Former Nebraska football coach Bo Pelini was recently caught on tape sharing his frustration with the circumstances and people involved in his recent firing. His audience was a group of college students who also play football for their university. Though a select few, probably fewer than 10%, will earn money in the NFL, most will become professionals who could have learned something from the experience, if Pelini had handled it differently.
In fact, there were probably future CEOs and perhaps even a few future head football coaches in attendance that night. At the very least, there were many future fathers – a position where leadership is all too often undervalued – in the audience. Imagine if Pelini had treated the forum as a teaching moment to prepare these young men for their future roles, rather than a Festivus-like airing of grievances.
Imagine if he had shared lessons like this:
Some positions just aren’t good fits. For the past few years, it’s been evident to nearly everyone paying attention and being honest that Pelini wasn’t a good fit for the head coaching role at the University of Nebraska. He knew it too. In fact, at times, he seemed to beg the administration to decide whether or not they wanted him. If you have to do that, it’s not a good fit.
In my role as the owner of a recruiting company, I routinely encounter good people who are bad fits for good companies, and vice-versa. That doesn’t necessarily make either side bad, but to prolong the relationship is to increase the bitterness and stifle progress on both sides. These young football players might find themselves in ill-fitting jobs or relationships, and they need to know how to recognize and correct the situation.
Sometimes you and your boss will disagree, and that’s OK. Pelini’s boss was Shawn Eichorst, the athletic director Nebraska hired during Pelini’s tenure. Pelini directed most of his vitriol at Eichorst, calling him many vulgar names and saying that he had no integrity. Not only were the vulgar names Pelini used inappropriate, especially for a leader of young men, they were part of an immature response to a very normal adult situation.
The young men in his audience need to learn how to cope with the conflict they might have with their superiors. In very short order, they are going to trade the fleeting glory of playing a high-profile sport for a high-profile team for the reality of working a low-profile entry-level job. Not all of their bosses will be exemplars of leadership. They will need to learn to control their emotions and be professional when they disagree with their bosses. Without that skill, most careers will stagnate.
At some point, you might get a new boss, and that could be good. Pelini was seemingly comfortable with Eichorst’s predecessor, Tom Osborne. For whatever reason, Eichorst and Pelini were not a good match, but that doesn’t mean that all management and leadership change is bad.
The football team will see almost an entirely new coaching staff next year. Just like Pelini when he knew Osborne was retiring, they likely have some trepidation about how things will be handled by the new staff, and there is little doubt that they might not like some of the changes coming their way. They should have been encouraged to be open-minded and give the new staff a chance, just as they might need to do at some point in their post-football careers when a new boss is hired.
Sometimes you will feel life is unfair, but how you react makes a difference. Pelini’s words leave little doubt that he feels like he was treated unfairly. That’s understandable, but lashing out at others is not a productive way of addressing perceived unfairness. It promotes a victim mentality. Instead of acting the victim, Pelini could have encouraged his players to face adversity like grown men.
Some of those guys will get fired at some point in their careers. They need to learn how to take inventory of the situation and how to dust themselves off and keep going. Just because life gave you a sucker punch doesn’t mean that you’re powerless to change your plight.
Taking the high road makes life less stressful. A true measure of a man is not how he handles himself in times of tremendous success, it’s how he handles himself in times of deep loss. The people who are most respected are not those who yell and scream at injustice, but rather those who quietly persevere and reapproach their challenges in a dignified way. This promotes a sense of calmness and peace in which some challenges simply seem to fade away.
The future fathers in that room will have children who will look to them for guidance during times of great stress. If they can keep themselves from bitterness and vindictiveness during these times, their children will likely model that behavior in their adulthood. Everyone wants to see that in their children.
College is more than classroom learning, and those blessed enough with the talent, work ethic and physicality to be athletes have the experience enriched with athletic participation. Let’s hope that most college coaches correctly use their positions to teach their players lessons that help them succeed in their careers and personal lives. It should be better than this.