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Adverse effects on football team performance caused by overemphasis on loyalty to the head coach

Posted by John Reed on

 “My honor is my loyalty.”

Football head coaches are frequently ignorant of the best ways to coach their team or they know the best ways, but deliberately choose not to use them. They remain ignorant of things they ought to know simply because it’s easier and they can get away with it. The decision to hire and retain them is typically made by non-football people—NFL owners, college presidents, high school principals, youth boards. Those non-football people are often intimidated by the playing and/or coaching experience of the coach. But even when their ignorance is eliminated, head football coaches often still deliberately do things that will adversely affect their team. Why? Because they perceive that doing the right thing may get them fired. Some of the ways this manifests itself involve one of coaching’s favorite virtues: loyalty. Because of its importance in screwing up the way football is played and coached, that sort of loyalty needs to be examined.


Loyalty is a virtue. But it’s not the only virtue. There are also duty, integrity, patriotism, diligence, consideration for others, and so forth. These are also called values. But none of them exist in a vacuum. It is how you resolve conflicts between them that matters. Proclaiming your allegiance to loyalty or any other virtue means nothing until you also state where you rank that virtue in the hierarchy of other virtues or values. I have a chapter on that in my book Succeeding.
Succeeding book

Loyalty above integrity?

For example, if you rank loyalty above integrity it means that when the two conflict, you will resolve the conflict in favor of loyalty. In other words, you will lie to protect your boss. Or if you are the boss and you are directing your loyalty speech to your subordinates, it means that you expect them to lie to save your ass if and when that becomes necessary. Doesn’t sound like so much of a virtue when you put it like that, does it?


Loyalty to whom?

There is another hierarchy that must be discussed with regard to the virtue of loyalty. Loyalty to whom? A head football coach relates to the following people: • athletic director (at amateur levels)

• owner (at professional levels)
• school president, superintendent, or principal
• players
• parents of players (at amateur levels)
• fans
• alumni
• media
• student body (in schools)

Once again, you cannot just proclaim your allegiance to loyalty and get a gold star for virtue. You must rank the various persons and groups to whom you owe loyalty. Only then can you resolve conflicts between loyalties to those various constituencies. Every act of loyalty to one person or organization is an act of disloyalty to everyone else related to the activity in question. So loyal is not really the right word. The question is not which one person are you going to be loyal to. It is which much larger number of persons are you going to be disloyal to. In any loyalty decision, you are implicitly saying, “I have decided to be loyal to this person and disloyal to all these other people.”

Not just loyalty to the head coach

When coaches talk about loyalty, they are almost invariably speaking of the loyalty of the assistant coaches and players to the head coach. And generally, the guy talking about loyalty to the head coach is the head coach himself. Coming in second in the category of who talks about loyalty to the head coach the most would be assistant coaches who are eager to keep their jobs. But is that the proper hierarchy? At West Point, we were taught a two-level hierarchy:
1. Accomplishment of the mission
2. Welfare of the troops in that order.

Win ethically

How would you translate that to a head football coach? I think the mission of a head football coach is to win ethically. That is, to go undefeated, but not by violating: • the mission of the institution (at amateur levels)
• the code of ethics of the profession (e.g., the American Football Coaches Association Code of Ethics—for reasons unknown to me, the AFCA does not have their whole code of ethics at their Web site. They only publish it each year in their Summer Manual.)
• the health and safety of the players
• the letter and spirit of the rules of the game
• the general welfare of the players
• promises made to players and their parents The personal ethical code I try to follow is: • Tell the truth
• Keep your promises
• Treat others as you want to be treated As a football coach, you should adhere to those plus the other items I listed above.

Not generally an ethical profession

Notwithstanding much self-laudatory statements at coach speeches and in coach publications, I must say that I have not found football coaches in general to be ethical in the manner described above. The profession is extremely competitive, cutthroat, and political. Winning takes precedence over ethics too often. Recruits are lied to. The media is lied to. The educational mission of the school is treated as an annoying obstacle to victory. Insufficient attention is paid to injury prevention (e.g., heat stroke). Players are taught to deliberately violate a number of rules (e.g., holding). The parents are routinely lied to. Players are permitted or even encouraged to neglect their education, health in the case of linemen who are urged to be too heavy, and so forth. With regard to integrity, I have generally found long-term coaches to have a politician’s attitude toward integrity. That is, tell people who might have some input into your being hired or fired whatever they want to hear regardless of its truthfulness. Indeed, football coaches sometimes switch into politics. Former Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert was a former football coach. So was Congressman Tom Osborne of Nebraska. The late Oklahoma head football coach Bud Wilkinson ran unsuccessfully for senator (as did Osborne). Virginia Senator George Allen, Jr. is the son of Hall of Fame NFL coach George Allen. Some other professions, like the judiciary and medicine do have a real habit of complying with their own ethical codes. At colleges and universities, many professors engage in too much politics, but they generally adhere to academic ethical standards like those pertaining to plagiarism. That difference in adherence to ethical standards is one cause of the perennial tension between professors and coaches at the same institution. In football, the West Point hierarchy is reversed: 1. Welfare of the players
2. Accomplishment of the mission—winning This is altogether fitting and proper. West Point is in the business of defending the nation and the free world. Injury or even death to soldiers is preferable to defeat by an evil enemy which would result in greater harm to all citizens of the country. Football, however, is not war and peace. It’s just a game. So victory must take a back seat to the welfare of the participants and the institution the team represents.

