When I was hired at the school where I coach, the football program had won nine games in the previous three seasons combined. We had some good players, however, especially among the rising senior class, and I convinced myself we could be successful with some revamped schemes and greater attention to fundamentals.
We went 2-8 that year. Boy, was I wrong.
The problem wasn’t talent. We weren’t loaded with studs but our talent was on par with many of our opponents. The problem was culture. We were a losing program that had developed losing habits. Kids showing up late to meetings and workouts. Not hustling at practice. Acting like bullies in the hallways. Jealousy among players. Parents angry over their son’s playing time. Emails to the athletic director complaining about everything from the color of our helmets to the music we played in our pre-game warmup.
I inherited all of these problems and did nothing that first year to resolve them. They became worse, actually, as players and parents tested me to see where I was weak or could be manipulated. With my attention so focused on schemes, I didn’t take stock of how toxic the environment had become. It was a long first season, to say the least.
The following January, I convened the team for our off-season meeting. Only 34 players showed up. There had been 50 on the team that first year and we had recruited the hallways hard to get more kids to come out. We were hoping at least 60 would attend. It was disappointing, to say the least.
Shortly after, I saw the mother of a boy I had been recruiting pretty hard in the supermarket. He was a 6’3 basketball player who could jump out of the building and could have made a great wide receiver. I asked her why he decided not to come out. Her answer hit me like a lightning bolt.
“Honestly, Coach,” she said. “We’re not impressed with the football culture.”
That was a seminal moment in my coaching career, one that probably saved my job. I went back to school and erased the white board in the coaches office that was filled with X and O’s, all of the new schemes we wanted to implement that we thought would be so brilliant. In their place I wrote, CULTURE. Then I set out to decipher what that actually meant.
Seven years later, the investment has paid off. It didn’t happen overnight (my second season we went 3-7) but we’ve now made the playoffs in three straight seasons and have about 90 players in the program. I won’t bore you with the details of how we got there but three points of emphasis were especially impactful: stability, identity and accountability. Among the dozens of coaches I spoke with about how to build a positive culture within a program, those three themes emerged. We incorporated them into everything we did until they became second nature to everyone involved. Be consistent, know what you stand for and take responsibility for your actions. Those points of emphasis — not scheme, not talent — have made all the difference.
In retrospect, I’m disappointed it took so long to embrace them. As a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers for forty years, I should have recognized them from the start.
Comparing high school to professional football isn’t exactly an apples-to-apples examination. I manage sixteen year-olds who eat Pop Tarts for lunch and stay up half the night playing video games and texting their girlfriends. Mike Tomlin manages millionaires (some of whom probably eat Pop Tarts for lunch and stay up half the night playing video games and texting their girlfriends). Maybe it’s not so different after all?
One thing that’s certain is the impact of culture on almost any organization at any level, whether it’s high school versus professional football, a small business or a global corporation. Wherever people interact together with a common goal in mind, there must be attention paid to the values, beliefs, behaviors and attitudes that drive that organization for it to be successful. This is its culture.
The question of culture is especially relevant as we consider the coming NFL season and the ongoing global pandemic. With teams forced to convene virtually and no group activities permitted until... well, no one really knows... teams with established stability, levels of expectation and strong leadership have a leg up on those in transition.
The Steelers are one of the most respected franchises in professional sports when it comes to these things. Mike Tomlin enters his 14th year as head coach in 2020. He is one of just three head coaches the Steelers have employed since 1969. Coupled with the fact they have been owned in some form by the Rooney family since the 1930s, they are a model of stability.
In terms of identity, even casual football fans understand what to expect when they see the familiar black and gold uniforms of the Steelers. The team’s identity has long been built on a physical brand of football that emphasizes great defense and overall toughness. While that has not been universally true these past fifty years, it has become Pittsburgh’s reputation. Incoming players talk about this a great deal. When they are drafted by or sign with Pittsburgh, they know the brand of football expected of them.
As for accountability, Steeler players have long been expected to conduct themselves in a way that doesn’t embarrass the franchise. This message has been enforced by an ownership group that has valued character, by coaches who exemplify it and by leaders in the locker room who hold players accountable. A player who can be trusted with his personal conduct is likely one who can be trusted professionally. This logic has driven the Steelers’ personnel decisions for decades.
