I’ve been ‘helping’ Phil Jackson, President of the NY Knicks, by using examples of Ara Parseghian and how he instilled culture first and technology second at both Northwestern and Notre Dame. Here’s an example in professional football: Vince Lombardi. He took over the Green Bay Packers in 1959 and they were at the very bottom of the NFL: 1-10-1. They went 7-5 in 1959; 8-4 in 1960 (losing the title game) and 11-3 in 1961, winning the NFL title. Talk about reversing a trend.
But it was when he took over the Washington Redskins for one season, in 1969, that people understood what changing a culture was all about. His work at Green Bay, at the start, had flown under the radar; now it was under a microscope. His players knew of his reputation and came to camp in great physical condition. That was the easy part. What had them most concerned was this: Would they be able to learn the famous Lombardi System? Would it be too complex, too sophisticated? Would they look like amateurs in mastering its intricacies?
That was answered in the first day of practice. In every other NFL camp, the coaching staff puts in a huge number of plays. Let’s say 20. Or 30. Or more. That first day, Vince Lombardi put in … two plays. Two. One was the famous Green Bay Sweep. I forget what the other was. Understand, this was not the first practice but the first DAY. Morning practice, meetings, film work, afternoon practice. Two plays. The players understood: We do not get a third play until we perfect these two plays. More: they grasped that Lombardi won with execution, not science.
Washington had not had a winning season since 1955 before Lombardi took over. They went 7-5-2 in 1959. Hall of Fame players like QB Sonny Jurgensen said it was like an epiphany. The mystery had been removed from football for them. They saw that Lombardi was not high-tech intricacy but, rather: mentality, discipline, execution, conditioning, simplicity. That is the best description of sports ‘culture’ there is. No coach can afford to be unaware of the lessons of men like Ara Parseghian and Vince Lombardi. Masters of the Culture.