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Sideline Business-Pete Carroll

Talk about turnover! USC football coach Pete Carroll loses nearly his entire workforce every four years. And like any corporate leader, he knows his head will be on the chopping block if his people don't produce results.

August 9, 2005
Related Topics: HR & Business Administration

I t’s a sunny afternoon near downtown Los Angeles, and the USC Trojans are sweating through a football practice. Over and over, 300-pound linemen crash into one another, fighting for an edge as running backs sprint through whatever openings they can find in the massive wall of flesh.

    Coach Pete Carroll is in the middle of it all, bursting with so much unrestrained enthusiasm that he occasionally grabs the ball and runs through the line himself, demonstrating the way he wants it done.

    "C’mon, hit me! My arms aren’t even red! I didn’t feel anything!" the 53-year-old coach yells, his voice loud enough to carry over the din of whistles, shouts and grunts.

    The players smile. They are used to seeing their gray-haired, athletic coach on the practice field, challenging them to improve on what is widely agreed to be one of college football’s best-ever records of success.

    As one of football’s most celebrated coaches, Carroll knows better than anyone that he is performing a high-wire act. Lose today, gone tomorrow. He nods in sympathy when he talks about sudden firings of CEOs like Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard or considers the increasingly high rate of turnover among top corporate executives.

    A study released in May by Booz Allen Hamilton shows that CEO dismissals increased by 300 percent from 1995 to 2004.

    Carroll’s been there. He was fired from head coaching jobs with the National Football League’s New York Jets and New England Patriots before landing at USC. "You don’t have much time to prove what you are about," he notes. "It’s much easier to change the leader than change the workforce."

    Like his counterparts in corporate America, knowing that he must produce results, and produce them quickly, is what has driven Carroll to uncommon success at USC after only four seasons. He has accomplished the rare feats of winning consecutive national championships and coaching two quarterbacks to the Heisman Trophy, college football’s highest honor. He heads into the 2005 season with a 22-game winning streak. Attendance at USC home games is up by 31,000 per game since he arrived.

"The great lesson for our players was that they can create their own vision.
If you make it as real as you possibly can and never back off, you will get what you are after, you will create it. That sounds airy-fairy, but it’s
very powerful."
--Pete Carroll

    Smash-mouth football seems light-years removed from the issues that executives face in training, managing and grading the performance of thousands of employees. But creating high-performance football teams requires coaches like Carroll to employ widely recognized workforce management tools.

    Spend some time with him, and it becomes clear that recruiting, strategic thinking, training, team building and succession planning are all part of the mix that he uses to assemble his squads. Much like a CEO of a high-performing business, he employs metrics to define performance and has created a talent pipeline to stay on top of the college football world.

    There are obviously huge differences between coaching college athletes and running a large corporation. In managing a dozen coaches and 110 scholarship and nonscholarship football players, Carroll can exert the kind of control that would be impossible if he were managing thousands or tens of thousands of employees.

    But, like business, coaching a football team is largely about picking the right people, organizing and training them and beating the competition.

    "Whether you make widgets or sell cars or coach football players, you are in the people business," says USC athletic director Mike Garrett. "It comes down to how you organize people and get them to perform, and perform consistently."

Leadership style
    Watching Carroll put his team through the paces during practice offers some clues to his leadership style. He likes to be in the thick of things, in contrast to coaches who watch practices from a tower or turn most of the detail over to assistants. He calls plays, rifles passes to receivers less than half his age and reprimands players if they don’t put out effort. He keeps practices to two hours and times each drill to the minute. A large clock mounted near the practice field sounds an alarm every 15 minutes or so, signaling a change in drills.

    Once practices are over, Carroll hangs out with families and friends of players, signs autographs and poses for snapshots in a picnic-like, festive atmosphere. Sprinkled among the hundreds of fans who come and go at USC practices are former players, prosperous-looking alumni, high school coaches and neighbors from the surrounding area.

    Businesses may conduct performance appraisals once or twice a year, but Carroll does them every day. Trojan practices are filmed from three cameras mounted above the practice field. After practice, the coaches judge the players’ performance and grade them on how well they carried out their assigned roles.

    Asked in an interview to break down his formula for winning, Carroll repeatedly returns to the subject of competition, particularly during practices. The top recruits who land at USC are immediately thrown into practice situations where they go one-on-one with other skilled players. Frequently, one All-American faces another All-American.

    "When I started out I wanted to find a competitive edge in all aspects of what we were doing, whether we were teaching, training, coaching or recruiting," Carroll says. "Our practices always end in a competitive setup--the offense against the defense, one player against another, players against the clock. We want to create more competition on the practice field than we would ever see in a game."

    The coach arrives for an interview in his campus office after a pickup basketball game in a nearby gym. He looks very much like the college jock he once was, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, appearing fit and younger than his age. He surrounds himself with sports paraphernalia--helmets, posters, film canisters, Rose Bowl mementos and cardboard boxes full of photographs waiting for his signature.

    Carroll’s office is in USC’s tradition-rich Heritage Hall, the athletic department’s campus headquarters. Bronze busts of USC Hall of Fame coaches and the six Heisman Trophies won by Trojans line the lobby’s walls. Carroll has already made a substantial contribution to the hardware, acquiring two national championship trophies and Heisman trophies for two of his quarterbacks, Matt Leinart and Carson Palmer. But he has a way to go before matching the accomplishments of Trojan Hall of Fame coaches John McKay and Howard Jones, who each won four national championships while at USC.

