How to Know if You’re Doing the Job
When I give a speech at a corporate event, I often ask those in attendance,“Do you know how to tell if you’re doing the job?” As heads start whisperingback and forth, I provide these clues: “If you’re up at 3 A.M. every nighttalking into a tape recorder and writing notes on scraps of paper, have aknot in your stomach and a rash on your skin, are losing sleep and losingtouch with your wife and kids, have no appetite or sense of humor, andfeel that everything might turn out wrong, then you’re probably doingthe job.”
This always gets a laugh, but not a very big one. Those executives in theaudience recognize there is a significant price to pay to be the best. Thatprice is not something they laugh at.
Coaches Aren’t Supposed to Cry:
Survive One Minute at a Time
In my second year as head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, we were preparingto play the defending AFC East champions, Don Shula’s powerfulMiami Dolphins, a team that was formidable, especially at home in theOrange Bowl.
The showdown came in week eleven of our schedule and at theworst possible moment for me because after a great start to my second season— three straight wins against the New Orleans Saints, St. LouisCardinals, and New York Jets—we had lost seven consecutive games.Our year was imploding. (The previous season, my first as head coach, ourrecord had been 2–14, which meant that since I had taken over leadershipof the 49ers we had won five games and lost twenty- one, the worst recordin the NFL.)
A loss to Miami on Sunday would be our eighth in a row and likelyhave enormous consequences, including the possibility of my being terminatedor at least being put on a “death watch” by the media— an unofficiallame duck and powerless coach.
Conversely, I recognized that a victory against the Dolphins wouldstop the hemorrhaging and provide hope for salvaging the last part of ourseason, which, in turn, could have a positive impact on the following year.Huge stakes were on the table. I was somewhat hopeful, perhaps evenoptimistic.
Nevertheless, the professional and personal magnitude of the upcomingMiami–San Francisco game clouded the entire week’s practice for meand created a brittleness in my behavior that was out of character. I wasbrusque, short-tempered, and not as tuned in as I should have been.
The game itself— played in suffocating Florida heat and humidity—turned into a bruising battle in front of over seventy-five thousand screamingDolphin fans who had packed themselves into the stadium. For the49ers it was like going to a wild party to which you are uninvited andunwelcome— everybody tries to throw you out the window.
Miami’s tropical sun had pushed daytime temperatures into the nineties,and dusk didn’t bring them down. In fact, the heat seemed to getworse, as if we were playing in a swamp, trying to move in quicksand.None of this appeared to affect Coach Shula’s team. They built an earlylead and held onto it throughout the game. It seemed evident that we wereheaded for our eighth straight defeat— a potentially disastrous event.
However, with time running down— less than two minutesremaining— 49er kicker Ray Wersching, perhaps the league’s best fieldgoal specialist, calmly nailed a winner to get us within a point: 17–16.Immediately, the entire San Francisco bench leaped up, pumping theirfists and yelling wildly. You could feel this huge surge in momentum erupt. Unfortunately, it was a short- lived surge; our field goal did not count. Tomy dismay, a holding penalty was called against us and the score was nullified. Quickly, I again nodded at Ray, who strapped on his helmet, trottedout, and calmly kicked another field goal from five yards farther back.Again, raucous cheers erupted on our bench, but immediately another flagwas thrown and another penalty called against us.
Now the line of scrimmage put us out of field-goal range and forced usinto a passing situation; we needed a first down to retain possession of theball. Quickly, we completed a pass that gave us just enough yards to pickup the first down. The 49ers had survived for the moment, stayed alive. Orso it seemed.
As I watched in disbelief, a linesman raced in and gave Miami a spotso friendly it could have gotten him elected to local public office. Ourdrive had been stopped three times in a row under increasingly outrageouscircumstances. What made it maddening was that Shula had been beratingofficials throughout the game whenever they made a call against theDolphins. This seemed to be his reward— a spot he had to love and twopenalties against us on the previous plays. As bad as the 49er season hadbecome, nothing this agonizing and damaging had happened to us before.And the crowd loved it.
Sensing the imminent kill, fans went into a stadium- wide uproar as wesilently turned the ball back to Miami— the game essentially over as theDolphins extended our losing streak to eight games with their 17–13 victory.The pain of that loss haunts me even now as I think about those finalseconds ticking off the clock.
It was a horrible and numbing defeat, overwhelming for me becauseof its potential impact— a job I had worked for my entire adult life wasin jeopardy— but also because of the stupid, self-inflicted, almost suicidalway in which we lost. As the crowd roared its approval and Miami playersand fans swarmed over the field, I stood alone on the sideline in a cocoonof grief, emotionally gutted, wondering if I had the strength to even getback to our locker room.
Unless you’ve experienced this type of emotional shock and the bleakinterior landscape it creates, it’s hard to comprehend the impact. Thememory never leaves you and acts as both a positive and negative force, spurring you to work harder and harder while also creating a fear insidethat it might happen again. (For me, that fear eventually became morethan I could handle.)
Now Shula trotted briskly across the field to shake hands and offer afew perfunctory words of condolence. I have no clue as to what he said,but even though I was in some state of shock, instincts took over. I offeredmy hand; he shook it, shouted something in my ear, and disappeared backinto the public pandemonium and celebration at midfield.
The next few hours— until we got out of the stadium complex andarrived at the Miami airport— remain a blur. I can’t remember what, ifanything, I said to the players and coaches in the locker room or reportersin the press room. Probably I was on some kind of automatic pilot andexperiencing what victims of violence go through when they blot out thememory of the assault.
While the moments immediately following that game are missing inmy mind, the long trip home is vivid. Coaches aren’t supposed to cry, butI’m not ashamed to admit that on the night flight back to San FranciscoI sat in my seat in the first row of the plane and broke down sobbing inthe darkness. I felt like a casualty of war being airlifted away from thebattlefield.
Bill McPherson, Neal Dahlen, John McVay, Norb Hecker, and some ofthe other San Francisco assistant coaches and staff understood the grief Iwas experiencing and shielded me from any players who might come intothe area— they huddled around my seat, blocking off view of me, whilemaking small talk and eating peanuts, acting like we were all involved inthe conversation.
Believe me, I was not participating in whatever it was they said or eatingpeanuts as I slumped down, depressed, in my dark little space, contemplatingwhether I should offer my resignation. Most debilitating ofall— devastating— was a gnawing fear that I didn’t have what it takes tobe an NFL head coach. At one point I actually decided to hand in my resignationthe next morning; then I changed my mind.
I have tried to describe my anguish, but the words come up short.Everything I had dreamed of professionally for a quarter of a century wasin jeopardy just eighteen months after being realized. And yet there wassomething else going on inside me, a “voice” from down deeper than theemotions, something stirring that I had learned over many years in footballand, before that, growing up; namely, I must stand and fight again,stand and fight or it was all over.
And that was the instinct that slowly prevailed as we headed home inthe middle of a very dark night. I knew that in a matter of seven days theNew York Giants were coming to town with the sole intent of making surethat neither I nor the San Francisco 49ers would stand and fight again.In my mind— or gut— and in spite of the pain, I knew I had to forcemyself to somehow start looking ahead— to overcome my grief over thedebacle in Miami— or it would severely damage our efforts to prepare properlyfor the battle with New York; my comportment would directly affectthe attitudes and performance of everyone who looked to me for answersand direction. I had to do what I was being paid to do: be a leader.
I wish I could tell you that’s what happened— that I simply turned aswitch and was magically transformed from an emotional basket case intoan invincible field general. It wasn’t that way. It took time for me to stopdespairing and regain some composure, to settle down and start thinkingstraight, but gradually, during those hard hours on the flight back toCalifornia, I began pulling myself together.
In the NFL events occur— hit you— at supersonic speeds with volcanicforce during the regular season. There aren’t months or weeks to recover,not even days. Usually only hours or minutes. While you’re throwing awolf out the back door, another is banging on your front door and twomore are trying to crawl through the windows. I could hear the New YorkGiants at our front door.
I can say with some pride that by the time we landed at San FranciscoInternational Airport at 3:15 A.M. after a six- hour flight, I had pulledmyself out of the hopelessness and begun working on the strategy wewould employ against the Giants when they arrived in a week. I was wobblybut back up on my feet again. I even ate a couple of bags of peanutsand drank some orange juice.
Those awful feelings brought on by the events in Miami were in retreatbecause I was able to summon strength enough to pull my focus, my thinking,out of the past and move it forward to our next big problem. It doestake strength to shift your attention off the pain when you feel as thoughyour soul has been stripped bare.
