Lessons from a Lifetime in Sports

I picked up Gridiron Genius after listening to Michael Lombardi interviewed on a podcast. The book describes his lessons from a lifetime in sports and football front offices and specifically the lessons gleaned from three leaders, Bill Walsh, Bill Bellichick and Al Davis.

It also details the missteps by others and some of the approaches and strategies Lombardi took himself.

“It hasn’t happened yet.” Branch Rickey at 74 when asked to recount is most significant accomplishment


lessons from a lifetime in sports
Gridiron Genius captures the lessons from some of the world’s best coaches
Leadership Requirements

One of his duties during his front office career was to hire coaches. Lombardi details his process including a checklist for hiring a coach.  The checklist needs to be modified by sport and situation, but the example of process is excellent.

Like Walsh he thinks a coaches strength as a leader is more important that his knowledge of the game. I agree. (Knowledge of the game still matters. A lot.)

He spells out clearly the five qualities he values:

  • Command of the room
  • Command of the message
  • Command of self
  • Command of opportunity
  • Command of the process.
Build Your Team

Building a team is an inexact science. Collecting talent is not building a team.

You want to do your best to minimize the risk and improve your odds by creating a strong system for evaluating character as well as talent.

A small but important point he makes about selecting talent–consider the level they are competing at.

It’s a big leap to the NFL. This is why in all league you will see some pro teams that build around experience versus potential. They want to know its proven talent. Of course, there are some players prepared to step right in and crush it.

Work Ethic/Pay Your Dues

On the other hand, the work ethic required to be great at any level you coach at is enormous. There are no short cuts. Don’t discount this when you set your goals. Lombardi recounts how Walsh valued “working smart” but this was not a short cut, it was simply a different way to work hard.

Lombardi himself did legions of work preparing for drafts or learning about players when he had no job and no promise of a job or a paycheck.

This smart work paid off for him in the long run.

Standard of Performance

This phrase sums Bill Walsh up. His great book, perhaps the greatest coaching book at the pro level, Finding the Winning Edge, describes his standard of performance in detail.

Here you get a good, but much shorter look at Walsh’s  “Standard of Performance.”

His Standard of Performance wasn’t a way to define his genius; it was his genius. It was the compass that guided everything he oversaw–coaching, scouting, managing—allowing him to transform the 49ers from a laughingstock to a powerhouse in fewer than 1,000 days. By accomplishing that feat, Walsh essentially used football to prove the famous dictum of another management expert, Peter Drucker: “Culture can eat strategy for lunch.” That’s why, for people inside the NFL, people in the know, Walsh’s Standard of Performance is as much a part of his lasting impact as his West Coast offense. Maybe even more

I have often thought of Walsh and Drucker as similar and am happy to have someone who worked so closely with the former to validate this.

This book is worth it for a coach at any level just for the insights about Walsh and leadership.

Lessons Focused on the Pro Level

The pro game is different from the college game.  I know this seems obvious, but I mention it because coaches often study coaches working in an entirely different context. Context matters.

For instance, preparing for a draft is very different than recruiting for your school.  At both levels you need to evaluate talent well of course.  A coach needs to evaluate the ability of an athlete, the style of play and the fit of an athlete to level,style and culture. At both levels an athlete must also have the appropriate character to succeed. Character always matters.

At the college level the coach is an educator first and foremost, or she should be. College coaches are always selling either their program.  Recruiting requires sales skill and persuasion.

At the professional level you are always evaluating and strategizing. Building a roster is an ongoing process. Preparing for and executing a successful draft requires a strategic approach. No coach or general manager can expect to get the top 5 players available in the draft, but you may be able to get your top 5 picks if you have strategically prepared for the draft.

Digging into those kinds of distinctions are the fun of a book like this and where the gold is found. Lombardi’s book reveals many of these detailed roster decisions yielding excellent lessons for a pro coach.


I highly recommend this book, and its lessons from a lifetime in sport, which are great whether you are at the pro level front office professional or coach, and good for any level coach or leader.