Something Rather Amazing: A Leadership Lesson from College Football


Something rather amazing happened a couple of nights ago. Though it happened in the sports world, you need not be a sports fan for it to be valuable. If you're interested in leadership, it's worth your time and attention.

The world of college football had its eyes focused on Arlington, Texas this past Monday night. It was the championship game of the first ever College Football Playoff. It pitted the much celebrated Oregon Ducks against the much questioned Ohio State Buckeyes. What turned out to be a memorable moment for Ohio State and its fans was, in fact, a great leadership lesson many years in the making.

High Hopes Crashing Down

When practice started this past August, hopes were high for Ohio State's football team. One key reason was the return of standout quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller was a preseason front runner for the Heisman Trophy, college football's prize for the nation's best individual player. But 12 days before the Buckeyes' first game, something undesirable and unexpected happened. Miller re-injured a previously repaired shoulder so badly that he was lost for the entire season. Upon hearing the news, Las Vegas odds makers immediately responded by cutting the Buckeyes' odds of winning the national championship nearly in half.

Enter backup quarterback JT Barrett. As a redshirt freshman, Barrett had never taken a single snap prior to the first start of his career on August 30. Despite a rough first couple of games, Barrett eventually got comfortable as the starter. And then he exploded onto the college football scene. Barrett's second two-thirds of the season were so impressive that he became, as Braxton Miller previously had been, a Heisman candidate.

The Buckeyes were playing well and vying for a spot in college football's first ever playoff when lightning struck again. In the last regular season game of the year against arch rival Michigan, Barrett's season ended when he broke his right ankle. With only their conference championship game and a potential bowl game or playoff appearance left on their schedule, Ohio State introduced their third-string quarterback, Cardale Jones, to the world.

Cardale Jones is a redshirt sophomore who had completed just 11 passes for 119 yards in his entire college football career prior to the Big Ten Championship on December 6. But you certainly wouldn't have known it from his performance. Within the first two minutes of the Big Ten Championship, Jones had hurled a 39 yard touchdown strike. But that was only the beginning. When the final horn sounded, Jones had completed 12 of 17 passes for 257 yards, no interceptions, and three touchdowns in a 59-0 destruction of a #13 ranked Wisconsin. The win was so impressive that it vaulted Ohio State over TCU in the rankings and into the final spot in the College Football Playoff. There the Buckeyes squared off against college football's most recent near-dynasty, the Crimson Tide of Alabama. Starting in just his second collegiate game ever, Jones completed 18 of 35 passes for 243 yards, one interception, and one touchdown to help the Buckeyes to a 42-35 Sugar Bowl win and a spot in the National Championship. Then, two nights ago, Jones completed 16 of 23 passes for 242 yards, one interception, and one touchdown as the Buckeyes dismantled the favored Oregon Ducks 42-20 to win the National Championship.

Jones's numbers would be considered solid under normal circumstances. But considering (1) these were his first three collegiate starts, (2) the competition was exceptional, (3) the significance of these games, and (4) the poise with which he carried himself, his performances become nearly unbelievable.

This is the kind of stuff of which books and movies are made. A third-string quarterback with little game experience shines under the brightest of lights. A guy who has never started a single regular season game helps lead his team to three championships in three successive games: Big Ten Champs, Sugar Bowl Champs, and National Champs. And to think, when the season started, he was fighting for playing practice.

Three Leadership Commitments

So what are the leadership lessons we can learn from Ohio State Head Coach Urban Meyer and his staff? The language is surprisingly similar to verbiage we regularly encounter in business and organizational life. The lessons are about contingency and succession planning that hinge on commitments to three intentional actions: recruit, retain, and develop.

Recruit (pursue talent even when current needs have already been met) Do we stop recruiting talented followers when we land other talented employees? Do we believe none of our current followers will move on to other organizations for a change in geography, industry, or career direction? Do we assume none of our current followers will face a personal crisis that will take them out of the organization either temporarily or permanently? Or, instead, do we feel compelled to fill the bench with talent understanding that we can not predict the challenges that may come our way?

