The Innovative Thinking Behind the Reinvention of Football

Reinventing American Football

Almost anything is ripe for innovation. We’ve all seen startups wipe out the established players. We’ve seen whole industries upended as new technologies create new possibilities.

I love to collect these stories. It’s also fun to collect quotes from the naysayers who laughed at the disrupters, but are later proven wrong.

Aspiring leaders always benefit from studying disruption whether in your own industry or even in a distant field. Because often the principles and lessons are applicable elsewhere.

That’s why I have to share this story with you. It’s the reinvention of American football.

Don’t care about football?

Just wait.

You may learn a few lessons from this story that may inspire you. And even if you don’t, you may find yourself at a cocktail party one day, looking for conversation. Read this and you’ll have another story guaranteed to fascinate everyone.

S.C. Gwynne is a first-rate author. Sam was a finalist for the Pulitzer and worked at Time as bureau chief, national correspondent and senior editor. Mix his superb writing with a compelling story and you have The Perfect Pass: American Genius and the Reinvention of Football. I recently had the opportunity to ask him about his research into the reinvention of the game.


“Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” –Steve Jobs


A Passing Innovation

Hal Mumme transformed football from a running game to a passing game. Who knew!? Your book tells the untold story of how this transformation happened, and it does it in a compelling way. Would you briefly share how this happened?

In the NFL, the middle 1970s came to be known as the “dead ball era.” Fewer points were scored than at any time since 1942. Fewer passes were thrown than at any time since the 1950s. The game was heading back to its ground-and-pound origins, which is what many players and coaches really wanted anyway: a bloody scrum in the middle of the field featuring halfback dives and snarling middle linebackers. Things got so bad—and so boring (it was just as bad in the college game)—that the NFL made radical changes to its blocking rules in 1978, allowing offensive linemen to use their hands, and limiting how many times a receiver could be bumped.The Perfect Pass by S.C. Gwynne

It was, coincidentally, precisely at that time that the coaches who would change the game arrived on the scene. Bill Walsh was experimenting with what would become the West Coast offense; Don Coryell’s receivers were running routes in new ways; Mouse Davis was setting records at Portland State; LaVell Edwards was starting his long run of offensive dominance at BYU, and a young Hal Mumme was studying the passing tactics of all the above. Fast forward to the present day, where a few quick statistics will illustrate the impact those coaches collectively had on the game. Prior to 1991 (the year Hal arguably changed the game), five NCAA D-1 quarterbacks had passed for 10,000 yards or more in their college careers. Since then, 90 more have done it. Of the 92 quarterbacks to date who have thrown for more than 4,000 yards in a single season, 78 have done it since the year 2000. And so on. The game has changed.

Of these passing innovations, by far the two most extreme were the Run and Shoot—invented by Ohio high school coach Tiger Ellison in the 1970s and brought into the modern age by Mouse Davis at Portland State in the 1970s—and the Air Raid. No one else was even close. As I describe in my book, the Run and Shoot did not really survive the 1990s, while the Air Raid was just starting to take off.

Hal’s approach began with the fact that he simply threw the ball more than anyone else. At Iowa Wesleyan, his quarterback Dustin Dewald once completed 61 of 86 passes, both all-time records. He passed on first down and fourth. Hal also messed with the basic assumptions, goals, objectives, and premises of the game. If most football teams ran 60 offensive plays in a game, he ran 85 to 90 and sometimes 100. If most teams believed that controlling the ball—time of possession—was the most important single statistic of the game (other than the score), Hal’s players behaved as though that number was utterly meaningless. He put five feet of space between his offensive linemen, shifting the basic geometry of the line of scrimmage. In a world of exceedingly complex playbooks and ever-multiplying plays, Hal had no playbook and only a handful of plays. His players saw a dead simple game, while opposing defenses saw what looked like wild complexity. Because Hal usually went for it on fourth down, his teams had four downs to make a first down, while his opponents had three, thus altering the assumptions one might make about what sort of play Hal would call on third and 9. (Hint: in his relativistic universe, he does not have to make 9 yards.) And so on. It was as though Hal’s team was playing an entirely different game.


Hal Mumme coaching on the sidelines, Used by Permission Hal Mumme coaching on the sidelines, Used by Permission

You point out that before Hal Mumme introduced his technique, only five NCAA Quarterbacks had ever thrown for more than 10,000 yards and since then 90 have done it. That’s amazing. When did his technique catch on with others?

Though one can argue—as I do, in my book—that Hal definitively changed the game of football in the Iowa Wesleyan-Northeast Missouri State game on August 31, 1991, the rest of the world did not know that. The football world would not truly understand what he had done until the late 1990s. That was when he took his video game offenses to the game’s motherland—the SEC—when he became head coach at the University of Kentucky and did what everyone said he could not possibly do: in 1997 he beat Alabama. After the Alabama game, American football started making pilgrimages to his doorstep.


