Coaching, not Berating, when Mistakes are Made in Football (or the Workplace)


I was happy to attend the first football game of the year for my alma mater, Northwestern, as they defeated Boston College last Saturday. Yeah, I should have been working on my book. College football, especially early in a season, provides plenty of moments when young players make mistakes born of inexperience or players just flat out bobble, stumble, or mess up.

Arguably, the measure of a leader comes not when times are good, but when times are tough. How does a leader respond, whether they are a football coach or a leader in the workplace?

The second year coach at Notre Dame is catching heat for a pattern of publicly lambasting players on the sidelines on national TV during games, see the article Is Brian Kelly too angry to be Notre Dame's head coach?

From the article:

On at least three separate occasions, following a first quarter interception into the end zone by quarterback Dayne Crist, a third quarter interception that bounced off the helmet of receiver T.J. Jones (above) and a botched formation that forced a timeout before a two-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter, NBC's cameras caught coach Brian Kelly getting up close and purple with his players, picking up more than a few words than a few words in the process that would make the pope's lip-reader blush. Hint: He wasn't speaking Latin.

Some are calling for Kelly to be fired, but that might have to do more with his 8-6 record over a season plus. You might brush it off and say, “Come on, it's football!” but that sort of behavior isn't the only way to address things, turning purple faced.

Speaking of purple, Northwestern is known for our purple uniforms and our 36 year old coach, Pat Fitzgerald, who is in his sixth season after being two-time national defensive player of the year as a player on the Northwestern Rose Bowl team of the 1995 and 1996 era.

This article describes the approach “Fitz” takes:  NU carves out tough, clean identity

On the very first play of the NU/BC game, Northwestern gave up a long 69-yard run. Yup, first play. Way to start the season, eh? But the defense held strong on the next three plays, and BC only got a field goal, somewhat stunting their momentum. Redshirt freshman Ibrahim Campbell was singled out as making a poor decision on the first play, leading to a wide-open hole for the BC running back.

“It was (Campbell's) wrong fit that gave up the long run and the next play they ran the exact play and he filled the hole for the tackle for loss,” Fitzgerald recalled. “That's the response we want. So as he came off the field I was proud of him and said, ‘Welcome to college football.' You can be the goat one play and the hero the next.”

Coach Fitz is a passionate guy. He's demonstrative, but it's usually in support of his players.

From the article:

More than in the NFL, a college head coach's reaction to adversity determines whether his team learns from mistakes or fears making them so much it makes more. What manner best fits Fitz? He yells for emphasis but rarely reaches the point where his face turns the color of Northwestern's helmet.

“Instead of berating guys and getting down on guys we look at it as a teachable and coachable opportunity,” Fitzgerald said. “We know how to win. It's a long game.”

Read that last part – the coach's reaction to adversity determines whether players learn or just get fearful. Can the same dynamics apply in the workplace?

When I was at GM in the mid-'90s, we had a plant superintendent who was definitely the Brian Kelly type, yelling and screaming, belittling people, and blaming people left and right. The yelling and screaming didn't improve quality or productivity, and it certainly didn't do anything for workplace morale. He was anything but a Lean leader.

One post about him:

For many reasons, I'm proud that Fitz and his coaching style are on display on the Northwestern sideline each Saturday. Go ‘Cats!

What do you think? Please scroll down (or click) to post a comment. Or please share the post with your thoughts on LinkedIn – and follow me or connect with me there.

Did you like this post? Make sure you don't miss a post or podcast — Subscribe to get notified about posts via email daily or weekly.

Check out my latest book, The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation:

Get New Posts Sent To You

Select list(s):
Previous articleDo Happier People Work Harder? I Think So
Next articleBand-Aiding the Process – Literally
Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. We could definitely use more people like Fitz in the college football ranks. Contrast him with someone like Lane Kiffin, who says in the post-game press conference –

    We have 1….we have 2 good players on offense right now.

    What he and Brian Kelly do are embarrassing for the players, and is really not just sound management. I’d be interested to see a study about management styles of college football coaches, and how it’s changed over the years. I don’t know if it would mirror what’s going on in business.

    • Some of this coaching behavior becomes self correcting if student-athletes choose to not go play for coaches who are borderline abusive, but Notre Dame and USC are quite a draw for the name, reputation, and exposure if you think you have an NFL future.

