When Winning Isn’t Enough

Today there were two stories, one from college football and one from the NFL, that demonstrated winning is not enough for someone, even a very successful coach, to keep their position secure. These two examples demonstrate the pitfalls and sometimes unreasonable nature of life at elite coaching jobs where expectations are high, or whether other matters interfere with an appreciation of coaching excellence. In different ways, these two stories tell a somewhat disconcerting tale, that our stability in life may not be determined merely by our performance, but how we are able to manage the demands of others (even if they are unreasonable) and how we are able to handle the demands of diplomacy so as to avoid suffering because of too many interpersonal conflicts with others. This is, it ought to be noted, far easier said than done, although we should all give it our best effort.

The first story comes from Lincoln, Nebraska, where former University of Nebraska coach Bo Pellini was fired after seven seasons in which he coached the team to a 67-27 record, never losing more than four games in a season [1]. While a nearly 70% winning percentage would be enough for most colleges to be ecstatic, Nebraska is not most schools, and rather than being pleased at the occasional division championship and consistent performance in the upper echelon of their leagues, more was expected. The fact that Nebraska routinely lost games against elite teams and was never in contention for a national championship during his seven years means that now they will be looking for a coach to take them to the elite level around the nation, with coaching candidates knowing that even consistent winning is not enough to keep their jobs. Is this expectation reasonable? If we look at the seven seasons where Pellini coached, we can determine exactly how many teams were in contention for the national championship during this time, namely, the major bowls, as a generous definition of this elite:

2008 [2]: Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, Alabama, USC, Utah, Penn State, Ohio State, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech
2009 [3]: Alabama, Texas, Cincinnati, TCU, Florida, Boise State, Oregon, Ohio State, Georgia Tech, Iowa
2010 [4]: Auburn, Oregon, TCU, Stanford, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Virginia Tech, Connecticut
2011 [5]: LSU, Alabama, Oklahoma State, Stanford, Oregon, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, Michigan, Clemson, West Virginia
2012 [6]: Notre Dame, Alabama, Florida, Oregon, Kansas State, Stanford, Florida State, Northern Illinois, Louisville, Wisconsin
2013 [7]: Florida State, Auburn, Alabama, Michigan State, Stanford, Baylor, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Clemson, UCF
2014 [8]: Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, TCU, Baylor, Ohio State

In looking at this group of schools, it is clear that while some universities appear to have regularly been in contention for the national championship, or at least been a part of the most prestigious bowls, there are also plenty of universities who only did so once a year. Looking at the two conferences that Nebraska was a part of between 2008 and 2014, we see Oklahoma, Texas, Penn State, Ohio State, TCU, Iowa, Wisconsin, Oklahoma State, Michigan, Kansas State, Michigan State, and Baylor having contended for a championship while Nebraska did not. In most of these seasons, in fact, in all of them, Nebraska was only a win or two away from contending themselves. Did Nebraska overachieve with less skilled players, but were unable to compete in big matchups? Was the coaching staff unable to inspire the team against the best teams to gain that marquee win that would have catapulted them into contention for the national championship? Whatever the answer, Nebraska decided that seven years was long enough to wait for elite results and that it needed a change. It should remember, though, that not all change is progress, and consistent decent results may seem particularly appealing if there is regression to mediocrity or even worse in the future.

The second example comes from the NFL, with coach Harbaugh of the San Francisco 49ers. As most of my neighbors and friends in this area are passionate fans of the Seattle Seahawks [9], and as Harbaugh is a solid coach who during his time in the NFL has amassed a 72% winning percentage (43-16-1 as of writing), having gone to the Super Bowl once and gone to two additional conference championship games in only three complete seasons [10]. Yet in his fourth season, it appears inevitable that no matter how well he does, he will be coaching somewhere else. It seems staggering that a coach could find himself out of a job despite leading one of the top four teams in three years straight. Even this year, which just everyone agrees has been pretty strugglicious for the 49ers, they are still above .500 and in contention for a wild card spot, something that some teams would be ecstatic about (Tampa Bay or Oakland spring to mind here). If 7-5 (so far) is a disappointing season, it is worthwhile to remember how rare even mediocrity is for some teams, and to treasure the good moments even during difficult seasons.

Clearly, there must be something else going on, because based on a simple win-loss arithmetic there is no way that Harbaugh deserves to be fired or forced to fall on his sword in a forced resignation or some other separation of that kind. The fact that there is talk about trading him to another team (like the Jets or Raiders) for a draft pick [11] despite the fact that he led them to three straight NFC Championship Games in his first three seasons. Some have speculated, for example, that there has been difficulty between the front office and Harbaugh, although most consider it staggering that such a successful tenure could go so badly so quickly after only a few months of drama [12]. Most of us are willing to gut out drama that lasts into the years so long as there is some likelihood of success. This is certainly true when a great deal of money and fame is involved as well.

So how could things go so wrong? It is said that Harbaugh as a coach is pretty high-strung. It would not be surprising if he was demanding, intense, and/or prickly. A lot of people, many of whom are far less successful than he is, have those particular qualities. There would be two, possibly interrelated, matters that would lead such a successful coach losing a handle on a team so quickly. For one, a coach who was simply unable to get along with his bosses like the owners or is GM, would likely have trouble retaining his job no matter how talented he was. Having the ability to work with others and respect authority is essential to success in any realm of human activity. No amount of success would be sufficient for longevity for someone who lacks the ability to get along. The same would be true if a coach was abusive to players. Again, no amount of success makes it tolerable or acceptable for someone who is a bully or abuser either. Wins and losses have to come through building up respect and a team cohesion, even if most people have at least some tolerance for talented individuals who happen to have a bit of an edge about them, so long as that edge is tempered with a modicum of diplomacy and respect.

What lessons can we all learn from these troubles? For one, we must understand that consistently being just above mediocre or results that come with too much abrasiveness ultimately may not prove acceptable in our lives. If we are expected to be elite, simply being above average all the time will not be good enough. Additionally, even if we are immensely successful, there may be too much baggage with that success for us to ultimately find the stability we seek. This may even be true if the abrasiveness is on the other side and not our own fault. From Pellini we can learn that managing expectations is of pivotal importance in our success, and that if we are expected to be elite, we had better reach that level. From Harbaugh we learn that even winning at an elite level may not be able to save us if we lack the interpersonal skills necessary to build lasting relationships. Clearly, those sorts of lessons mean that we all probably have at least some work to do.

[Note: All web sources accessed 11/30/2014]

[1] http://sports.yahoo.com/blogs/ncaaf-dr-saturday/nebraska-fires-head-coach-bo-pelini-161340874.html

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2008_NCAA_Division_I_FBS_football_season

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2009_NCAA_Division_I_FBS_football_season

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_NCAA_Division_I_FBS_football_season

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_NCAA_Division_I_FBS_football_season

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2012_NCAA_Division_I_FBS_football_season

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2013%E2%80%9314_NCAA_football_bowl_games

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_NCAA_Division_I_FBS_football_rankings

[9] See, for example:

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/why-i-want-the-seattle-seahawks-to-win-this-years-super-bowl/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/10/14/dont-be-the-reason-why-everyone-hates-your-team/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/09/14/separation-comes-from-preparation/

https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2014/02/03/play-by-play/

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jim_Harbaugh

[11] http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2284223-jim-harbaugh-rumors-latest-speculation-and-news-on-coachs-future-with-49ers?utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=programming-national

[12] http://www.contracostatimes.com/breaking-news/ci_26871531/joe-montana-latest-weigh-jim-harbaugh-49ers

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Sports and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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