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Book Recap Series: Above The Line

The third installment of the AFCA’s Book Recap Series was inspired by Urban Meyer’s kickoff presentation at the AFCA’s 2021 Virtual Convention. Coach Meyer spoke on the premiums of leadership, and it encouraged me to read his 2015 novel, Above The Line: Lessons in Leadership and Life from a Championship Season. If you haven’t had the opportunity to do so yet, I highly encourage you to head on over to our digital library and listen to Coach Meyer speak on one facet of his leadership philosophy.

Coach Meyer has over 30 years of coaching experience at the collegiate level. Meyer has been the Head Coach at four different institutions and has seen high success at each stop along the way. While he has 11 division/conference titles on his resume, no victory shines brighter than the three national championships he won at the University of Florida and The Ohio State University. While Coach Meyer has recently taken his talents to the Jacksonville Jaguars of the National Football League, we will take a look at the past as we dive into the leadership practices it took to make The Ohio State Buckeyes the first national champion of the College Football Playoff era.

WHAT MAKES A LEADER?

What does it mean to be Above The Line? The title of this work comes from Focus 3 Culture and Behavior Training. It revolves around a simple diagram: a solid black, horizontal line with three words above it, and three words below it. These six words define who we can be in the face of an event. Below the Line sits impulsive, autopilot, and resistant. Above The Line, however, sits intentional, purposeful, and skillful. It’s easy to see why great leaders live above the line.

Above The Line is chock full of examples of how Meyer used his own teaching and the voices of outside professionals to equip his players and staff with the tools necessary to be transformational leaders. His philosophy begins around a simple equation: E + R = O (Event + Response = Outcome). The coaching staff mission was simple: make their players’ R stronger than any E they will encounter. The success of their mission would be tested time and time again throughout the 2014-15 season.

Coach Meyer outlined six steps to performing an Above The Line response:

  1. Press Pause
    1. Ask yourself: What does this situation require of me?
  2. Get Your Mind Right
    1. You must focus on productive thoughts! An irritated or survival mindset is Below The Line.
  3. Step Up
    1. There is an Above The Line response for every single situation you find yourself in. Are you going to take it?
  4. Adjust and Adapt
    1. Every coach in the world knows learning to adapt is a fundamental skill needed to be successful. If you don’t learn how to respond skillfully, life is only going to get more and more difficult for you.
  5. Make a Difference
    1. How you handle your R affects every single person around you. A Head Coach’s R will permeate throughout the entire team. Even a ‘Unit Leader’ as Coach Meyer calls his position coaches has a substantial influence on how the team responds to adversity.
  6. Build Skill
    1. How do you reach an elite level of performance beyond your gifts and abilities? Meyer believes the only way to reach exceptional performance is by consistently pursuing “an uncommon focus and discipline in the pursuit of greatness.” Simply put, it takes “reaches and reps.”
BECOMING A CULTURE COMMANDER

Too many coaches focus on results but fail to develop an environment that is conducive to maintaining that success if it ever arrives. What these coaches fail to realize is that results are a direct reflection of consistent behaviors demonstrated by the entire organization. Where do these habits form? Leaders.

Leaders create culture. Culture drives behavior. Behavior produces results.

In order to successfully instill culture, a leader must define their own, and their program’s core values. These aren’t just posters you hang up or slogans on a t-shirt, they are systematic beliefs that penetrate every single interaction of an organization’s staff. Once you have clearly defined these values, you refer to them over and over again in a three-part culture-building process:

  1. Believe It – Every change you want to see happen in your team has to occur in you. You need to fully exemplify the belief. Notre Dame Head Coach, Brian Kelly, summed up this teaching perfectly in his general session at the 2010 AFCA Convention. Listen to Coach Kelly below:
  2. Sell It – Reiterate your desired culture to coaches and players consistently and clearly.
  3. Demand It – You can do every other step of the process perfectly, but if you fail to hold people accountable to the standard, your culture will fail.

“If it’s not happening in you, it will never happen through you.”

– Urban Meyer

Coach Meyer and his staff take accountability seriously. Every aspect of the players’ lives is graded, from tutor sessions to nutrition. If you are not accountable off the field, you won’t have the opportunity to be accountable on it.

SUCCESS IS SPELLED T-R-U-S-T

One could argue that the chief responsibility of a leader is to push their followers beyond what they believe possible. The fact of the matter, though, is that a leader can only push to the level of trust they have developed. Coach Meyer teaches three elements to build trust:

  1. Character – You earn ethical trust with repeated acts of integrity (consistency between word and deed).
  2. Competence – Technical trust is earned from repeatedly doing your job at a high level.
  3. Connection – Personal trust comes from consistent acts of love (caring, listening, engaging).

In my leadership/coaching experience, the fastest way to gain a player’s trust is by genuinely loving who they are as an individual, and actively pouring into their life outside of the game of football. Stanford Head Coach, David Shaw spoke about how important love is to coaching during his address at the 2016 AFCA Convention:

Coach Meyer points to Ed Warinner as a coach who loves his players as well as anyone he knows. Coach Warinner was the Offensive Line Unit Leader under Meyer during the Buckeyes championship season. He was on the field 15 minutes early to go over footwork with players, had his wife eat with him and his players every Thursday, frequently had them over to his house and sought out activities to do together outside of football.

“You spell love T-I-M-E”

– Unknown

I am sure everyone can think of at least one coach who is similar to Ed. For me, it’s Calvin Renfroe from Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, IL. As the QB’s coach and Passing Game Coordinator, he genuinely considers his quarterbacks family, even to the point of being in his family Christmas picture! The reason Warinner, Renfroe, and coaches like them have such success is that their players are willing to do anything for them. The authentic love they give their players is reciprocated through devotion to their teaching and a willingness to push beyond personal limits, often when it’s the last thing the players want to do.

I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of Above The Line: Lessons In Leadership and Life from a Championship Season. I chose to focus on just a few of Coach Meyer’s teachings from this fantastic book, but I could never do the personal stories Coach Meyer shares justice. The lessons he has learned from an illustrious career in coaching will develop you as a leader, a coach, and an individual.

If you would like to listen to either Coach Brian Kelly’s or Coach David Shaw’s presentations from the AFCA Convention, you can find the full audio on our AFCA Inside The Headset Podcast (episodes 167 and 168, respectively), available on all major streaming platforms. If you have any questions or would like to see a specific book recapped, please email me at kkempton@afca.com.

 

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