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Texas High School Football

Texas High School Football

Today’s blog is about a sea change. The change includes elements from the field of complexity science. For good measure, there are also sprinklings from Peter Senge’s 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline. Amazon lists 90,852 “results” for books about change management. I’m sure there a numerous other examples represented in these books that relate to this story.

I have a fascination with circumstances where the conventional or status quo is displaced/disrupted by the unconventional. Sometimes the changes occur so subtly they’re almost imperceptible until the old is gone (Oldsmobile). Sometimes the changes happen very quickly (Blackberry). Seldom do we notice the change if it occurs gradually or in an area we don’t have an interest. In this instance, I was fortunate to be at the right place at the right time.

The story takes place on the football field but it isn’t so much about football as it is about transformation. I call this transformational because a new system emerged that was not constrained by the boundaries of the past. This wasn’t about an incremental tweaking or a fixing of the present. This was radically different and outcomes were the proof.

The background is Texas High School football circa 2000 forward. This is not a rehash of Friday Night Lights” (neither the book or television show). This is also not a social commentary on the importance Texans place on football (evidenced by the state record 54,347 fans that recently attended the State 5A Championship game-more then attended the last Sugar Bowl). Malcolm Gladwell’s recent book, David and Goliath, chronicles examples throughout history of the small defeating the proverbial superior. This is one he missed. This story is not a metaphor about sports and business. This story is about bottom-up emergence, adaptation, disruption and interactions between participants. There are substantial amounts of coaching, personal mastery, team learning, mental model formation and striving for excellence mixed in. Two out of the past three Heisman Trophy winners are direct products of this system.

As in all good stories there’s a cast of characters. However, for simplicity, I’m only going to mention three key people. Art Briles, Todd Dodge and Gus Malzahn are three former high school football coaches. Briles and Dodge coached in Texas and Malzahn in Arkansas. The three of them have combined to win 11 state high school football championships and have made numerous more appearances in the championship game. Dodge led Southlake to three consecutive mythical High School National Championships in 2004, 2005 and 2006. Briles and Malzahn have both left high school coaching to become high profile, Division I college coaches at Baylor and Auburn, respectively.

My family moved to Texas in 2000. Coincidentally, the same year Todd Dodge became the football coach at Southlake, Texas. Having heard all the talk about Texas high school football, one Friday in October I decided to see if the reality was anywhere close to the hype. It was sheer serendipity I chose a Southlake game. I did not realize that night would launch a decade long fascination with Texas high school football. As I recall, Southlake won the game by about forty points. What was so memorable, however, was the offense. It was no huddle, a mixture of passing and running, and very, very fast paced. In fact, after a successful play the next play started as soon as the players were lined up. At first, it looked like sheer chaos. I had seen no huddle offenses before and what were known at the time, as “run and shoot” but those mostly focused on passing. This was a combination of precision, speed, execution and outcome that was exhilarating. This resembled fast break basketball more than football. Under Dodge, Southlake finished with a 9-5 record in 2000 and the following year 8-3. The second year, however, they made it to the semi-final round of the state playoffs before losing. The inflection point came in 2002. The team went 16-0, won the state championship and averaged about 45 points a game. I didn’t see every game but remember the outcome was usually determined by halftime. The team’s play was so dominant I left some games with a feeling of unfairness. At first, very few teams were running this spread-type offense and certainly no one was running it as effectively as Southlake. Based on memory, probably no more than 4 or 5 teams ran this offense during those first three years. By the 2006 season, however, about two-thirds of the teams had adopted the spread and by 2010 at least 90 percent of the teams were spread offense oriented. I was witnessing complex adaptive systems at work.

The spread offense wasn’t a “new invention” to football. In fact, we moved to Texas from Kentucky where the new University of Kentucky coach had implemented a “spread-type” offense and his quarterback, Tim Couch, who was the first pick in the 1999 NFL draft. Even in the stodgy Big Ten, with its history of “3 yards and a cloud of dust,” Northwestern adopted the spread-offense and in November 2000 beat Michigan 54-51 and became conference co-champions. Based upon some very limited research and a few discussions with old-time Texas high school football aficionados, I learned the Texas-strain of the spread offense had its roots as far back as the 1920s and the Fort Worth Masonic Home and School (since closed). I also learned Dodge wasn’t even considered the godfather of the modern day spread offense in Texas. This title went to a former Stephenville High School coach by the name of Art Briles. He adopted the spread offense and won 4 state championships back in the mid-nineties. In 1998, his team accounted for 8,664 total yards breaking a 73 year old national high school record.

