The University of Tennessee retired Johnny Majors jersey (#45) Saturday evening. The timing of that honor and the play of the Vols in the game that followed prompted me to write this.
I was a graduate assistant football coach for Johnny Majors at UT in 1989. When I arrived in Knoxville in the winter at the start of the year, the Vols were coming off a horrible season where they had lost their first 6 games and finished 5-6. A lot of changes had been made and everyone around the program felt pressure knowing that another poor season wouldn't be tolerated. What was interesting to me, however, was the amount of confidence that came from within the coaching offices of the assistant coaches. The rest of the football world may not have thought much of the team's chances in the fall, but they seemed to think that there was a whole lot of emerging young talent on the team. I've never seen a group of people work so hard.
At that point in his career, Coach Majors was not actively involved in the daily development of minute details of plays and game plans. He was a CEO, he'd hired some of the best assistants in the country, and he let them do their jobs -- subject to his overview and motivation. Watching him work that year taught me a number of lessons about executive leadership. One particularly valuable lesson was observing how he monitored quality. Perhaps it was the influence of his father, Shirley Majors, who had a long career as a football coach. Perhaps it was the influence of General Neyland, one of the greatest college football coaches of all time, who retired the season before Coach got to UT and remained on campus as the athletic director. Neyland's influence and his game maxims still guide football coaches and players at Tennessee to this day. Certainly, some of it was due to his own experience over a career that included a national championship and two seasons earning national coach of the year honors. Whatever its source, Coach Majors was a strong believer that football success came down to the basic fundamentals of blocking, tackling and the kicking game. And he focused like a laser on those parts of the game.
Although I never talked with him about it, I suspect that he realized how easy it is for coaches to get caught up in strategy and tactics. Football makes for a fascinating chess game. But just as a wise food chain CEO knows the importance of the simple basics like clean bathrooms and smiling servers, he knew that sound fundamentals require vigilance and emphasis.
One of my responsibilities that season was to sit with Coach in his office and take notes while he watched film. He added those notes and the ones taken during practice to his own reminders of what he wanted to discuss at the 7 am staff meetings every morning. As plays unfolded back and forth repeatedly on the screen, Coach would dictate notes for me to write down regarding questions, points of emphasis, and the like. He paid particularly close attention to tackling technique.
Football must be played with an emphasis on the basic physics at work. Proper tackling requires that a player maintain bent knees with his butt low, his back straight, his head up, his pads low, his feet in a good wide base and moving. A sound tackler must be under control so that he can react laterally if a ball carrier tries to 'juke' or fake him. After contact, sound tackling requires that the tackler finish the play by keeping his feet moving and his legs driving. Coaches often teach players this by telling them to "run through the tackle." Two of the most common mistakes that we see constantly are: 1) after contact a player lets his legs go limp in hopes that his body weight will drag the runner to the ground (more often, the limp body weight simply allows the runner to surge forward for extra yards and sometimes causes the tackler to lose his grip so that the runner breaks free leaving the tackler on the ground), and 2) the tackler launches his body (or dives) at the ball carrier. If the runner changes direction or cuts back, the tackler cannot react. When feet aren't in contact with the ground, the body cannot move in a different direction. This results in the diving tackler landing on the ground. Also, once a body is launched through the air, upon contact the tackler cannot drive the runner backward. Diving makes it easier for the runner to stiff arm the tackler or push him on past as he cuts back. In short, lots of things can happen when a tackler dives and none of them are good.
Coach Majors didn't enjoy seeing his players "diving on the ground". It seemed to be his biggest pet peeve. He really, really didn't like it. While there were all manner of things that might show up on the screen that would prompt him to dictate something to me about the importance of getting them addressed, an instance on tape of "diving on the ground" usually brought the video to a halt. That is, after it had been reviewed a few times to appreciate in all its horror. A request that I take down a note rarely followed these instances. Instead, I would be told to go find whichever position coach had responsibility for the offending player and inform him of Coach Majors' desire to see him (whenever it would be convenient or the next 3 seconds whichever came first). I would literally run down the hall to find the assistant coach. He'd walk swiftly back to Coach's private office and we'd all watch the 'diving on the ground' a few more times. Coach would then communicate the extent to which such viewing deterred him from a happy state of digestion and implore the assistant coach to endeavor to educate his charges on the error of their ways. Or something like that. With emphasis. A lot of emphasis.
The emphasis bore fruit. The Vols in 1989 had fewer instances of poor tackling than most teams. And very, very few instances of poor blocking. The result was an 11-1 record and top 5 national ranking. No matter how complicated the game gets with plays, the formations, the defenses, the reads, the adjustments and the conversions, it still comes down to Neyland's first maxim, "The team that makes the fewest mistakes will win." And all the wizardry in the world can't overcome basic mistakes in blocking and tackling.
Coach Majors understood that a leader can delegate all kinds of important responsibilities, but one part of his job that was too important to delegate was monitoring the quality of the most basic aspects of his team's play.