CEOs and Football Coaches: What Defines Success?

Wow. It’s been a tough week for some of the titans of college football. Don’t know exactly why I was thinking about that this morning during my 5 a.m. run around the neighborhood. Should have just enjoyed the cool, dry weather and the total lack of noise, people and vehicles. Doesn’t get much better than that in early December in NE Ohio. And does it really matter that Charlie Weis got the hook at Notre Dame? Or that Bobby Bowden got booted into retirement at Florida State?

Well, yeah, I guess — especially when you think about what is at stake in major league college football these days: pride, reputation and student enrollment; millions and millions of dollars in ticket sales, alumni contributions and other fundraising; mega-buck TV contracts; and somewhere in the mix the ability to send the faithful home on Saturdays with more wins than losses.

Yet I wonder if there isn’t more to success in college sports — even for those trying to climb and stay on the top of the heap — then those points listed in the previous paragraph? And I wonder if the expectations for coaches — who are really CEOs of big businesses — aren’t a tad inflated. George Vecsey, in his NYT column, “Echoes of Glory Fade at a Fork in the Road,” shines a spotlight on the balance at Notre Dame between winning and success:

Rather than regard the firing of Charlie Weis as a steppingstone toward getting back to where old grads believe Notre Dame belongs, the university should look on the Weis years as an opportunity to ask, is all this hiring and firing really worth it?

As anybody who has been on that campus for some weekday experience other than football can tell, Notre Dame is a great, serious academic institution.

Its major problem as a football program — that ponderous phrase — is that Notre Dame does not merely compete against Michigan and U.S.C. every autumn.

It competes against Notre Dame, that legendary program from the past, when Frank Leahy and some of the other coaches could snap their fingers and the entire apparatus of the Subway Alumni would send the best and sometimes even the brightest off to South Bend. Being a fifth-stringer was considered a calling.

Ah, Notre Dame present — competing against, Notre Dame past. Wonder how successful any coach will be under those conditions and performance measures.

And wonder if that same perception — present measured against past —  cost the head coach at Government Motors, Fritz Henderson, his job as CEO. Here’s from the NYT story by Bill Vlasic, “GM Asks It Chief to Resign,”:

As part of his bid to make General Motors management appear more accessible and responsive coming out of bankruptcy, the chief executive, Fritz Henderson, set up a Web page called Tell Fritz.

One consumer sent in a question last month asking why G.M. had fared so poorly in a recent Consumer Reports survey.

“We were generally disappointed in our results,” Mr. Henderson responded. “We simply must produce better results.”

On Tuesday, the new G.M. board agreed emphatically with Mr. Henderson’s assessment, and asked him to resign immediately.

The move to replace Mr. Henderson — and name G.M.’s chairman, Edward E. Whitacre Jr., as interim chief executive — stunned the auto industry. From the outside, Mr. Henderson appeared to be making some headway, by making broad cuts to G.M.’s famously bureaucratic culture, introducing aggressive marketing strategies, and stemming the sharp decline in sales.

But if G.M. was to truly reinvent itself — as the company promised in commercials after a government bailout helped it emerge from bankruptcy — the board decided that the 25-year veteran of G.M. was too tied to the company’s past mistakes to bring a fresh approach that could help reverse its decades-long slide.

I’ll admit that of the coaching changes I’ve talked about here, I’m most interested in what happened to Fritz. First, GM is a ward of Ma and Pa Taxpayer — and that means that some of our money is directly involved in this game. And second, there are real jobs — men and women in the auto industry and throughout the country — at stakes here.

Saying that, it appears that Fritz, Charlie and Bobby share a common bond. All failed, apparently, to achieve success in the present based on expectations from the past.

I guess GM, Notre Dame and Florida State are all too big to fail.


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