What college football coaches can teach us about persuading an audience - and customers
Full disclosure off the top: I’m a lifelong Alabama football fan.
Normally, the fact that I’m a shameless homer in that regard would keep me from making any business-related posts involving the Tide. This year, though, Alabama’s spot on top of the polls allowed coach Nick Saban to avoid what’s become one of the great spectacles of modern college football: coaches publicly pleading the case for why their team - and sometimes their players - are better than the competition. Since many businesses have to make similar cases to (or for) their customers, I thought this would be a good chance to look at professional communication through the lens of college football.
To be clear, politicking for the polls is nothing new. Out of all America’s major sports, college football has always involved the most subjectivity when it comes to picking a champion. One of my earliest memories of college football was Alabama’s victory in 1979 Sugar Bowl, after which Bama coach Bear Bryant said he couldn’t control what others decided, but he had a vote in the AP coaches’ poll, and he planned to cast it for his own team. Other coaches agreed, and Bama claimed the AP title - though sportswriters were apparently unswayed by Bryant’s argument, and voted USC number one in the UPI poll.
The introduction of the four-team playoff was supposed to make things more fair by giving more teams a shot. But leaving the choice of those teams to a small committee inevitably raised the stakes even more. If your team is jockeying for the final playoff slot against another team with a similar record, and the choice comes down to 13 committee members’ personal judgment, what coach could resist using their considerable media exposure to lobby that jury?
The real question is how they go about it - and whether their arguments end up making any difference. Here are the three lessons professionals can take away from this year’s football debates:
Make sure it’s a fight worth having - and not just the heat of the moment.
Let’s start with the campaign that ended up never having a shot at success. Moments after a humiliating loss to a 3-5 LSU team, Florida coach Dan Mullen made a bizarre case that his Gators still belonged in the playoff:
“So I guess probably the best thing to do would have been to play less games,” Mullen said. “Because you seem to get rewarded for not playing this year in college football.”
Mullen’s line was clearly aimed at Ohio State and its 6-game season, but it was also a shot at the playoff committee, who still had OSU ranked in the top 4. The speech didn’t win him any friends in the public, and since the committee happens to include his boss - Florida Athletic Director Scott Stricklin - it presumably didn’t do much for him on the home front, either.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Florida lost the next week to Alabama in the SEC Championship game, knocking them out of any playoff consideration. Mullen made some enemies and looked foolish when he ended up having nothing to gain.
Had they beaten the Tide, though, they would have been on the bubble - dependent on getting the benefit of the doubt from the very people whose judgment he questioned the week before while dealing with the emotions of a tough loss.
There’s a reason that NCAA tournaments and championships mandate a 10- or 15-minute “cooling off period” before losing coaches can speak to the media. Mullen probably should have cooled off for a day or more.
2. Keep it positive.
After both Texas A&M and Ohio State both won their season finales, their coaches took dramatically different approaches to their public comments - and got dramatically different results.
A&M’s Jimbo Fisher went on the attack: "We play in the best league in ball. We got beat by the No. 1 team in the country who also had another superstar on the team when they played us named [Jaylen] Waddle. People ain't even playing them with him now. No team in SEC history has ever lost but one game and [not] been in it. If we can't play in this league and be in the playoff, something is wrong.”
In just 16 seconds he managed to insult every other conference, make a lame excuse for his team’s one loss, and question the integrity of the entire process. The result? A number 5 ranking, and no playoff berth.
OSU coach Ryan Day took a different approach: “I’m not going to talk about other teams, because we have enough to talk about positively about our program. But I’ll say this… if we have the opportunity to play anybody in the countrymen one game, I’m gonna take the Ohio State Buckeyes.” (Day’s NSFW locker room speech raised a few eyebrows when it leaked on Twitter, but to his credit, the core message wasn’t really any different than what he said he publicly.)
Ohio State not only made the playoff, they ended the season at number 3, avoiding a first-round game against mighty Alabama.
3. Begin with the end in mind.
Like Alabama, Clemson’s spot in the playoff was assured its final game, so coach Dabo Swinney used his time in the spotlight to lobby for his QB to win the Heisman Trophy.
Unlike the playoff picks, where the committee at least has a list of criteria for making their choice, Heisman voting is 100% subjective. So a strong closing argument from a coach really can make a difference here. Rather than just rant or make a general statement of support, Swinney seemed to target his comments at the exact points he thought might sway voters.
“It would be a crying shame if the Heinemann didn’t attach their name to Trevor Lawrence,” Swinney said. “That would be a shame. I know that’s become a stat award, but if you watch college football and you don’t know this is the best player in the country, I don’t know what you’re looking at. So to me, the Heinemann should want their name attached to Trevor Lawrence.”
Lawrence began the season as the overwhelming favorite to win the award, but because he missed two games and the whole team missed another, his stats don’t necessarily stack up favorably against the other candidates. Swinney hit that issue head on, and tried to pivot voters instead to Lawrence’s celebrated character and spotless image - suggesting not once but twice that he’s someone the Heisman should want “its name attached to.”
One can poke holes in Swinney’s speech. First, I imagine his other Heisman candidate - running back Travis Etienne - might not have loved it. And the references to character might have been a veiled shot at Alabama’s Mac Jones, who had a DUI arrest as a freshman.
In general, though, Swinney seemed to have had a specific goal - to change the criteria for consideration - and might have done a decent job of it. We’ll find out for sure at the Heisman ceremony on January 5th.
Ultimately, this all gets sorted out on the field. As with any anything else, the merits of the argument generally carry the day over style. But in business, both the product and the pitch are critical, so it’s important to refine both. And we can always learn by studying what works.
Now, it’s time to settle back and enjoy some football. Just one more thing: