Are we in the middle of leadership revolution? After a long while, we're seeing something very special showing up at work.
And not surprisingly, it's starting in athletics, not the world of business. In fact, it's on the gridiron, both in college and the pros.
The big story in football permeating our media and culture is the maximum swagger of new Colorado Buffaloes head coach, Deion Sanders. He's had a storied career as a star football player, a star baseball player, and on TV as a personality/commentator. Sanders is the only athlete ever to play in both the World Series and a Super Bowl. Is there nothing this guy cannot do at the highest level?
And now he's making it happen for a college program in dire need of rehabilitation. The Buffaloes lost 11 games last year, hard to do in most college programs today, especially when the early games are typically scheduled against patsies. With a dismal record like that, it's no surprise they finished dead last in the Pac 12 Conference.
So how do you turn around a program in three games? Well, you don't. Except that by most yardsticks, the Buffaloes have – at least financially. Their entire season is now sold out (I'm sure their away games are, too), they have a respectable 2-1 record, losing this past weekend to highly rated Oregon. Millions are flowing into the program, especially in the form of merch. Everyone wants to wear the colors, not just in Boulder and the state, but all over the country.
None of this happens without the aura of Coach Prime, as Sanders is called. He has the spotlight on Colorado – and himself – with his brash style, mega-confidence, and a no-holds-barred attitude. And the team is generating more ink, page views, likes, and earned media than stalwarts like Notre Dame, Alabama, Georgia, or Ohio State.
Sanders knows the lopsided loss to Oregon is just another step along what promises to be an amazing journey. His team is all-in. So is the entire state of Colorado. For that matter, so are millions around the world, looking for something to believe in. Sanders believes…and you should, too.
Let's go baby. The journey don't stop and won't stop. Thank u to all the support, love and understanding. pic.twitter.com/dh3AOTF3Ny
— COACH PRIME (@DeionSanders) September 24, 2023
A different but similar transformation is taking place here in Detroit, another haven for football frustration and mediocrity. After decades of abject failure and ridicule, head coach Dan Campbell has let his passion and pride do the talking. From the laughing stock of the NFL, the Lions are strangely becoming a very different type of “America's Team.” Their trademark “Honolulu blue and silver” merch is also showing up well outside the Detroit city limits for the first time ever.
Campbell played for the Lions as a tight end. If anyone knows what the team, the organization, and the city are all about, he does.
Many of you got to know Campbell thanks to the amazing HBO series “Hard Knocks” that aired before the 2022 season. America learned the lowly Lions were being led by a man possessed by an intense drive to win. I had many clients and friends who know I'm a Detroiter comment on the coach also known as “MCDC” – Motor City Dan Campbell – as one impressive guy after watching the HBO doc.
Here's Campbell's first press conference when he first got the job:
You want to play for this guy.
Last year, the Lions got off to a shaky start and the “SOL” chants and hashtags began. (“Same Old Lions” for the uninitiated.) But thanks in no small part to the team's belief in their coach, the Lions turned it around, winning eight of their last nine games. During that season, Campbell was roundly criticized by sports radio for not understanding the nuances of his job, clock management, and the other technical aspects of coaching.
The players didn't care. The Lions will run through walls for this guy. He has given them the rationale for being on this time, representing this team and the city around the league, long a source of humiliation and ridicule.
No one's looking past the Detroit Lions or the Colorado Buffaloes on the schedule this year. When you have leaders like these guys, anything can happen, everything is possible. Football fans are checking the scores religiously when these teams play.
While Sanders and Campbell are very different coaches and people, their passion is similarly contagious, making believers out of jaded critics and casual sports fans who once thought buffaloes and lions belong in the zoo.
All this makes me wonder whether two coaches with electric styles are especially well-suited for a period in our lives and our history where we feel that crying need to get excited about something, where we want to see a perennial underdog prevail, and where we're hungry for a compelling story that makes us want get on our feet and cheer for a team with a sense of purpose.
For so long, coaches didn't always emote a whole lot. In fact, most try to come off as stoics – poker-faced wizards who wear those headphones and direct the action of the game. Yes, they get pissed off over a bad call or other egregious event. But overall, they're known for their control, their grimaces, and their scowls.
The fact is, many head coaches in sports programs and franchises have become technocrats, using data religiously to make calls, make decisions, and make cuts. Some are likely more comfortable in front of a computer screen than being in the dugout, pacing the courtside, or on the sideline.
Not surprisingly, both Sanders and Campbell are risk-takers. Sanders conducted a “roster dump” when he took over last spring, ridding himself of many players recruited by his predecessor. He has a unique formula of attracting like-minded talent and building a very special roster. And he doesn't care who doesn't like it.
For Campbell, his rampant risk-taking tends to take place during games. He “goes for it” on fourth downs more than any other coach in the NFL, often at positions on the field that seem totally crazy to traditionalists. But it doesn't stop there. Campbell's decision to run a fake punt in the first quarter on his team's own 17-yeard line during the opening game versus Super Bowl winner Kansas City was off-the-charts. It is never done.
The gamble worked, the Lions scored a touchdown on that series, and went on to upset Patrick Mahomes' mighty Chiefs.
Both Sanders and Campbell wear their emotions on their sleeves. They are who they are. You see it on their faces, you hear it in their words. There's none of this “I wonder what this guy is thinking” stuff.
And that brings us to the “sport” of radio programming. There was a day when PDs were often similar to swashbucklers like Sanders and Campbell. Sure, some were smarter or more successful than others. But many shared a certain swagger than made their staffs – salespeople and all – want to follow them.
Over the years, many programmers have been sadly reduced to clerks or worse, short-order chefs with so much on their plates they cannot innovate, much less program. And then there's the top-down corporate edicts some companies have become famous for, neutering PDs and leaving them with the administrative tasks of scheduling music and other mundane tasks.
The reality is that radio is sorely in need of a Coach Prime or MCDC – someone willing to shake up the norm with a vision that may not sound like “the way we've always done it.” Sometimes, a flea flicker, double-reverse, or another trick play is a great way to shake things up. And sometimes it actually works.
Based on the results we see every year in our AQ studies of air talent, many personalities aren't exactly stimulated or motivated by their current leadership. You don't run into walls for bureaucrats. But when you work for someone with a vision, a scheme, a concept – well, there's something a little romantic about that. And when you get behind someone “who does what she says she will do,” that's when the magic happens.
And audiences aren't much different. A lot of people feel like there's been a leadership gap at all levels of their lives. They're looking for something to get excited about, to be inspired by. Like football fans, they know something interesting when they see and hear it. They'll give you credit for taking a risk or two, especially if it doesn't feel like it's from an old playbook or on a radio station that sounds canned and directed from across the country.
There's something happening on football fields that the air studios of America could use some of.
Interestingly, it took a lot of losing both in Boulder and in Detroit before the powers-that-be rolled the dice on Sanders and Campbell. The Buffaloes have pretty much been noncompetitive for nearly two decades. And the Lions? They've only won a single playoff game in their ignominious history. It occurred way back in 1991 when the first George Bush was President.
But all that's history now. By going the bad, bold route, both the Buffaloes and those Lions may end up rewriting their scripts. And a lot of people are already tuned in to see if they just might pull it off.
Just like all those radio stations need to do.
- In Radio, Whatever Happened To “4 And Out The Door?” - December 7, 2023
- An Open (News)Letter To Radio - December 6, 2023
- The Case For Handcrafted Radio - December 5, 2023