Lessons from the Football Coaching and Leadership Styles of the Oregon Ducks and Ohio State Buckeyes

After the Haiti Earthquake copy

Note: Today is the fifth anniversary of the Haiti earthquake. Russell Maroni's journal from his volunteer work there, including some Lean concepts he employed, is still available. You can download a free PDF and I hope you'll consider making a charitable contribution.

Now on to today's somewhat trivial, by comparison, topic. Tonight is the inaugural championship game for the “College Football Playoff.” Many might not care about the game, but there are some good management and leadership lessons to be learned from the coaches of both teams.

For Oregon Football, Leadership Doesn't Mean Yelling and Screaming

The stereotype of a football coach is sort of like the stereotype of an Army drill sergeant — lots of yelling and screaming and getting “in your face” when a mistake is made during practice. This isn't really true anymore with drill sergeants, who have adopted new ways and it's not true anymore in the Oregon Ducks football program.

The “way we've always done things” doesn't have to be the way we keep doing them. That's true in our workplaces, as well.

A few years back, I wrote about Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly and how some alumni were embarrassed or appalled by his red-faced screaming at players on national TV.

The WSJ article from a few days ago explains how the Oregon approach is different: “Why the Oregon Ducks Don't Believe in Yelling.”

From the article:

In a move that may send football traditionalists into a sideline meltdown, Oregon coach Mark Helfrich and his staff have ditched the age-old technique of screaming at players to motivate them. Instead, Oregon's coaches have implemented a softer, less confrontational and altogether cuddlier method of running their team.

“It's not about who can scream the loudest,” said Helfrich, the Ducks' 41-year-old second-year coach. “We have excellent specialists in their field, great leaders of young men that need to teach guys what to do, to show them and tell them and find a way to bring that home. There's hopefully way more talking than yelling.”

When a mistake is made:

“When you put your arm around a guy and say, ‘This is how it could be done better,' they understand you care about them and you just want what's best for the team,” said Marcus Mariota, Oregon's Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. “Those guys already understand that they did wrong.”

More talking than yelling. This reminds me of Lean management. It's not about the yelling and screaming, shaming and blaming model that I was far too familiar with at GM twenty years ago. A Lean environment isn't “nice” or passive aggressive. We need to talk openly about problems and opportunities for improvement, not ignore them. But, we can talk about them in a calm way and solve problems in a scientific manner instead of yelling or pressuring people to try harder or “be more careful.”

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There are also elements of what Toyota calls the “respect for people” principle that we might recognize in the Oregon approach:

Oregon's nonaggression policy isn't limited to players. Offensive coordinator Scott Frost says that the spirit of civility extends to the coaching staff, where the lowliest graduate assistants are treated with the same deference as top members of the staff. “Guys in our program don't get yelled at and treated like they are beneath the coaches,” Frost said. “There's more enjoyment and laughing in our building than almost any football building in the country.”

It's part of their philosophy and, again, a matter of respect:

Instead of a chain of command with the head coach at the top, Oregon's coaches, players and administrators are viewed as equals and collaborators. “Every single member of this team is seen as a leader in their own way,” said center Hroniss Grasu.

An end to “command and control” management. We'd hope to see such a transformation in hospitals and other organizations!

The article talks about how “millennials” don't like to be yelled at or talked to that way. I'm not sure any generation LIKES being treated that way. It was maybe just more accepted and people didn't push back or leave to find a better environment since that's the way it was in most organizations?

Oregon gets their “toughness” questioned due to their style of play and their focus on speed. But, choosing to lead in a different way is proving to be effective. It requires more discipline and self control to NOT yell at somebody and I think that's a more effective measure of “toughness.”

Urban Meyer, Ohio State, and a New Method of Teaching

I don't want to exclude the Ohio State Buckeyes from this discussion.  My good friend Ron Pereira from Gemba Academy is a huge Buckeyes fan.

I saw this article last month, also in the Journal: “How Urban Meyer Took the Buckeyes to School.” It's not a commentary on classroom academics for the football team, but about how they teach and coach football. They're also changing some elements of “the way it's always been done.”

From the article:

In academia, flipped learning turns the traditional classroom-teaching model on its head, delivering lessons online outside of class and moving homework into the classroom via individual tutoring or activities. A football team might seem to be an inapplicable environment for this, but Meyer employed a similar approach after taking over the Buckeyes, who went 6-7 the previous season.

In my “Daily Continuous Improvement for Healthcare” workshop for the ThedaCare Center for Healthcare Value, I've tried to adopt some of this approach. I don't think “lecture” is the best use of time when we've gathered a group together in Wisconsin. More valuable are discussions, exercises, simulations, gemba walks, and practice. The typical approach is to lecture from slides, with a few other activities (and I've been as guilty as that as anybody). I was the first LEI / ThedaCare instructor to do online “pre-work” where people could view recorded lecture segments at their convenience (or they could read one of my books on the topic). Doing the basic learning in advance makes the classroom time more valuable.

The theory behind it is that introducing students to new material through short video lectures, screencasts or online slideshows outside of class time allows for the lower levels of cognitive work–gaining knowledge and comprehension–to be performed outside the classroom on their own schedule and at their own pace. Class time can then be repurposed into workshops where students can inquire about the material and interact with hands-on activities. These help accomplish the harder task of assimilating knowledge.

During the Ebola scare, many hospitals were having employees watch videos or attend lectures on Ebola preparedness and methods. Awareness is not the same as ability to do. As I blogged about here, there's a big difference between telling (which isn't effective) and hands-on interactive training that is effective (as shown by some hospitals and in the U.S. military). Learning by doing (while being coached on a one-on-one basis) is part of the reason by the Training Within Industry methodology is so valuable, as a part of Lean. See this great book on how TWI is used at Virginia Mason Medical Center: Getting to Standard Work in Health Care: Using TWI to Create a Foundation for Quality Care.

Regardless of which team wins, they are both doing innovative things. They're getting beyond “the way we've always done things” and you can see the results. What can you and your organization do to be innovative and get better results in 2015?

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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. Thanks for the shout out, Mark! It should be a great game and if my Bucks end up losing there is no shame losing to Oregon. They’re all class (less the young WR who hopefully learns a valuable life lesson by his mistake)! And Mariato may go down as one of the greatest college QBs of all time.


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