Charlie, Leadership and the Secret Sauceposted by Scott Engler
“Every victory is won before the game is played.” ~ Lou Holtz
I was out having some drinks and ran into a player on the 1988 team who recounted the back story that led to the Irish’s inspirational thumping of Rodney Peete and the Trojans that year (pardon any lack of clarity here, we were a few pints deep.) A game that, to this day, remains one of my favorite Irish victories because the Irish simply beat the crap out of the Trojans.
To set the scene, USC was number two in the country, but a favorite over the number one ranked Irish. Before the game Holtz asked the team to assemble, waited until the entire team had joined and then walked in. He announced that Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks had been continually late to meetings and that he could suspend them, but that it was up to the players to decide what to do with them (to suspend them or let them play.) Holtz walked out and put the decision in their hands. A debate ensued and one of the players stood up and said that this was the game that would define their lifetimes, that they couldn’t let the opportunity slip away and that they should let Watters and Brooks play. But as the debate continued and while players agreed that it was too important an opportunity to lose… they also started thinking that if they believed enough, they didn’t need Watters and Brooks, that they could win without them. They voted to leave them behind (Holtz later admitted he had made the decision already.)*
The result was a physical ass kicking of the Trojans that was the last real hurdle to the 1988 championship. Holtz found a way to turn a negative into a positive just as he had done when he led
“Motivation is simple. You eliminate those who are not motivated” ~ Lou Holtz
Every good coach has specific strengths, but the one thing all great coaches have is the ability to lead other coaches and players… and make them believe. Schematics are important. Recruiting is vitally important. Player management at the college level is critical. Coaching management at the highest level is equally critical.
What makes great coaches successful is not the just the ability to sell an idea but to lead their organizations through the tough times to get there. It's easy to forget that the criticism of Holtz was ear-splitting at times during his career, yet Holtz led through adversity and won.
“As a leader your attitude has a powerful impact on others. You have an obligation to develop a positive attitude, one that inspires the people around you to achieve the impossible” – Lou Holtz
What struck me about Brian Kelly at Cincinnati (calm down, in no way do I think he was ready to take over the Irish in ‘09) is that he had a horrible QB situation, actually worse than Notre Dame had in 2007, and he was able to work through it, make the players believe and turn in a very impressive BCS season for Cincinnati.
Was the quarterback situation a real and dire problem? They played five different quarterbacks during the season, of course it was.
Just like talent was a real problem and coaching changes are problems. But Kelly was able to not just sell the idea that success was probable/inevitable, but lead them through the tough times. Bearcat QB Tony Pike wasn’t even on the depth chart to start the season, but he said that Kelly made him believe he could and would win.
"He's a salesman, is what he is," says Grand Valley State coach Chuck Martin, who was Kelly's defensive coordinator at the school. "Whether it's Grand Valley State or Central Michigan or Cincinnati, he has kids believing they can move mountains. His No. 1 strength is offense. His No. 2 strength is how good he is politically at getting people to believe in his program. He sells it door to door, which not a lot of coaches will do."I remember at Central Michigan, somebody asked him how long the rebuilding cycle would be. He said, 'About 10 seconds.'"
“Yes, I know that you feel you are not strong enough. That's what the enemy thinks too. But we're gonna fool them.” – Knute Rockne
How does this relate to Charlie? Weis is a tough egg to crack, because he gets the problem and he can sell an idea, but what from what I’ve seen, is not a great manager of the team day to day through the tough times and or adept at keeping them motivated and believing. That’s where real leaders separate themselves. I’ve heard stories of Charlie motivating through fear (you won’t have my NFL endorsement) to encouragement (be yourself), but what is striking to me is that he doesn’t really know how to do it and that’s a problem.
“It is a fine thing to have ability, but the ability to discover ability in others is the true test.” - Lou Holtz
Urban Meyer is an asshole. Some of his players hated him even at Notre Dame, but he gets them to play at a high level. Charlie can be an asshole too, but his secret sauce hasn’t worked with either his assistants or the players to date. In 2006, his second year, we had players dogging it on the field in what was supposed to be a possible National Championship run.
“Your talent determines what you can do. Your motivation determines how much you’re willing to do. Your attitude determines how well you do it.” ~ Lou Holtz
That, to me, was a major sign of impending failure. He had others as well, such as sticking to his scheme beyond all rationality, going for it in absurd 4th down situations and always taking the kickoff when you knew we’d be beaten down.
The problem is that Charlie doesn’t yet have the secret sauce. He’s guessing. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. And the frustrating thing is that he’s smart, he knows the game, he can sell, he cares and he works hard.
But it’s not enough.
You have be able to make everyone around you believe and that’s not a trait normally found in nature. A top level college coach needs that leadership intangible. Some guys are brought up that way in their families, others have an intuitive sense and pick it up, some have mentors and still others work at it and eventually get it or are thrust into circumstances that somehow draw it out of them. Charlie had a mentor in Bill Belichick, but I’m not sure Belichick would win in college and Charlie doesn’t seem to have that innate ability.
And even if you have the secret sauce, it’s not enough. You also have to be a good cultural fit for the position. Since Lou, Notre Dame's had two carpet-baggers and a believer without the secret sauce.
ND is primed for a run at the championship the next two seasons, but we need a coach who not only has the boxes checked, but also the secret sauce. Right now Charlie seems to be failing schematically, in coaching motivation and in player motivation. He appears to be a very classic case study in failure and what happens when you elevate a technical expert to an upper-level leadership position. Technical experts in leadership positions have an inclination to "go insular" when things go wrong and try to figure it out in their comfort zones, that's usually a recipe for failure. Leaders are highly engaged. It’s certainly not impossible for him to succeed, but he hasn’t done most of the job before, so he’s guessing. The hope is that the coaching changes would create the secret sauce, but that’s a guess. Notre Dame needs someone who has it. Whatever it is. Someone who can coach schematically, recruit and make his players and coaches believe.
I hope that Charlie gets it this year, but the odds, at this point, are not in his favor. Given his background, his inclination will be to run back to what he knows best and focus on schematic advantages, but that may not serve him. If I were Charlie I'd limit the schematic analysis and concentrate on having the toughest, most in shape, fundamentally strong team in the country; one that believes they can win regardless of schematics. Being able to win Rocks, Papers, Scissors doesn't matter much if the other guy can punch you in the mouth. There are no awards for cleverness. When LSU beat Florida two years ago, they did it by controlling the line of scrimmage. Florida did the same to Alabama last year. That control of the line is key to making any well-called play work.
There was some leadership analysis recently that showed that the most powerful way a leader can use his/her time, in order, are to 1- show the team the road map for success, 2 - put in place a mechanism/process/resources to make sure everyone feels they can achieve those goals, 3 - manage the day to day effectively and 4- inspire them to achieve.
To be sure, there were signs that Charlie may have started to figure it out in the Hawaii game, where Weis adjusted his approach and the team responded in fairly dramatic fashion, but a look back at the abysmal run from Pittsburgh to USC last year should give anyone pause. That written, winning can do a lot to change a coach's and team's perceptions and a rising talent base, softer schedule and rejiggered coaching staff will give Weis a tailwind he hasn't had since 2005. I think it's fair to say that all but a small minority are hoping Coach Weis puts it together this year and, if he does, he'll likely pull in another top class and his coaching comeback story will become part of Notre Dame's lore.
*There's a very good chance that the pints changed the story a bit.
**Please save the "you want Charlie to fail" or "just another excuse for Charlie" comments that seem to accompany every article that seem either pro or anti-Weis.