Fans of American college football recognize the Brigham Young University (BYU) Cougars, consistently one of top programs in the country. It was not always so. One player described the team prior to 1972 as the college football equivalent of flying standby. In 47 years the cougars had 31 losing seasons, only one conference championship and had never been to a bowl game. What happened? What turned that team around?
What happened was a coach named Lavell Edwards. By 1994 his BYU teams had 16 conference championships, had played in 19 bowl games and had won a national championship. He had only one losing season in 23 years. How did Edwards create such a remarkable turn-around? More importantly, what can we learn from how he did it?
Of course there was no single magic bullet, Edwards did a lot of things that made a difference (many described in the book, Lavell, Airing it Out). However one of the biggest actions was that he changed expectations. Without that, none of his other improvements would have been very effective.
Prior to the Edwards era, BYU did not expect a winning football team. The school just faced too many disadvantages. It was a religious school, committed to ideas like turning the other cheek. The team lacked money for recruiting and could not hire as many coaches as other schools had. School rules against drinking, smoking, non-marital sex etc. kept many good athletes away. Perhaps most importantly, many players would take two years off to serve a church mission. The coaches thought that those missionaries would lose their competitive fire. Opposing coaches felt sorry for BYU because those players were off preaching instead of playing football.
Coaching meetings often turned into gripe sessions, dwelling on all the reasons they couldn't win. The results were predictable.
Then Edwards became head coach and decided that he had to make some changes. He encouraged players on missions to return and play – and they did not lose their scholarships for going on missions. He believed that religion and football were compatible, and he diffused that belief through his staff.
Lavell Edwards shifted the focus of BYU football from what they could not do to what they could do. He wanted to win and he found a way to do it. He convinced coaches and players that they were expected to win – and they did.
He was also wise in just what expectations he encouraged. At the time, all the top teams had great running backs and emphasized a ground game. It was unrealistic to think that BYU would be recruiting those “blue-chip” players; they wanted to play on teams with winning records. However it was realistic to try a different emphasis. Edwards went to a passing offense. He recruited passing quarterbacks, along with good receivers, and linemen who could block for the pass. He hired assistants who could coach a passing game. He soon drove opponents crazy with his offense.
The result was a big turn-around in both attitude and games won. Recruiting became easier. BYU players regularly made all-conference and even all-American teams. One even won the Heisman Trophy, symbolic of the best college football player in the country. Significantly that trophy winner was a quarterback, the Cougars still weren't attracting top running backs.
Opposing coaches began to complain that returned missionaries gave BYU an unfair advantage.
Coach Edwards' method of changing expectations is instructive.
He looked at what was possible, not what he would have liked. Knowing he could not get the top athletes other teams had, he found a way to work around that.
He never said nor implied that it would be easy. In fact he let everybody know that there would be a lot of work and uncertainty involved.
His message was that improvement was possible and he expected everybody involved to do his part.
This approach applies elsewhere as well. In school, students should be expected to meet difficult but realistic goals. It would be unrealistic to expect a middle school student to do a problem in calculus of variations. However that middle school student should be challenged to do middle school math – and expected to meet the challenge.
In business, employees should be expected to contribute to the profitability of the company. Not every important assignment will be challenging, but when a difficult task needs doing, those assigned to it should be expected to get the job done. There should be no excuses. Nor should there be excuses for sloppy performance in routine but necessary tasks.
In public affairs, we should expect everybody to earn his own way except for those who have serious handicaps. Expecting people to remain on the dole becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It discourages independence and interferes with the development of their full human potential. Every normal human has the capacity for growth and for earning his own way. We must not provide excuses that encourage dependence. Race, poverty, unhappy childhoods, all can be overcome, but only if expectations motivate the effort to overcome them.
We must set challenging but realistic expectations whenever the opportunity arises, then hold people accountable to meet those expectations. Truck drivers should be expected to drive safely and on schedule. Company presidents should be expected to make profitable and honorable decisions. School teachers should be expected to teach their subjects and students to learn those subjects. Politicians should be expected to live up to their promises and fired by the voters if the don’t.
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