Leadership Characteristics Designed to Challenge

16 Things High-Performing Organizations Do Differently

What Great Teams Do Differently

Don Yaeger is an expert on what it takes to cultivate a champion mindset. He was associate editor of Sports Illustrated for over a decade; he has made guest appearances on every show from Oprah to Good Morning America, and he’s also authored more than two dozen books. Now a public speaker, he shares stories from the greatest winners of our generation.

So when his new book, Great Teams: 16 Things High Performing Organizations Do Differently, arrived on my desk, I couldn’t wait to read it.

I wasn’t disappointed. Don’s insight on high-performance is evident on every single page. I recently had the opportunity to talk with him about his research into what makes a team great.


“Great teams are connected to a greater purpose.” -Don Yaeger


Use Your Why to Motivate

Don, you’ve seen the inside of great teams in the sports and the business worlds. Your new book focuses on 16 characteristics of great teams. Let’s talk about a few of them.

 Your first point is that great teams understand their why. Purpose motivates both individuals and teams. How does the personal “why” interact with the team “why”? Do they ever conflict?

In the business world, a “why” is often misunderstood as a company mission statement or code of ethics—which couldn’t be further from the truth. Author and motivational speaker Simon Sinek has described a company’s corporate “why” as “always disconnected from the product, service, or the act you’re performing.” If an organization desires to become a Great Team in the business world, then it must understand how to utilize the “why” properly in order to galvanize support from its professional ranks. “When an organization lays out its cause, how it does so matters,” explained Sinek. “It’s not an argument to be made, but a context to be provided. An organization’s ‘why’ literally has to come first—before anything else.”


“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” -Simon Sinek



Companies that understand the purpose and philosophy behind the “why” are usually astute, high-performing organizations that tap directly into the pulse of those they benefit the most. When utilized correctly, this understanding can create a powerful sense of duty and purpose for business teams because the employees know exactly whom they are working for and to what end.


“Great teams build a deep bench at all levels of the organization.” -Don Yaeger


Let Culture Shape Recruiting

You talk about letting culture shape recruiting. In a large company, how do you make this a reality so that every single hiring manager is thinking about culture and not just reviewing a resume?

Purpose and leadership are essential to building a team culture. Once an organization determines its “why” and aligns its leadership style with the needs of its members, it is on the right path to becoming a Great Team. But culture building doesn’t stop there. A team must also recruit the right talent. If done well, recruiting will result in a highly competitive team that is consistently motivated to seek and claim success.

Great Teams recruit players who fit—who will thrive within the established team culture and add value to it. The talent of the employee or teammate is important, but fit trumps all. These organizations understand that Great Team culture establishes an environment conducive to success, but that success ultimately depends on the right kind of personnel.

In today’s marketplace, it is very easy to be wowed by decorated resumes. When the “ideal” candidate—the one with the outstanding CV—arrives, many leaders incorrectly believe that including that person will automatically better the team. A Great Team, however, understands that fit is more important than credentials. Someone who might be perfect for one environment—or might have been great while working for a competitor—will not be a guaranteed fit for another. That’s something hiring managers should keep in mind as they build their teams.


“Great teams realize that fit is more important than credentials.” -Don Yaeger


Successful Huddles Are Crucial

What makes a successful huddle? 

Successful huddles are all about open and consistent communication. Under head coach Bill Walsh, the San Francisco 49ers placed such importance on the art of the meeting that he had specific rules and procedures regarding how each one should run. Walsh analyzed and even recorded meetings to spot potential lulls and weaknesses in their process. He wanted to make sure his assistant coaches—who would sometimes change from year to year—were teaching his team in a consistent fashion.

Quarterback Joe Montana, who came on board right after Walsh did, shared Walsh’s high opinion of meetings. This legendary team leader—who won four Super Bowl championships and is tied for the most titles among all quarterbacks—was known in and around the NFL as “Joe Cool.” He had an uncanny knack for seeing all aspects of the game from his position on the field and was seemingly unflappable in the most pressurized situations. And there was a reason for Montana’s demeanor: like Walsh, he believed in a very diligent, orderly meeting process as a means of keeping players engaged. For Montana, the huddle was a sacred place and the ultimate comfort zone. There were rules to be followed when Montana was giving out information for the next play. If those rules weren’t adhered to, Montana told his teammates to take the issue somewhere else. The huddle was a place where everyone needed to be engaged and headed in the same direction.