The Steelers have not been infallible in these regards. We don’t have to look back very far to find an example. The 2017 and 2018 teams suffered from poor play in the defensive backfield and, as the staff transitioned from Dick LeBeau to Keith Butler as coordinator, some questionable schemes as well. But the offense was so good, so loaded with high-end talent, that it seems impossible the franchise did not win a single playoff game in that time.
Why didn’t they? Look no further than the eroding team culture, which featured a host of issues that were atypical for the Steelers. Antonio Brown’s various fiascos. Le’Veon Bell’s holdout. James Harrison’s petulant behavior. Ben Roethlisberger’s passive-aggressive radio show commentary. The “culture” didn’t give up 45 points in that 2017 playoff loss to Jacksonville, cause the devastating injury to Ryan Shazier or overturn the Jesse James touchdown against New England. And, in light of Brown’s downfall since leaving Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin may have done a better job keeping things together than he gets credit for. But those teams did not experience the success they could have given their considerable ability. A regression of the overall culture, particularly when it came to the team’s high-profile players, contributed significantly to that.
The Steelers went to great lengths to rebuild that culture last season. Brown, Bell and Harrison were not retained. Roethlisberger gave up his polarizing radio show. The defense added talent but also high-character players in Devin Bush and Minkah Fitzpatrick. The 2019 squad was a determined, disciplined bunch that fought through the devastating Roethlisberger injury to remain competitive until the final week of the season. A team with a lesser culture would likely have imploded. So, while there may be examples where some discretions were treated differently than others and where exceptions to the preferred culture existed, the rule has long outweighed those exceptions.
Culture matters under normal circumstances but it is especially important in this particular moment. A team with an established culture like Pittsburgh’s has a leg up on much of its competition while trying to conduct operations during a pandemic. The Steelers tweaked their staff this off-season but did not change the head coach or either coordinator. They return 20 of 22 starters, with only retired guard Ramon Foster and free agent defensive tackle Javon Hargrave exiting the lineup. There are a few rookies and free agents to integrate and a hole at sub-package linebacker to fill. And, of course, there is the return of Ben Roethlisberger to consider. But the schemes, the personnel, the leadership and the famous “standard” Tomlin often refers to remain largely intact.
How does this benefit them? Roethlisberger will need reps to shake off the rust of his lost 2019. But he will not need to learn a new scheme, which is far more labor-intensive. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, once said, “An organization’s ability to learn, and to translate that learning into rapid action, is the ultimate competitive advantage.” The stability of Pittsburgh’s scheme and personnel should translate into rapid learning when players are once again permitted to take the field.
Beyond scheme, teams with coaching changes will need time together to establish patterns of expectation that cannot be implemented virtually. How a coach disciplines players, when he pushes and when he pulls back, his conditioning regimen, the tempo of his practices and the work ethic he demands all impact the culture of a football team. None of this can be established through Zoom.
New England, Cincinnati, the Chargers and Indianapolis must all integrate new quarterbacks into their system. Cleveland has a new head coach, Kevin Stefanski, who must repair their ever-suffering culture. Stefanski is bringing in an entirely new staff, including both coordinators. The Steelers first three opponents are all undergoing changes at the top of the coaching ranks as well. The Giants have a new head coach (Joe Judge) and new coordinators on offense and defense. Denver has a new offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmer, who must get together with their young quarterback, Drew Lock. Houston has new offensive and defensive coordinators. Each of these teams must figure out how to integrate new pieces, implement their schemes and establish a winning culture without the luxury of meeting directly.
Unfortunately, the big dogs atop the AFC remain stable. Kansas City, Baltimore and rapidly-improving Buffalo all return their head coach, their coordinators, their quarterback and the core of their team. The Chiefs and Ravens, especially, have veteran head coaches who have won Super Bowls and established effective cultures. By remaining stable, having a clear level of expectation and retaining a strong leadership model, these teams should have less problems navigating the challenges of the pandemic than much of the competition. They will each present significant hurdles for the Steelers to overcome if they are to return to the Super Bowl.
There is an adage that says, “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.” Culture could figure into that equation somewhere. Talent matters. Schemes matter. But culture matters as much, if not more. Plenty of talented teams have failed because of poor culture. Thankfully, the Steelers retain a model that should benefit them as we navigate these uncertain times.