  2. Hi Mark,

    The manager of Manchester United football club Alex Ferguson (arguably one of the greatest club footballl managers of all time), was given the nickname “the hairdrier” by some players earlier in his career (during the 80’s and 90’s). This was due to the ferocious verbal tirades and “rollockings” he would give some of the players (particularly after loosing).

    Many ex-players who were on the receiving end of this have commented afterwards to the effect that professionally this was a good thing. The effect was it stired something inside them to achieve success that they never thought possible (and may never have achieved). Many have said words to the effect “we were not really arm over the shoulder type men”.

    They speculate other – particularly younger – players were “spared” as this would have been counter productive. Long after leaving many talk fondly of him as a “father figure”, coach, inspiration and motivator.

    One key difference is this all happened behind closed doors (Most of this story comes from the ex-players themselves). It is extremely rare that Alex Ferguson ever publiclly critisised any of his players.

    When talking about this now, Alex Ferguson himself has said that times have moved on. There is a far better understanding of sports and motivational psychology to bring out the best in players which is more useful.

    Whilst the sports are different, I do think this kind of behaviour belongs in the past. The same applies to the workplace (investment banks take note…)

    Mind I bet he still gives the odd blast now and again….

    • I think much of the criticism of Kelly is that 1) some of these players are just 18 years old and 2) he’s doing this very publicly.

      I recall the mantra of “praise publicly, criticize privately.”

      • I would suggest that perhaps this is the wrong criticism. If Alex Ferguson, at his age and with all the success he has achieved recognises this kind of “motivation” belongs in the past, younger coaches should too. Within football the most successful younger managers do not employ these methods either (Jose: Real Madrid, Pep: Barcelona). It is rare to see or hear of these tactics used in athletics either.

        Perhaps most relevant of all is rugby (which has the same tough mans image). I doubt any coach who behaved in the way Kelly has would remain employed, even if the team was victorious in the
        world cup starting tomorrow!!

        • Geoff – I agree that the purple-faced screaming behavior shouldn’t be inflicted on adults or professionals, either.

          I was paraphrasing some of the criticism I’ve heard. I wasn’t clear about that.

  3. As of last week, I have now officially written my last check to the University of Notre Dame. Brian Kelly doesn’t treat college athletes the way I would want any human being treating my son or daughter, or the way that I expect them to treat others. I don’t if Brian Kelly gets angry or turns purple, but no one deserves that kind of derision for making a football mistake.

  4. I don’t think any of you would admire Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago:

    “A couple of weeks ago I sat down with the mayor in his office to talk about how to roll out a longer school year and what components would go into making it a better school year for our students but he did not want to have that conversation,” said Lewis. “When I explained to him that a longer school day should not be used for warehousing or babysitting our youth he exploded, used profanity, pointed his finger in my face and yelled. At that point the conversation was over – soon thereafter we found ourselves subject to a full-scale propaganda war over a moot point.”

    Why do leaders (or voters) tolerate behavior like this???

  5. To give you an idea of the enviornment I work in just last month upper management did a poll of employees to see which person in management yelled and cursed the most at them. Now giving that some people think when you talk to them your yelling and cussing. I am sure this poll was off by a little. Knowing those that hit the top of the list I have to say they were dead on. The poll was for nothing other than to let people know where they ranked. There was no request for change of there actions. I did not even make the list which I was ribbed about by those that did. We fight daily with issues in the plant both people and machine. Yet no one realizes there are other methods of handling issues other then yelling, cussing and writing people up.

    Mark you have given me a great idea with this topic for my blog.

  6. Mark, I am a long time Notre Dame fan and have to agree with you about Brian Kelly.

    I always thought that most of the quarterbacking problems over the last 2 years were a result of them not trying to make a mistake versus making a play.

    I have seen less of that this year which may be a result of either Kelly having his own quarterback (1 he recruited) and/or that Everett Golson is a freshman. As a result, Kelly has been a little more tolerant. It will be interesting in the long run how Everett develops under Kelly’s tutelage.

    By the way, I have received a lot of flack this season because of my opinion about Kelly. It might change (I am open-minded contrary to what my kids might think) but one year of winning is not conclusive evidence. You find out more about someone through their failures than you do their successes.

  7. Colin Cowherd, on ESPN Radio today, claimed a Notre Dame source tells him that Coach Kelly screams even more wildly at the players compared to a year ago, when he faced much public criticism for the in-game sideline tongue lashings… he’s just doing a better job of keeping the red-faced screaming private now.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.