Take care of Number One

Here is the de facto hierarchy of loyalties as I perceive the typical football coach to actually behave:
1. Take care of Number One (the head coach) in that order. There is no other duty of loyalty in the minds of most head coaches as far as I can discern from watching them. Here is what the hierarchy of loyalties of people in football ought to be:
1. To the organization that employs the coach
2. To the players
3. To the assistant coaches
4. To the students if it is a school
5. To the alumni
6. To the fans
7. To the media who cover the team in that order.
If and when there is a conflict between loyalty to two or more of the above groups—and there always is—the conflict must be resolved according to this hierarchy. That is, loyalty to the higher ranked group takes precedence over loyalty to lower-ranked groups. To put it yet another way, if loyalty to the organization requires you to hire assistant coach A and loyalty to your assistants requires you to give the job to Coach B who is less suited for the job, you hire Coach A. In that situation, most head coaches would hire coach B out of loyalty to their assistant and thereby be disloyal to their employer and their players, both of whom deserve the best assistant coaches, not the lesser ones most loyal to the head coach.


Establishing a proper values and loyalty hierarchy is a necessary and laudable first step. But in addition to saying the right things about loyalty, the head coach needs to walk the walk and adhere to the hierarchies in his real life decisions.

Commitment to cronyism

How are coaches disloyal to the hierarchy above? The most common and blatant disloyalty I have seen is cronyism. Head coaches, as well as athletic directors and NFL owners, tend to hire their cronies regardless of their qualifications relative to the others who would have been interested in the job. I have seen coaches who bordered on worthless last for decades under a particular head coach. In most cases, their tenure got these assistants eventually promoted into positions of considerable responsibility, namely, they were coordinators of the defense or special teams, and less often, the offense. I find this profoundly disturbing. Head coaches invariably promise their players, bosses, alumni, fans, students, media, etc. that they will leave no stone unturned in their pursuit of victories. With regard to hiring assistants, that means they will search the world over looking for the absolute best assistants. Then they hire a bunch of empty polo shirts whose main, or only, virtue is loyalty to and personal compatibility with the head coach in question. Typically, they worked together in the past maybe at the head coach’s last job. They have been sometimes comically loyal to the head coach so he is returning that loyalty to them—in spite of the fact that such hirings are acts of intense and blatant disloyalty to the organization, players, and supporters of the team in question. At one school where I coached, one of the near worthless coaches was given to repeated pontificating in the presence of other coaches including the head guy, seemingly without provocation, on the supreme importance of loyalty in coaching. My impression was that this guy was a one-trick pony and that loyalty to the boss was his only trick so he felt compelled to keep reminding the boss of his loyalty and preemptively trying to make the boss feel guilty if he ever had thoughts of firing Mr. Loyalty. Would that work? He was still there after I left.

Jamie Dimon’s take on loyalty

Jamie Dimon is CEO of JPMorgan Chase. In a March 26, 2010 letter to his shareholders Dimon said this about loyalty: While I deeply believe in loyalty, it often is misused. Loyalty should be to the principles for which someone stands and to the institution: Loyalty to an individual frequently is another form of cronyism. Leaders demand a lot from their employees and should be loyal to them—but loyalty and mutual respect are two-way streets.

All new people

It is standard in football coaching for the new head coach to bring in his own people. Just like the newly elected president of the U.S. bringing all new people to the top echelons of the government. But then presidents are politicians. Are head football coaches supposed to so blatantly mimic politicians? Don’t they claim to be coaches first? Wouldn’t they deny being politicians except perhaps to joke, “Sometimes it seems like that.” Do non-political professions bring in all new people when they take a job? When a guy becomes head of a construction company, does he replace all the supervisors and foremen? When someone becomes the new head of a hospital, do they fire all the doctors and get new ones? Did the new head of Hewlett-Packard fire all the engineers and managers when he took over? The answer in these other professions is no, they do not replace everyone. They respect the expertise of the existing people and keep them in place. The reason head coaches in football generally replace everyone is that they want guys who are loyal to them and the previous guy hired guys who were loyal to him. This is a behavior pattern of take-care-of-nuber-one, cover-your-ass politicians, not competent professionals.

