From the Nittany Lions to the Florida State Seminoles, players and coaches demonstrate lessons, on-field and off, that also apply in business
Growing up, I dreamed of playing football. I imagined myself breaking free up the middle like Herschel Walker or laying out unsuspecting receivers like Ronnie Lott. Unfortunately, my talents were better suited to other sports. Though I've grown softer, heavier, and slower with time, I still haven't forgotten that teenage dream. Maybe that's why I've turned my man cave into a football museum (to my wife's chagrin). You could argue correctly that this reflects my failure to leave adolescence behind. However, the memorabilia represent something deeper than nostalgia. Teams such as Alabama and Texas are no different from Coca-Cola (KO) and IBM (IBM): They epitomize excellence. Like football players, employees come together each year, driven to leave their collective mark. We fight through obstacles and exhaustion, clawing for every inch, knowing that any small advantage or mistake can make the difference between success and failure. Sometimes we just want to give up. But we remember those moments—when our labor produces something real, distinct, and lasting—and know that it's all worthwhile. Looking for ways to push your company near the top year after year? Take a page from the top college football programs and build around these fundamentals: 1. Stability. How did Florida State and Penn State once emerge as consistent contenders? They committed to coaches—Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno, respectively—who adhered to a philosophy. They knew how they'd play on the field and how they'd conduct themselves off it. They instilled a structure that reinforced their core message. These coaches didn't chase other job openings and their bosses didn't issue pink slips after a down year. Present and future players knew what to expect. Thanks to continuity, these programs were always able to bounce back. 2. Ability to adjust. Opponents will add new wrinkles in the off-season and during games. Maybe they'll switch to a 3-4 defensive alignment or incorporate a wildcat package. And they'll have success … for a time. The competition rarely follows another's game plan. But the best teams quickly recognize trends and are flexible enough to adapt on the fly. Florida's Urban Meyer, like McDonald's (MCD) Chief Executive Officer Jim Skinner, isn't blinded by ego. Neither stays on his heels long, either. 3. Recruiting the best talent, All coaches do it. They'll sit in a living room, jawboning with a recruit's parents, bracing for the big question: Why should my son (or daughter) play for you? The answer is easy for a coach like Alabama's Nick Saban. He can flash his championship rings and list the players he's made into NFL millionaires. If that isn't enough, he can cite Alabama's high graduation rate, crackerjack facilities, and rich tradition. In short, Saban can sell something to everyone. That's what separates the great programs. They know what they want in players, whether it's fundamentals, physical tools, intangibles, or upside. Year after year they replicate the system they have in place to develop their players. And they invest in their amenities, to turn their programs from options into destinations. As a result, they can smoothly replenish their talent base, regardless of graduations, transfers, or injuries. 4. Tradition. Sometimes the best programs don't have to recruit the best players. Those players come to them. Some want to elevate their game by playing alongside (and against) the best. Others feel a calling, believing the colors symbolize an identity and way of life. They understand that the bar is set high, that the team has its own way of doing things, and they embrace this culture fully. An act such as pounding "Play like a champion today" signs before entering the tunnel is more than a ploy. It is a unifying ritual that expresses shared values and recognition of the players' responsibility to their institution, teammates, and themselves. 5. Never being satisfied. The best teams swiftly put the past season behind them. They're always driving forward, realizing that complacency and entitlement will poison the main goal: to reach their potential, even exceed it. Hence coaches are always seeking out the next challenge, whether it's repeating success, defying naysayers, or making history. No, the best coaches never accept "good enough." They pick at every bad habit, from their players' footwork to nutrition. They force them to perform the same drills over and over until they become second nature. They demand their players' best at every moment, pushing them to improve something each day. That's because coaches understand a harsh reality: You can never drop your guard because the rest of the pack is always gunning for you. There are no easy games once you reach the top. And talent alone won't keep you there. 6. Staying focused. After games, fans always carp about their team's tackling or play-calling. But what really makes or breaks teams happens long before game day. It's no cliché that games are won in the spring and summer. That's when coaches emphasize detail—slashing wasted motion and sharpening fundamentals. Players' work habits invariably spill into the fall. The best run faster and hit harder in practice so they won't hesitate on game day. They study film, looking for tendencies and mismatches to exploit. They hold themselves accountable, knowing that any daydreaming, lollygagging, or freelancing can get their teammates injured. Players must wholly trust one another, always communicating and working as one, to win consistently. The best programs have one goal: hoisting another championship banner. And everything they do year-round—the running, lifting, practicing, dieting, and sacrificing—is geared to that moment. Winning programs tune out the distractions and worry about what they can control. That's why they rein in their emotions, limit mistakes such as penalties and turnovers, and don't fixate on blown calls. It's this preparation that sets them apart. 7. Swagger. Teams hated the Miami Hurricanes in the 1980s and '90s for good reason. They'd taunt, take cheap shots, and showboat. Commentators dismissed them as thugs, but they usually backed up their bluster. Sometimes, The U took their "us vs. the world" mentality to the extreme. Still, they exemplified a further trait that separates winners: They expected to win. They had a been-there-done-that attitude by which they assumed they were the best. In their minds, they just had to execute the plan and play their best. So they operated one play at a time, making each one count, believing the rest would take care of itself. 8. Internal policing. When the cat is away, the mice go play. Not at elite programs. There, teammates look out for each other off the field. They understand that temptations, from the party scene to hangers-on, can hurt them on game day. The upperclassmen hand down the team expectations, just as their predecessors once did for them. They make sure that each guy understands he is just one of a hundred. They must adapt to one another's personalities, accept their individual roles, and be ready to step up when needed. Most important, they must always support one another, never forgetting that sometimes the real enemy comes out of the tunnel ahead of them. 9. Toughness. Iced-up and lying on the table, players can't help but wonder if it's all worth it. The coaches are always watching, pushing, and evaluating. They know someone is always hungry and ready to take another's spot. Every moment, players are being tested, mentally and physically. Caked in dirt and sweat, beaten down, exhausted and disoriented, it's so easy to break, lose technique, or let someone get by. The best teams play through the pain. They remain relentless, filled with pride, even brutally physical when need be. They understand that winning is often about surviving, peaking when the competition is losing its poise, making mistakes, or giving up … everything they were trained not to do. Business is no different. Market share often doesn't go to the flashiest, fastest, or most fluent group. Instead it's earned by those who can tough it out in the trenches without wearing down. 10. Building a fan base. Imagine sprinting into Death Valley Stadium at twilight. Waves of purple flash by, pounding and roaring like a parting sea. Although the noise hangs on you like humidity, you feel as if you can do anything. In a winning environment, players feed off the intense, fervent passion of their fans. In business, our fans are the customers who support us (and the loved ones who sustain us). We build a fan base no different from a sports team: We fill a need. For some, we provide a sense of identity, excitement, and belonging, a symbol of their aspirations. To others, we provide solutions and support, treating them as if they were our own teammates and fans. Either way, we must always be at our best, to stay memorable and integral. Occasionally, we'll fall short and our fans will start to question. But like winning teams, we'll reflect on those painful lessons—and come back stronger and hungrier the next time.