If Urban Meyer and the Ohio State coaching staff stopped recruiting talent at the quarterback position once they had Braxton Miller and JT Barrett on the team, the Buckeyes would not have the National Championship trophy they traveled back to Columbus with yesterday. If we are to face the normal transitions that happen in organizational life, we can't afford to stop the pursuit of talented individuals just because current needs are being met.

Retain (intentionally re-recruit talent that is already on the team) Retention actually gets tougher if we recruit well. If we fill our teams with upwardly mobile talent but don't have spots in which to consistently promote them up the chain of command, retention gets tricky. And yet, that's exactly what Urban Meyer and his staff did with JT Barrett and Cardale Jones.

Let's not forget that great athletes have options. Barrett and Jones have other teams that would love to have them as their starting quarterbacks. (According Yahoo Sports, Barrett and Jones had 9 and 10 schools, respectively, offer them full-ride football scholarships.) As storied as it is, the aura of Ohio State football is not big enough by itself to keep most talented players sitting around waiting for their shot to play. Coaches have to create an atmosphere around talented, high-potential players who aren't getting playing time that (1) engages them personally and (2) invests them in the organization. Ohio State's coaching staff created an atmosphere in which two very talented backup quarterbacks, Barrett and Jones, both wanted to stay despite no guarantee of playing time even in the future. One great business leader I know described his commitment to retention in this way: "Every day I'm re-recruiting the talent that is already on my team." That's mindset and commitment to retention.

Develop (prioritize investment in second and third stringers) Contrary to what some may believe, there is not a limitless amount of time for college athletes to practice and prepare for games. Each rep in practice is planned and accounted for in the country's best programs. Despite football being a game filled with injuries, it is only by intentional design that second-string players, let alone third-string players, get reps in practice.

In my collegiate playing days (basketball), I spent time as both a first stringer and a third stringer. From first hand experience I can tell you that third stringers don't get much practice time. We warm up, we run drills, but the live action we see in practice is extremely limited. To be fair, Cardale Jones was a third stringer last season; this year, due to Miller's early injury, he was a second stringer. But even with that, there would be a premium on repetitions for JT Barrett, a freshmen who was getting accustomed to his role as the starting quarterback. Even with a focus on developing the youthful Barrett, investment in Jones's development was prioritized such that he was ready to perform in the most intense of circumstances when his number was called.

leadership verb: Readying

The question that Ohio State's story calls us to ask ourselves as leaders is this:

"Are we readying?"

Are we getting those we lead ready for the unexpected? Are we recruiting talent to build depth? Are we saying "no" to naively assuming our best expectations will come true? Are we investing in the development of leaders who are not yet in the lime light?

Not sure how to answer these questions? Perhaps a second set of questions would help. Would you win your version of a national championship if... ...your third best salesperson was sent in last minute to lead the most important sales meeting of the year? ...your third best plant manager was put in charge just as the Christmas production rush was hitting full stride? ...your third best executive was suddenly in charge of the entire enterprise at a crucial juncture in its growth?

If these questions send a shutter through your spine, take heart. Your lightning (hopefully) hasn't struck yet. Urban Meyer, his assistant coaches, and the Ohio State football team have given us not only an improbable and inspirational story, they've also given us a constructive wake-up call. They have simultaneously shown us what's possible while challenging us as leaders to be readying our teams and leaders for the unexpected and undesirable. Though the events of Monday night resulted in a amazing moment in time, it was actually years of recruiting, retaining, and developing that made it possible. And that is something from which we, as leaders, can learn.

Share Your Thoughts: Have you or a leader you've followed done a great job of readying for the unexpected through recruiting, retention, and development? If so, tell us about it. We’d love to hear from you. Join the conversation by clicking here.

If you liked this blog post, you might also like the following posts:

Think StrategicallyThe Best Ideas Don't Win and What To Do About It -- Part 1 Decision (West) Point

Develop TalentRecording in Progress (video) The Question We Need to Ask Ourselves -- Maximizing Potential, Part 1 (video series)

photo credit: Paula R. Lively via photopincc

Click here to receive free postings from Tim Spiker and The Aperio. As a thank you, you'll receive the first two chapters of The Only Leaders Worth Following: Why Some Leaders Succeed, Others Fail, and How the Quality of Our Lives Hangs in the Balance.