Great Teams in businesses can take a page from Walsh’s and Montana’s playbook and conduct orderly, disciplined meetings. Such order makes a bigger difference than many leaders want to admit. A successful meeting revolves around clear communication. It can be pivotal to achieving greatness because it explains precise strategy and opens the door to new ideas. An efficient meeting allows an organization to remain one step ahead of the competition and forces it to remain consistent with any existing strategies. But these ideas must be streamlined by a process and guided by a leader who can filter out the good ideas from the bad.


16 Things High-Performing Organizations Do Differently

  1. Great teams understand their why.
  2. Great teams have and develop great leaders.
  3. Great teams allow culture to shape recruiting.
  4. Great teams create and maintain depth.
  5. Great teams have a road map.
  6. Great teams promote camaraderie and a sense of collective direction.
  7. Great teams manage dysfunction, friction, and strong personalities.
  8. Great teams build a mentoring culture.
  9. Great teams adjust quickly to leadership transitions.
  10. Great teams adapt and embrace change.
  11. Great teams run successful huddles.
  12. Great teams improve through scouting.
  13. Great teams see value others miss.
  14. Great teams win in critical situations.
  15. Great teams speak a different language.
  16. Great teams avoid the pitfalls of success.


Would you share an example of where one team missed “value” and another team spotted it and capitalized on it? 

John Wooden on the Difference Between Winning and Succeeding

Timeless Success Advice

Legendary basketball coach John Wooden shared some timeless advice for his players that not only applied to his team, but to all of us.

Though this legend has passed on, his many lessons and many quotes remain as timeless reminders of what success looks like. Some of his timeless advice:

  • Always be on time.
  • Be neat and clean.
  • Don’t use profanity.
  • Never criticize a teammate.
  • Have patience.
  • Have faith that things will work out if we do what we are suppose to do.
  • Don’t whine, complain or make excuses.
  • Do your best.

John Wooden didn’t cut corners, and he didn’t let his values slide in order to win. His consistency was legendary. I often read his inspiring quotes. He is known for winning ten NCAA national championships in twelve years. With his attitude and wisdom, I am certain he would have been successful at nearly any endeavor.

His many quotes continue to inspire. Here are a few of my favorite John Wooden quotes:


John Wooden Quotes


“If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything.” -John Wooden


“Never mistake activity for achievement. -John Wooden

Make A Decision To Win

Fast Forward Winner

He’s an Emmy Award winning broadcaster, a motivational speaker, and the author of Fast Forward Winner. He’s also the voice of the Atlanta Hawks. His whole professional life has been spent watching teams compete.

Who better than to ask about winning teams, about team leadership, and about winning?


“Every day your work is your performance review.” –Bob Rathbun


Bob Rathbun started broadcasting at 12. His first opportunity at the microphone started with him calling a homerun at the bottom of the seventh inning. Since that first call, Bob has crisscrossed the country, won numerous awards, and risen to the top of his profession.

And yet he humbly says that, if he could do it, you can, too. Bob wants everyone from corporate leaders to the youth groups he encourages to learn from his journey and find success.


“Make the decision to be at your best so you can give those around you your best.” –Bob Rathbun


Go For Your Dreams

In his book, Fast Forward Winner, and in his public appearances, Bob is always encouraging others to go for their dreams.

“It’s ok to dream. Ok to put yourself out there and see where it can take you.”

If you don’t dream about it, think about it, put yourself out there and ask some people for help, you never know what may be out there for you.

What’s the #1 lesson for those aspiring to go to the top? Bob’s answer: Belief.

How many of us give up because we don’t believe in ourselves enough?


“When you make a decision, be ready for what comes with it.” –Bob Rathbun


Formula for a Winning Team

Bob has seen teams fall apart and seen teams win championship games. His formula for success is:

Talent + Lockstep Thought, Spirit, and Execution

Leadership Lessons from Over 200 Thought Leaders

Voices of Influence

A few years ago, I launched this blog with the idea of sharing insights, ideas, and inspiration.  It is my hope that the lessons and ideas shared here help you in some way whether that is fast-tracking your career or overcoming procrastination.

When I started, I thought it was worth it if I made a real difference to just one person.

I’m happy to report that at least one person has found it life-changing.  That person is me.  I learn far more by sharing these ideas than you can imagine.  What an incredible experience to have the opportunity to learn from so many people.

Thank you for reading, for commenting, and for sharing these posts.  I appreciate all of you and look forward to getting to know you better in the coming months.

Below are some of the leadership interviews and posts with thought leaders from a variety of fields on numerous topics.  I hope you find one you missed and that it positively influences your year ahead.


“The book you don’t read won’t help.” –Jim Rohn



Leadership, Management & Execution


“You will be the same person in 5 years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read.” -Charlie Jones


Leadership Communication