Hitch your wagon to a star—or lots of stars

Young football coaches who understand the way the game is played try to hitch their wagon to rising stars who will bring them with them as they rise in the profession. If their rising star stumbles or flames out, they are generally screwed and have to start over or, more commonly, they hitch their wagon to every possible rising star they encounter and call a more successful rising star whose friendship they have previously cultivated when their first choice flames out.


Choosing contrarian tactics and strategies increases a football team’s chances of winning. See my article on the subject. If a coach was loyal to the hierarchy above, he would always choose such contrarian tactics and strategies. But, in fact, head football coaches rarely do that. Why? They are being disloyal to their players, employers, etc. because they place saving their own ass above the interests of the team. Conformity is more likely to lead to continued employment as a head coach so they conform even though it reduces the team’s chances of winning. Contrarianism may work. It may even work big time. Certainly there is little chance of conformity working big time, so contrarianism is the best chance for big-time success. Yet the coaches refuse to do it. They are being loyal to the head coach, that is, to themselves. They are taking care of Number One. The players of whom they daily demand “110%” are supposed to win in spite of the head coach’s unimaginative, me-too, take-no-career-risk approach.

Not conducive to innovation or change

My main point is that all this loyalty is the opposite of an atmosphere that encourages innovation and change from below. In fact, it is an atmosphere that encourages ass-kissing, brown-nosing, boot-licking, and sucking up. Head coaches generally surround themselves with yes men and sycophants. There is a fine line between being loyal to your boss and sucking up to him. The loyalty they taught us at West Point was downward. You take care of your troops, including when they are being mistreated by your superiors. You stand up for them. Doing that takes moral courage. And the way you get loyalty from your troops upward—the right kind of loyalty, not ass kissing—is by first showing loyalty downward to them and thereby earning their loyalty.

The right kind of loyalty

In graduate business school, we were also taught to show loyalty downward, in part, by trusting our employees to see the profit-and-loss books every month. I did that. One day, one of my tenants told one of my managers that I was getting rich overcharging them. The manager told the tenant that he saw the profit-and-loss statements every month and that he was quite wrong, that the profits were generally surprisingly small and that there were losses some months. That was a classic act of loyalty by my manager. But it involved no sucking up to me, no lying for me, and no disloyalty to the tenant, one of the manager’s constituent groups to whom both my manager and I also owed loyalty. And it would not have happened had I not shown loyalty downward first.

Lunch at McDonalds

I had a telling experience once. I was in the coaches office as lunch time during double days. I was one of the most junior coaches. I was about to go to McDonalds to eat. I asked a couple of other assistants if they wanted to join me. “No, thanks, I brought my bag lunch. I’m going to eat at my desk.” Then I asked the head coach of the varsity. “That sounds good,” he said. Guess who else went with us? Every single coach including all those who said, “No, thanks.” Those other assistants had gotten their bag lunches out and started to eat them when this happened. They suddenly all put them away and joined the McDonalds trip. I got the impression that those assistants would never in a million years have dared invite the head coach to go out to lunch. They would always defer to his lunch plans, watch him, and eat wherever he ate. I was damn well going to McDonalds with or without the head coach or anyone else. I wanted a burger, an ice-cold Coke, and air-conditioning. I did not want to spend my brief break from double days in a stuffy, un-air-conditioned, coaches office eating cold cuts or peanut butter sandwiches. It was a comfort-and-dining decision, not a career move, at least to me. To the other assistants, every word, every movement, every bit of body language was a career move. I was astonished and appalled at such blatant sycophancy. These guys were grown men. Years have passed and those guys are still with that coach. Again, this sort of atmosphere is not conducive to innovation or contrarian approaches to football coaching.

‘My honor is my loyalty’

Oh, by the way. Do you like the quote at the top of this page? The one that says, “My honor is my loyalty.” Do you agree with it? It is a quote from Nazi Heinrich Himmler. He was the head of the SS (Schutzstaffeln) and Gestapo (secret police) and main guy in charge of the Holocaust. “Meine Ehre heißt Treue” (literally, "My honor is called loyalty") was the official motto of the SS. Himmler was very loyal to his boss, Adolf Hitler. Loyalty poster boy Heinrich Himmler shows why loyalty cannot be considered a virtue until until the question, “Loyalty to whom or what?” has been answered.

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