Let’s talk sports. Now, I’m not really a big sports guy. My athletic background consists of three years of involuntary participation in middle school dodge-ball where my position was apparently bulls-eye. But, as an alum of The Ohio State University, I’m naturally thrilled with the unlikely success of the Buckeyes winning the historic first College Football Playoff national championship against the Oregon Ducks. Before the game I didn’t make any game predictions (after all, I have clients in the Pacific northwest) and the reason I’m talking about them now isn’t fan loyalty—well, not just fan loyalty—but instead a narrative that captured my imagination because it has something to teach any group hoping for success in spite of adversity.
OSU is no typical Cinderella story. They’re a perennial powerhouse program and they’re headed by one of the top coaches in the history of the game, Urban Meyer. And this was supposed to be a great year for them. They were picked as one of the top 5 in the preseason primarily on the promise of their Heisman hopeful quarterback, Braxton Miller. But two weeks before the first game he was injured in practice and out for the year.
If what followed had been pitched as the script of a football movie, it would have been rejected as too far-fetched. A freshman quarterback named J.T Barrett takes over and after an early loss that takes the team out the playoff conversation, that young player shatters records and leads them to win after win. However, that’s not the part that strains credulity. It’s when that replacement QB breaks his ankle in the last game of the season and third-stringer, Cardale Jones, has to make his first start in a conference championship in which he leads the team to a 59-0 rout and then, in his second, upends the number one team in the country. And despite those successes, they were still 6-point underdogs going into the the first national championship decided by a playoff against a high-speed team led by the superstar Heisman trophy winner, Marcus Mariota.
It’s a great story that is saved from being ridiculous only by virtue of the fact that it really happened. But how? Most successful teams have a few stars surrounded by competent but less gifted players who work hard to execute competently enough to allow the stars to succeed. Take away the standouts and the engine stalls. But OSU this year has been the product of something a little different. Sure they had great talent, but what Coach Meyer has been building is less about prepping an elite few and instead creating a total team process that is bigger than any one player.
That process he describes as a “next-man-up” mentality where everyone’s success is the product of those around him. It sounds good, if a little corny in this era of celebrity athletes. The idea that a total commitment and effort could succeed even in the absence of the one or two elite super-talents has worked because of two key elements. The first is that everyone believes. That’s the magic trick that Meyer and his coaches have performed. Somehow the players have bought in and each one is truly convinced that his effort and commitment is the critical element in the success of the whole. And so you take out the quarterback and they grow. You take out the next one and they perform even better. They’ve become a hydra: cut off the head and three more grow in its place.
The second element I believe is a genuine shared joy in playing the game. There is something in the way these players carried themselves all year, the way they took the field and the way they believed in one another even when they were down on the scoreboard. Belief and joy are a powerful combination that feed off of one another. When you believe, you don’t easily lose heart. When you can take joy in the moment and share it with your team you strengthen your belief in success.
What they accomplished, even beyond an undisputed national title, is something remarkable that every other coach, company and teacher should study. It was the result of a process that manufactured this team’s success as the by-product of a true shared belief and a shared joy.
Congratulations and Go Bucks!