"There are no better metrics than you’ll find in sports. The metrics in baseball change every time a new player comes to bat. Does the batter get a base hit? Does he drive in a run? There is forced ranking in sports, and it appears every day in every newspaper."
--John Sullivan, consultant and management professor at San Francisco State University

    People who have watched Carroll perform often draw comparisons between his coaching style and corporate management. He is particularly noted for recruiting. Though USC is helped by its location in Los Angeles, a football hotbed, Carroll’s personal style is key.

    Corporate executives hoping to cherry-pick the top graduates of business schools like Kellogg or Harvard could learn a lot from Carroll, says Pat Richie, a sports consultant who has known the USC coach since both worked for the San Francisco 49ers in the 1990s.

    "Pete takes the time to go into a player’s home, to connect with the family," Richie says. "He makes a personal connection with them. With the 49ers, everybody loved Pete. He was one of the most liked members of the 49ers organization."

    But getting the best players is only part of the equation, says former Minnesota Vikings coach Bud Grant. Carroll spent four years with the Vikings in the 1980s.

    "Managing people is the same whatever you do," Grant says. "You have to get the best out of them, keep them motivated, make corrections and do it in a manner that is beneficial to the team or the company. Pete knows how to manage the best people."

    Asked to reflect on his management style, Carroll says it begins with knowing yourself. His long apprenticeship began at his alma mater, the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, and included 11 different professional and college coaching jobs.

    "You have to know what you believe in," he says. "You have to go into great depth to figure out what you feel about every aspect of what you are doing. It starts there. Then you have to set a vision for what you want and what you hope to get."

    This mental imaging is important, he notes. "The more clear you are about what it’s going to feel like and taste like and look like, the more apt you are to create that. We set out with a vision four years ago and our guys worked at it like crazy."

    The upshot of all the practice, recruiting and preparation, Carroll says, is that USC was "positioned impeccably" to defeat Oklahoma in January’s national championship game, which USC won in a 55-19 rout.

    "The great lesson for our players was that they can create their own vision. If you make it as real as you possibly can and never back off, you will get what you are after, you will create it," he says. "That sounds airy-fairy, but it’s very powerful."

Power of confidence
    Charlie Landrigan, a one-time Trojan running back and now a regional vice president for MetLife, says Carroll’s leadership style helped energize the team in 2000 after a losing season under his predecessor, coach Paul Hackett.

    "When the coach looks worried and you see it on his face, it’s tough to compete," Landrigan says. "Pete made playing football refreshing and fun again."

    It’s clear Carroll doesn’t allow past setbacks to gnaw at him. He was fired from high-visibility professional head coaching jobs with the New York Jets and New England Patriots. Even landing the USC job wasn’t easy; Garrett offered it to at least one other coach.

    "I have enough confidence to just hang with who I am and what I am doing," Carroll says. "If I get enough freedom, which is what I have here at USC, I can be successful. If they don’t like the way I am doing my job, then I am in the wrong place."

    Nor does he dwell on his considerable success in recent seasons, which has paid off not only in victories on the field but as fuel feeding the big business of college football. When USC crushed Oklahoma in last season’s national championship game, 23 million television viewers tuned in. Television rights to the game are part of a four-year, $320 million contract between colleges and Fox television. Fees for college basketball are even higher: CBS is paying colleges $6 billion over 11 years for television rights.

    At USC, football generated $26.2 million in revenues and $15.4 million in expenses during the 2003-04 season, according to a survey published this year by the Orlando Sentinel. Last year’s team drew 85,000 fans per game to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a school record.

    Published reports put Carroll’s pay in the range of $1.2 million to $1.5 million a year, which is far less than the highest paid CEOs but more than for most college presidents. Garrett would not confirm the salary numbers, but he does say that his coach’s compensation is competitive.

    John Sullivan, a consultant and management professor at San Francisco State University, says workforce managers can learn a lot from successful coaches.

    "There are no better metrics than you’ll find in sports," he says "The metrics in baseball change every time a new player comes to bat. Does the batter get a base hit? Does he drive in a run? There is forced ranking in sports, and it appears every day in every newspaper.

    "No one in HR can touch the way a team like USC goes about recruiting. Pete Carroll loses his entire team every four years. He has to be the world’s best recruiter."

    David Logan, a management professor at USC, says good coaching can lead to breakthrough thinking on ways players respond to teamwork and meet challenges to their personal limits, such as endurance, speed, strength and performance on the field.

    "Coaching is about performance and effectiveness, just like management," he says.

The sporting life
    Some say Carroll is a perfect fit as a college coach, where young players are especially drawn to his infectious enthusiasm and confidence. His wife, Glenna, who played volleyball at Pacific, and three children, all athletic, have shared the typical nomadic life of a coach’s family. They’ve followed Carroll to Arkansas, Iowa, North Carolina, New York, Minnesota and Massachusetts--in addition to California.

    This year he is replacing two assistant coaches who moved on to bigger jobs with higher profiles and more money. Norm Chow, the offensive coordinator who played a big role in coaching quarterbacks Palmer and Leinart to the Heisman, is now with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. Ed Orgeron, Carroll’s assistant head coach, left to become head coach at the University of Mississippi.

    "We are not letting these things faze us," Carroll says. "We are going to roar right through them. I kind of live with the mind-set that something good is just about to happen in everything we do. I don’t sway away from that very often."

    As he heads into the new football season, he won’t only be chasing a record third consecutive national championship, something no coach has ever done; he will remain on the hot seat, forced to deal with the legacy of past success.

    Carroll walks past the bronze busts of USC’s Hall of Fame coaches to get to his office, but he says he doesn’t feel daunted by USC’s proud football tradition. His motivation comes from within. "I want to win every game I coach," he says. "You can’t have a higher goal than that."

Workforce Management, August 2005, pp. 30-37 --Subscribe Now!

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