Leadership Observations from the 2013 Iron Bowl

Posted: December 3, 2013 in Leadership
Tags: , , , , , , ,

For those of you know me, it is no secret that I am a huge Auburn Tigers fan.  Having spent my undergraduate years on the beautiful campus, I truly love and appreciate the legacy and tradition of Auburn University.

This year Auburn’s campus was host for the annual Iron Bowl rivalry with Auburn’s in-state rival, the Alabama Crimson Tide.  This Iron Bowl was everything you would expect from two top five ranked teams from the SEC.  It proved to be one of the most exciting and memorable games in Iron Bowl history.

Now that I have had a couple days to recover and reflect on all the sights and sounds of the game, I thought I would share nine leadership lessons I observed during the 2013 Iron Bowl.


1 – One Second Can Change Everything.

Playing in overtime is tough.  Playing an overtime game on an opponent’s field is really tough.

With the game tied nearing the end of the fourth quarter, Nick Saban’s decision to argue the timing of an out of bounds run, for one second on the clock was the best leadership move he could make.  If he loses the challenge, he loses a time out which he cannot take into overtime anyway.  If he wins the challenge, his team has one opportunity for one final play to win this hard fought game.

Truth is, there were 3,559 seconds of playing time already elapsed during the game.  Each second consumed with decisions, assessments, adjustment, refinements by players and coaches.  Each second consumed with leadership decision after leadership decision, adjustment after adjustment.  Obviously, each had been effective to the point that both teams were locked in a 28 – 28 tie, now with only a single second remaining on the clock.

So, why was Coach Saban’s decision to field a play with one second remaining, instead of letting time expire and going into overtime a good leadership decision?

Saban’s decision to field a play with one second remaining on the clock was a great leadership decision because:

  1. He showed confidence in his team’s ability to win.
  2. He demonstrated a focus on priorities within the perceived time constraints.
  3. He showed willingness to risk losing for the greater reward of winning the moment.

Were the results of his decision what he hoped for?  No.

Leadership decisions involve risks.  The fact that a single risk did not pay off with the desired results, does not negate a solid leadership decision.

Can one second make a difference in leadership?  Absolutely!!  Every second can be a potential difference maker for a leader.


2 – Keep Trying Until the Final Play Ends.

Gus Malzahn has instilled in Auburn players a never quit attitude.  He has done this by acknowledging each players strengths and contributions to the team.  He has continually communicated to each coach, trainer, and player that he believes in them and together they need to believe in each other.

As a team, Auburn now lives like they believe “together we win.”  You can see it around campus.  “Together, We Believe.” “Together, We Win.”  Gus continually instills in his team the sense of together we enter the arena, together we work, together we finish, together we win.

Malzahn not only communicates this with his team.  He tells the world.  In pre-game interviews he often speaks about the togetherness of the team.  Before this recent game, Malzahn said: “If we work together to keep the score close into the fourth quarter, we have a great chance of winning this ball game.”  And, time after time this season, Auburn has stepped up and done just that.

But, what does together really mean?  It means that as a team, we are in this together, until the very end.  That means as long as there is work to be done, we continue together.  That showed in the end of the Iron Bowl.  When Alabama’s field goal attempt fell short, resulting in a return.  The team realized that the game continued, even when the clock stopped.  Together we finish the game.

The play does not end when the clock strikes zero.  The play ends when the official declares play has ended.  Gus Malzahn has instilled a sense of togetherness in the Auburn Tigers.  And with that an intensity to keep working together, until the final play ends.

3 – Luck Happens Where Preparation Meets Opportunity.

A lot of plays during the game could be defined as “luck” by those of us who are casual fans.   Fact is, “Luck” is where preparation meets opportunity.   TJ Yeldon (Alabama) and Tre Mason (Auburn) have some really “lucky” runs, because they are prepared to take advantage of the holes their blockers leave when the opportunity presents itself.  Those holes are there for them to run through, because their teammates invest time in practice preparing to be ready to challenge the defensive lines of opponents to create just such opportunities.

Chris Davis’ return of the missed field goal at the end of the game did not just happen by chance.

Not a single one of these players simply showed up one day and decided to play football for one of the premier programs in the supreme conference in NCAA football.  Each one of these players has invested countless hours with strength and conditioning coaches, dietitians, position coaches, film analysts, learning how to best use their body and mind to perform in the toughest competition.

What the casual fan sees as “luck” is really the payoff of countless hours of investment of the coaches and players.  Alabama forced Tre Mason’s fumble, which eventually lead to an Alabama touchdown, because they were prepared when the opportunity presented itself.  Auburn blocked Alabama’s field goal attempt, setting up an Auburn touchdown, because they were prepared when the opportunity arose.  And, it was not luck when Chris Davis returned the final field goal attempt 109 yards for the game winning touchdown.  It was countless hours of coaching, training and preparation of the entire team rising to the occasion, when the opportunity was ripe.

Luck, my friends, does not happen by chance.  Luck occurs when preparation and opportunity collide with winning results.

4 – Win As a Team.  Lose As a Team.

No one person won or lost this game for his team.  There were numerous plays for both sides during the game that you could point to as a “game changer” for that moment in time.  There were also many opportunities missed by each team, during the course of the game.