At times like that I would think back to my days as an amateur boxer,when I’d see a guy knocked fl at on his back and then awkwardly struggleto one shaky knee. Everything is blurry, his balance is gone, consciousnessis tenuous, he’s bleeding and bruised, but as bad as things are there is onemessage he hears ringing inside his head: “Stand up, boy; stand up andfight.” I know because as a young man I was that boxer.
NFL football is no different from any professional endeavor, boxingor business or anything where the stakes are significant and the competitionextreme: When knocked down, you must get up; you must stand andfight.
When the inevitable setback, loss, failure, or defeat comes crashingdown on you— losing a big sale, being passed over for a career- makingpromotion, even getting fired— allow yourself the “grieving time,” butthen recognize that the road to recovery and victory lies in having thestrength to get up off the mat and start planning your next move.
This is how you must think if you want to win. Otherwise youhave lost.
For me, on that flight back home after the Miami loss, it meant workingone minute at a time— literally— to regain composure, confidence,and direction.
Failure is part of success, an integral part. Everybody gets knockeddown. Knowing it will happen and what you must do when it does is thefirst step back. It’s what got me up after being knocked down and almostout in Miami. I knew I had to stand and start facing the imminent challengeof a battle with the New York Giants.
One other thing about that upcoming game: On Sunday we defeatedthe Giants 12–0 at Candlestick Park and regained a little equilibrium,even momentum. A week later we beat New England 21–17; the next weekthe 49ers engineered one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history. Trailingat the half, 35–7, we defeated New Orleans in overtime, 38–35.
In fact, in spite of losing to the Atlanta Falcons and Buffalo Bills in ourlast two games to finish with a 6–10 record, the worst was over. Unbeknownstto me, we had hit rock bottom against the Dolphins. Sixteenmonths after I spent part of a transcontinental flight experiencing an emotionalmeltdown, the San Francisco 49ers became world champions, defeating the Cincinnati Bengals 26–21 at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan,in Super Bowl XVI. In fact, a football dynasty was in the works.
During the ensuing fourteen years, the San Francisco 49ers won fiveSuper Bowls. It happened only because at the moment of deepest despair Ihad the strength to stand and confront the future instead of wallowing inthe past. Many can’t summon the strength; they can’t get up; their fight isover. Victory goes to another, a stronger competitor.
Competition at the highest level in sports or business producesgut-ripping setbacks. When you’re fighting for your survival professionally,struggling when virtually no one else knows or cares, and there’snobody to bail you out, that’s when you might remind yourself of my owndark night of despair.
When you stand and overcome a significant setback, you’ll find anincreasing inner confidence and self- assurance that has been created by conqueringdefeat. Absorbing and overcoming this kind of punishment engendersa sober, steely toughness that results in a hardened sense of independenceand a personal belief that you can take on anything, survive and win.
The competitor who won’t go away, who won’t stay down, has one ofthe most formidable competitive advantages of all. When the worst happens,as it did to me, I was helped by knowing what it took to be that kindof competitor— to not go away, to get up and fight back.
The Miami game was not the last time I faced a grim situation as headcoach, but when downturns occurred during the upcoming years, I triedto adhere to some simple dos and don’ts for mental and emotional equilibriumin my personal and professional life; nothing profound, just a fewplain and uncomplicated reminders that helped me manage things mentallyand stay afloat:
My Five Dos for Getting Back into the Game:
My Five Don’ts:
- Do expect defeat. It’s a given when the stakes are high andthe competition is working ferociously to beat you. If you’resurprised when it happens, you’re dreaming; dreamers don’tlast long.
- Do force yourself to stop looking backward and dwellingon the professional “train wreck” you have just been in.It’s mental quicksand.
- Do allow yourself appropriate recovery— grieving— time.You’ve been knocked senseless; give yourself a little time torecuperate. A keyword here is “little.” Don’t let it drag on.
- Do tell yourself, “I am going to stand and fight again,”with the knowledge that often when things are at theirworst you’re closer than you can imagine to success. OurSuper Bowl victory arrived less than sixteen months after my“train wreck” in Miami.
- Do begin planning for your next serious encounter. Thesmallest steps— plans— move you forward on the road torecovery. Focus on the fix.
- Don’t ask, “Why me?”
- Don’t expect sympathy.
- Don’t bellyache.
- Don’t keep accepting condolences.
- Don’t blame others.