Monday, December 28, 2009

Monday Morning Meyer: Deeper Analysis

The morning after the day after Urban Meyer's 24-hour retirement, let's get really pop psychological about him, with a rare bonus appearance by "MBA Dan Shanoff":

The essential point about Meyer has been honed to No. 3 below: It's not WILL Meyer change his style, but CAN he change?

Ironically, he'll have to apply his trademark intensity to the challenge of becoming LESS intense. Will he be comfortable if "Less Intense Urban" can win "only" 11 games a year? What if his intensity is precisely the reason Florida was able to win the national titles?

Read this interesting take by Meyer mentor Earl Bruce. First, a fairly stunning revelation: Did Meyer's health issues materially contribute to the Gators' problems in the SEC title game?

But there was a bigger point buried in there that I want to tease out: For all of Meyer's talents and experience, he seemed unprepared for or uncertain about the role of season-long front-runner. He is much better managing a team as an insurgent through adversity (rallying from a presumptive season-killing loss, going up against a seemingly superior title-game opponent) than coaching from the front.

Consider the way he coached Bowling Green and Utah, even Florida in the first few years. He was -- perhaps is -- a turnaround specialist, a program-maker. Even in 2008, it was a "turnaround" job from the growing pains of the 2007 season.

2009 was an entirely new thing: Defending champs, presumptive favorites to run the table and win again. This was completely new to Meyer, and his expertise didn't necessarily fit with the job. At the very least, he had no experience with it. Perhaps that's why he seemed so unhappy throughout the season; perhaps that's why he burnt out by the end of the season.

As I have said since the summer, "championship or failure" -- the expectations for this season for Florida -- are as rough as any coach or fan can create, arguably the toughest expectations any sports team has faced this decade.

That is an argument for why Meyer's job in 2010 is easier -- far easier -- than 2009 and why he will ultimately thrive again: There are few expectations. He can go back to re-building mode, a personal and professional mindset he is much more comfortable with. If he is to change his fundamental systemic self, he will have a better shot at transforming himself under conditions that feel "normal" to him, that he has experience with before and behaviors he can benchmark against.

There's a lot of talk about college football coaches as "CEOs." This is true, although then we have to get into discussion of CEO management style.

Compare Meyer's approach -- obsessive micromanagement -- to that of, say, Mack Brown, the supreme delegator. Meyer coaches Florida like a CEO manages a start-up; Brown coaches Texas like a CEO manages a Fortune 50 company.

Any good MBA will tell you that the start-up or turnaround CEO mentality can only get you so far before you need to radically change your approach -- or, in the case of a start-up, import the steadier hand of the professional manager (and, in the case of a turnaround job, slide the turnaround CEO in favor of a steady-state CEO.) Even the Google guys had to bring in Eric Schmidt.

I'm obviously not suggesting that Florida get rid of Meyer like a company changes CEOs, but I am suggesting that the changes that Meyer has to make are the equivalent of a start-up CEO changing themselves into a big-company CEO. It's not impossible: Look at Jeff Bezos at Amazon Steve Jobs at Apple. But I guarantee you those managers had to change their behaviors and impulses as their companies changed from start-ups or insurgents to mainstream corporate powerhouses.

As part of Meyer's therapy, I would love to see him talk with experienced CEOs about the business of transforming themselves as leaders from micro-managing task-masters into big-picture delegators, those who were able to do it without sacrificing results.

The analogues don't just come from college football -- Mack Brown or, as Meyer himself alluded to, Steve Spurrier (who definitely seems to enjoy work-life balance). He needs to reach across all sorts of sports and industries to find models that might work for him.

-- D.S.

PS: Lots of interesting and important takes this morning from Pete Thamel and Dan Wetzel and Pat Dooley and others. Here's what I'm struck by: Setting aside the physical symptoms, if you squint at the analysis today, aren't we all dancing around the idea that Urban Meyer had what used to be called a "nervous breakdown?"

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