I have heard many fan comments about the “coulda, shoulda, woulda” moments during the game.  I have even heard some rather disturbing comments blaming a single player or coach for the loss or win.

Two teams entered the field of competition Saturday afternoon.  Two teams walked off after a hard fought battle of a game.  Only one team could walk off the field with the victory.

The players and coaches all understand this concept.  I can only hope the finger pointing fans will grasp it as well.

You win as a team.  You lose as a team.  But, you never ignore the importance of the TEAM.

5 – Win With Class.  Lose With Class.

I have been to a lot of Iron Bowls over the years.  This year was probably the best Iron Bowl experience I remember as a fan.  Yes, I am happy that Auburn won the game.  But, for me what makes this Iron Bowl experience more special was the respect I saw among the fans.

Sitting in a section, blended with Alabama and Auburn fans, it was great to see all fans treating each other with respect and even congratulating each other when their teams did well.

I know all schools have their fair share of fringe fans that cause a bad reputation for all of us.  Personally, I choose not to judge an entire fan base by a few idiots.

What made this the best Iron Bowl experience for me was I choose to find the best in each fan base.  My interaction with both Alabama and Auburn fans was completely positive throughout the game and after the final touchdown.  Each fan was proud of their respective team, as they should be.  Each congratulated the other on a hard fought game.  I met many fans who I hope I am sitting near my next Iron Bowl experience.

Winning with class and losing with class means continually supporting your team while respecting each other’s fan base.

6 – Respect The Competition.

Pre-game interviews focused on “what we need to do to win.”  Why, because these teams, players and coaches respect each other’s accomplishments, traditions, and abilities.  The coaches respect each other, because they understand the daily pressures of the jobs.  The players respected each other, because they understand what is required to be able to perform at the highest levels.

Besides, the opponent you trash talk today, may be your teammate on another team one day.  These players realize that college play is only for a few seasons.  Many of these players will see each other in the NFL, where today’s opponent might be tomorrow’s teammate.

A disparaging word, once said, can never be unsaid.  A respectful word, once said, can only increase in positive relationships.  Respecting the competition means you keep negative comments to yourself and maintain focus on the positive things you can control.

7 – Show Appreciation to Your Team.

Most coaches publicly show appreciation for their players during the post-game interviews.  However, there is one story I heard that is a pointed example of how a leader shows appreciation for his team.

After the Iron Bowl, Gus Malzahn stood at the door of the Auburn locker room.  As each player passed through, Malzahn hugged each on and specifically thanked each for his contribution to the team.  Specifically appreciating each player’s contribution, meant that Gus had to focus on what each player had done that contributed to the team.

Someone once said:  “Appreciation is the legal tender all souls enjoy.”

How valuable was this specific expression of appreciation for the players’ relationship with Gus Malzahn?

Great leaders know how to say, “thank you.”  Great leaders show appreciation for their team.  Great leaders specifically appreciate specific performance of individual team members.

8 – Family Is Your Number One Team.

Three different scenes after the Iron Bowl game highlighted this point for me.

The first:  After Gus Malzahn met Nick Saban for the post-game hand shake and show of sportsmanship, he turned and started scanning the crowd.  In the mass of humanity flooding the field of Jordan Hare Stadium, Malzahn finds his wife and daughters.  There in the middle of a crowd, we see a private moment of celebration with his family.

The second:  Alabama quarterback, AJ McCarron, after the final play was complete, holds his head high and runs to the edge of the stands.  There he embraces his dad and brother, kisses his girlfriend.  For a moment, we have some insight to his personal support group.

The third:  In the middle of the massive crowd of fans on the field, Chris Davis (the Auburn player who scored the winning touchdown) finds his grandmother.  The picture of her embrace, then standing back and looking at Chris with all the love, devotion and pride of a loving grandmother is phenomenal.

These individuals understand a valuable lesson, we can all use.  Family is your number one team.

No matter where the trials, challenges and opportunities of life take you, a loving stable family celebrates with you in the good times and supports you in the bad.  Regardless of the ups and downs, family is your greatest support, biggest cheerleaders and greatest comfort.  Family is your number one team.

9 – Celebrate the Win / Mourn the Loss.  Then Prepare for the Next Challenge.

No one is more famous for his 24-hour rule than Nick Saban.  Win or lose, you give a little time to celebrate or mourn, then focus on the next challenge ahead and get back to work.

Great leaders know that one loss does not destroy one’s legacy.  Neither does one win define one’s leadership.  Champions are made by successfully addressing multiple challenges.  Winners only become losers when they allow a temporary setback to distract them from the next successive challenge.

Gus Malzahn expressed this same conviction in the post-game interview, when he said:  “We will celebrate this tonight.  Tomorrow, we start work on Missouri.”

Celebrate the win, or mourn the loss for a brief time.  Then, get back to preparing for the next challenge.

One win does not create a legacy.  One loss does not destroy a legacy.  Legacy is built by continually preparing for and successively overcoming one challenge at a time.

  1. Paula Hicks says:

    Tim….this is one of the best written commentaries on a game that I have ever read. If everyone could read this and not only take it to heart but take it to life, well our world could be changed. Thanks for such an insightful read.


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