Sports are an excellent laboratory for understanding how leadership impacts organizational effectiveness. The criteria for success are clear and easily quantified (i.e., winning vs. losing). Moreover, frequent changes in personnel and leadership provide quasi-experimental evidence of how these factors play a role in success. In this essay, I consider the case of the Florida Atlantic University football program.
In the fall of 2011 there was a great deal of excitement in Boca Raton as it was the opening season for a brand new football stadium. The $70 million stadium seats around 30,000 people and is located in the heart of the campus. The season, however, was disappointing for FAU fans. The team finished 1-11 (1 win, 11 losses), dead last in the conference, and had an average attendance of 17,565 (ranking 103rd among its FBS competitors). The legendary Howard Schnellenberger, who had announced his intention to retire prior to the beginning of the season, stepped down as head coach.
The team did not fare much better over the next five seasons. Carl Pelini was hired to begin the 2012 season, but subsequently resigned midway through the 2013 season for alleged illegal drug use. Charlie Partridge took over for the 2014 season and recorded three consecutive 3-9 records before being fired in November of the 2016 season. One month later, FAU hired Lane Kiffin as the head coach of the 2017 season.
Without a full season to recruit, Kiffin was faced with coaching the same players that had previously produced back-to-back-to-back 3-9 records. For this reason, what happened in 2017 is remarkable. Here are the highlights:
-An 11-3 win-loss record, their all-time best record as an FBS competitor
-Scored a team record 58 points in a game against Old Dominion
-Broke that record by 69 points in a game against North Texas the next week
-Scored 73 offensive touchdowns, tied for 3rd most in the FBS
-Undefeated (8-0) in conference play
-Won the conference championship in a 41-17 rout of North Texas
-Boca Raton Bowl Champions in a 50-3 victory over a good Akron team
Same roster. Different leadership. Vastly different results. How was this possible? I watched the team play in 2016. Despite having the same players, the 2017 team looked entirely different. In 2016, when a critical 4th down came up, the team looked lost and panicked: “Should we punt?” “Should we go for it?” No one seemed to know. Watch the clip below to see how the 2017 team reacted to a 4th and goal situation in the first quarter of the Boca Raton Bowl:
When the 3rd and goal try fails, without panic and without a huddle, the team returns to the line of scrimmage, snaps the ball within 7 seconds, and has a wide-open touchdown in the end zone. They knew exactly what play to run and how to execute it in that situation. That’s preparation. Preparation that can only come from leadership.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the consensus among leadership researchers was that leadership is situationally-driven. That is, leadership and organizational outcomes were entirely based on circumstances outside individual control. In the decades since, we’ve proven over and over again that who is in charge has dramatic consequences for performance in sports, business, and political organizations. Lane Kiffin was placed in exactly the same situation as his predecessors. The results of this natural experiment once again confirm the hypothesis that leadership matters.
As for 2018, the Owls lost their first game 63-14 to the University of Oklahoma. Although they lost badly in the opener, I wouldn’t bet against Lane Kiffin and FAU long-term.