In the corporate world, I would characterize the spread offense as a break-through “innovation.” To be effective, it requires personal mastery at the quarterback, running back and receiver positions. A quarterback that can run and pass is optimal. The execution relies upon the speed and coordination of the offensive team not slowing down to huddle. It requires a team capable of quickly processing information and executing. Because the concept relies upon speed, finesse and agility rather than brute strength and size, it opens the door to a wider talent base of athletes (the system interacting and forming different relationships). It has become a sort of equalizer between brawn and speed. This has resulted in numerous stories of underdogs winning.

The Southlake story captivated me because on first impression you wonder how 16, 17 and 18 year-olds can perform at this level. At times, it appeared to be organized chaos and at other times disorganized chaos. The challenges coaches faced in finding players with entirely new skillsets was intense. The playing field was now the entire width of the field. Coaches and players had to see the environment differently. The number of offensive plays being run expanded dramatically. Based upon my limited research, the laboratories for developing this offense were high school teams. This wasn’t about the top of the pyramid (NFL) developing something and then watching it cascaded downstream. The bottom of the pyramid innovated and then the innovations were carried upstream through coaching promotions (emergence). The football “environment” adapted to the need for talent for the “new” system. Texas had been recognized as the land of the running back (Campbell, Dickerson, Thomas, Walker, Sims etc). Finding quarterbacks to run the new system was a new challenge. But as complexity science tell us complex adaptive systems find solutions. In 1996, 7-on7 summer football was born in Texas. Quarterback summer school was now in session. This became the training ground for the spread offense quarterbacks, wide receivers and defensive backs. The impact? In 2011, twelve NFL starting quarterbacks came from Texas high schools.

Unlike corporate America where innovations can be protected with patents and copyrights, sports innovations become immediately discoverable. Games are filmed, coaches give clinics, winning teams get publicity, plays are copied and continuous improvement occurs. The spread offense has become the standard in Texas High School football. I looked for a genealogy tree of spread offense coaches but was unsuccessful. I’m sure most coaches never gave any thought to The Fifth Discipline, complexity science or chaos theory as they developed and implemented the new offense. I’m sure self-preservation and the need to win were primary drivers. I’m also sure most business leaders don’t think the emergence of a spread offense-like concept is comparable to the introduction of an industry-changing, innovative idea. Interestingly, the folks at The Boston Consulting Group produced a report “The Most Adaptive Companies in 2012.” Hmmmm.

Reflecting on the last ten-plus years of my sojourns to high school football games, I think about all the change I’ve witnessed. The amount of innovation is amazing. Finding coaches/leaders able to teach people in an emergent environment became a priority? Football coaches have often given me the impression that command-and-control was a fine way to run a team (Paul “Bear” Bryant, Woody Hayes, Vince Lombardi, Nick Saban don’t appear to be the prototype of shared leadership). What does leadership in an adaptive environment look like? How do you create an environment of discipline based upon commitment and not compliance? Can you recruit people looking to being collaborative? What does an adaptive team look like? Mental models need to be changed. Personal mastery becomes a priority. This is not an easy journey.

Better than half my career was conducted under management and leadership theories of Frederick Winslow Taylor created in the early 1900’s. Scientific management, as its generic name, still influences how many organizations are run today. Last year I read an article in Forbes about how the military is rethinking its leadership practices. The article explained how over the last thirty years the military has changed its leadership practices from “the hierarchical and paternalistic” approach of my father’s army (WWII).

At the end of the day, I believe innovation has tremendous benefits. Earlier this year, Zappos, the Las Vegas-based retailer, announced a move to an organization structure by the name of “holacracy.” As I understood the press release, the purpose is to prevent the company from becoming “too bureaucratic.” Is it a fad? Hell, if I know. I’m sure this seems as crazy to many as the first time they saw a football team play without a huddle. I’m sure many old-time coaches claimed the spread to be a fad and went on playing like they always did. My guess is a very high percentage of American businesses are still highly influenced by Taylorism thoughts and theories from the early 1900’s. I recently listened to the Southwest Airlines 2013 investor call. The CEO announced their 41st consecutive year of profitability and record breaking performance on a number of indicators. When this airline was just beginning, the competitors discounted them as a passing fad. They broke almost every “industry norm” during their startup. In my lifetime, I’ve become used to the “faddy” organization struggling and fighting all the way to the top of their industry or creating a whole new industry. In my relatively small healthcare environment of Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, I’m witnessing new competitors entering the healthcare marketplace with “different” approaches. I don’t know if there’s an Apple, Southwest, Toyota lurking among them. I do know as a healthcare consumer, I’m willing to check them out and see what the “hype” is all about.