Last month Tennessee lost the winningest high school football coach in state history. For 5 decades, he built programs at 4 different high schools in the Memphis area, and his passing rocked the community – I should know… I grew up there, I cheered on the sidelines for his teams, and like most of us in the South, I lived for those winning Friday Night Lights.
So often we look to the “famous” leaders for inspiration, but sometimes it’s the ordinary guys out making it happen every day who can teach us the most about what it takes to become a legendary leader. Over the past week, my Facebook feed has been flooded with tributes to this amazing coach. Long before he fell ill, he even had a tribute page where his players frequently posted their favorite memories. In the past week, I’ve gained greater insight into how Coach Ken Netherland built such successful programs that created men who were loyal to him to the very end. The quotes below were representative of the many more that I read, and they speak to true leadership qualities… not just the ones you need on the football field, but the ones you need in order to build and lead successful teams of any sort.
“He stayed on me like you wouldn’t believe. He made me understand I could play at that level and even further…”
“He made me tough even when I did not want to be… He always had a way of making me laugh.”
“He believed in his players and made them want to work hard…”
“… we could always do better in his eyes. There was always room for improvement…”
“He always believed in teaching the basic fundamentals and that if his players learned those and executed them like they should, they could beat most folks lined up in front of them.”
Coach Netherland understood what it meant to coach to the individual. He developed personal connections with his players. He pushed them to overcome their weaknesses and realize their unique potential. He made them believe that they could be better than they thought they could be, and he didn’t do it with crazy gimmicks or new “flavor of the day” strategies – he did it with honest, hard work and a focus on the fundamentals of the game.
Coach Netherland was also a rigorous analyst of the game. He spent hours with his coaches and players reviewing films from the previous game and studying films of his upcoming competition. He worked with his coaching staff every weekend in the fall preparing for how they would coach their team the following week. When he wasn’t coaching or studying films, he was personally working on the football field – making sure that the grass was technically sound to prevent as many injuries as possible. One of his former players posted a picture of him standing still, and another former player remarked that he never remembered seeing him stand that still, saying “Coach was always on the move… barking out a play or a practice routine.” He didn’t lead from behind - he got out in front, figured out what needed to be done and took charge engendering the loyalty of his teams, the respect of his competitors, and the admiration of many fans.
A few lessons in legendary leadership the way ordinary folks do it? Engagement. Analysis. Preparation. Fundamentals. 368 wins don’t lie.