Life and football are a lot alike. In life you start slowly learning how to survive with the help of your family. As you grow you take on more responsibility and begin your formal education eventually ending in a job and more skills that need to be learned and fine-tuned. Football is similar in that you typically get introduced to the sport when you are young and as you get older and stronger, more and more time is spent fine-tuning your craft. In Football, your coaches and team-mates are your family. And practice is your education. At each level the training, leadership, and team-building skills become more and more important.
The last time I coached in the college ranks you played 11 or 12 regular season games and possibly a bowl game if invited. The regular season was over somewhere between Thanksgiving and the first week of December. You were allowed two weeks of pre-season practice before your opening regular season game.
After 13 years of coaching in college I got my opportunity to coach in the NFL. It was 1992 and I was fortunate to join the Dallas Cowboys’ coaching staff. Jimmy Johnson was the Head Coach and Dave Wannstedt, the defensive coordinator. Dave took me under his wing and helped me understand some of the differences between college and the league.
At that time, we had 2 weeks of training camp, then 5 pre-season games. Our first pre-season game was the American Bowl as it was called back then in Tokyo, Japan.
We spent the week in Tokyo practicing against what was then the Houston Oilers. Following that game, we played 4 more pre-season games. The training camp practices had no restrictions regarding contact: wearing pads or not wearing pads, or even how many practices per day. Bottom line, before we even played a regular season game we already went through the equivalent of half of a college season.
During this time most teams left their normal team facility and went to a different location for training camp. So not only did you endure long 16-hour coaching days, but you were 7 weeks away from home and family. We then began the 16 game regular season and its grueling coaching hours. Before we had even reached the halfway point in the regular season it was the equivalent of a full college season. Talk about going from a sprint to a marathon! I had already hit a wall at the end of training camp and now was about to hit the wall again with 8 games left in the regular season.
We finished the regular season winning our division and earning a bye for the first week of the playoffs. Coaches didn’t get time off. We started our grind through game tape of potential opponents. We had a fabulous team and went on to win our 3 playoff games and become World Champions!
All in all, we had played 24 total games including pre-season. Basically, two college seasons with no break. So my first years as a professional coach would not only be gratifying earning a championship, but I must admit my first memories are how long, exhausting, and grueling that first year as a professional was!
Another surprise to me as I reflect back on that first year was how I could have been so far off in my impression of our team. It was difficult to see how great that team was because it was hard for anyone to stand out. In college, the range of talent is so much greater that good players easily stood out. When you had a half dozen stand out players in college you assumed you would have a good team. I look back in awe of the talent Jimmy Johnson accumulated for the franchise.
Now that I am no longer coaching, it is amazing to me that the traits you see in good football teams are also present in successful companies, and at almost every level of a fully functioning unit, right down to family. It is a parent’s job to “coach” their kids to allow them to flourish and develop, just as it is a good manager’s job to nurture his team to become the best they can be. The lessons I learned about teams and the team dynamic, as well as how to lead and nurture athletes can be applied to improve any group needing to function as a team.