Winning in College and NFL Football – It’s part of a culture

Recently I interviewed former Dallas Cowboy and Air Force Academy All-American Chad Hennings for a book I’m writing on factors of team building.  Chad and I go back to the mid ‘80’s at USAFA when he was just entering as a “Doolie” and I was a graduate assistant.

The power of CULTURE in pro football

The conversation focused primarily on Chad’s 9 seasons with the Dallas Cowboys and how the club was able to sustain multiple years of success.  Chad earned 3 Super Bowl rings with the likes of Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, and Michael Irvin; Hall of Fame players and iconic superstars of the sport.  He spoke of a number of aspects I’d heard from other leaders in business, the military and athletics; focus, unity, direction, excellence.  But above all the defining characteristics of teamwork we’ve come to expect from successful organizations, the glue that held it all together (in Dallas and at the Air Force Academy) was CULTURE.

A winning culture is what distinguishes the bad from the good, the good from the great, and the great from the extraordinary.  Chad spoke of how Dallas had developed a way of going about their work, approaching preparation, dealing with both success and adversity, working through the sometimes distracting influences of inflated ego and arrogance.  To wear “the star” of the Dallas Cowboys required acceptance of and engaging in the culture of the organization; putting the wants and needs of the individual players second to those of the team.  Players that couldn’t comply usually found themselves on the waiver wire.

Culture in college football as well

That same week I provided “color” for the telecast of the North Dakota State versus Colorado State.  NDSU is the defending FCS National Champion and Colorado State is transitioning into a new era led by head coach Jim McElwain.  McElwain was on Nick Saban’s staff at the University of Alabama, winning his own National Championship as Offensive Coordinator of the Crimson Tide in 2011.  Bison head coach Craig Bohl has spent 10 years in Fargo after serving under legendary head coach Tom Osborne at the University of Nebraska.  Bohl took his knowledge of the Cornhusker culture and transformed North Dakota State into a powerhouse program.  McElwain hopes to do the same with the Rams.

Prior to the game we interviewed Coach Bohl and asked him about his years at Nebraska and the accomplishments attained with his North Dakota State team.  The conversation shifted away from X’s & O’s, game plans, and recruiting, and more towards an identity.  The Bison “knew” who they were.  They knew what they represented and what they were about.  The team, the staff, and the university had bought into a culture, a way of doing things and going about their business.

Culture at the core of great programs

Culture in great teams permeates everything from the equipment room, to the video operations, to the turf management, to the way the phones are answered.  The National Football League boasts some of the greatest athletes ever to have played professional sports.  But without the conduit of a winning culture intertwined within the operations of their organizations, these players might have been just another tight end, offensive guard, or outside linebacker.  There are a few NFL clubs and collegiate programs that “know who they are” and have known it for decades.  While the exact opposite holds true for many inept pro and floundering college teams.  They go from coach to coach, quarterback to quarterback, season to season without any sense of identity.

A need to know it all without really knowing

Meanwhile, the media and fans clamor to know any and everything about the game, so much so that the NFL and NCAA have allowed cameras in almost everywhere; “Hard Knocks”, The NFL Combine, The NFL Draft, College Gameday, locker rooms after the game, on the practice field,  along the sidelines.  The media asks, interviews, pokes and prods.  They follow, analyze, evaluate, critique, drop rumors and otherwise dissect everything about football players and their teams.  But to be a part of a team, to experience and understand its success, to know what motivates its players and coaches in victory or defeat, you have to value and appreciate its culture.  I hate to disappoint but it’s something that no NFL “Insider”, high paid prognosticator, or journalistic junkie will ever know or experience, and thus be able to pass on to the fans in a three minute story.

Team identity.  After concluding my interview with Chad Hennings, I thought back to my own days at Air Force and head coach Ken Hatfield handing us all a coin that Mack Trucks, Inc. used as their calling card – YOU MAKE THE DIFFERENCE.  If you’ve ever been part of a successful team, you know what I’m talking about.  It’s in the CULTURE.