those tonight. Our team just completed a great season with a big win in the Orange Bowl, and tonight is going to be all about this team, the players, and what they’ve accomplished. I would appreciate if you’d respect that for the sake of what these kids have accomplished. We will certainly address all other questions in the days ahead, but not tonight.”

That is leading from the front…addressing potential issues for your team by meeting them head-on as the leader. Be out front by setting the tone and the expectations for your team and others.

AVOID THE HYPE – WEIGH THE CONSEQUENCES

We all know that the decisions we make today have the potential to impact our lives for years to come. Nowhere is this more evident than in football’s “silly season.” We’ve seen (now former Michigan coach) Rich Rodriguez fall from the most sought after coach in football to the unemployment line, all in the course of three years. Rodriguez, who ironically accepted the Alabama job for a couple of hours prior to reversing field and staying at West Virginia three years ago, ultimately jumped to Michigan and was unable to produce a fast enough turnaround to keep his job.

All sides probably could and would have made better decisions for the long haul had they been more diligent in weighing the consequences versus getting caught up in the hype machine. Michigan has a storied football heritage, and Rodriguez didn’t forget how to coach when he left Morgantown, but clearly coach and school were not a good fit for each other. However, in their haste to nab the hottest candidate on the market Michigan offered Rodriguez an offer he couldn’t refuse. Now both are paying the price.

In another example, the New York Giants have decided to retain their coach, Tom Coughlin, because they are convinced he is the right man to lead the team. Despite the team’s failure to meet this year’s expectations they believe Coughlin is an excellent coach with a proven track record, and they aren’t willing to sacrifice future success for what may or may not yield immediate gratification.

Don’t get me wrong…there is an appropriate time to make a change if things are not going well. The question is “when?” For Michigan it’s now. For the Giants it’s not. And only time will tell is you made the right decision. (You should read Scott McKain’s post on this very subject.) Your long-term success or failure may depend on the very decision you’re pondering today.  Avoid the hype and weigh the consequences.

STAND TRUE TO YOUR CORE

This is a rather obvious mandate for all of us, but one so often disregarded in the wake of confusion and silliness. Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck announced this week that he would NOT turn pro, but rather would return to school for his final year. What? Seriously? He is the sure bet, guaranteed, number one pick and the draft…and he’s turning it down? Yep. He is, because he’s staying true to his core values, principles, and desires for life. And while it may be shocking, it is quite refreshing to see.

Charlotte sports anchor Bill Voth wrote an excellent piece on Luck’s decision. Swimming against the current is not always easy but, as we all have learned, the grass is not always greener either. For Luck, the decision makes all the sense in the world, and that’s really all that matters.

There are certainly numerous other lessons we can learn from this and all seasons in life. The key is that we must be willing to learn from the successes and failures of others and apply the learnings in our daily lives. Actions yield consequences, good and bad, and if we take some time to learn from the actions of others we stand a much better chance of  making better decisions ourselves.

If we do that our lives may not seem quite as “silly” as this season in football.

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