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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

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RHSU Classic: The NFL’s Humbling Lesson in Hiring Turnaround Leaders

By Rick Hess — February 07, 2020 3 min read
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This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I’ve offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite.

As regular readers know, I’ve long thought that the NFL can help us see some of the challenges of educational leadership more clearly. In the NFL, as in schooling, there are endless paeans to flavor-of-the-month philosophies and hotshot new leaders—most of which flame out. It turns out that clever ideas are swell, but that success often comes down to the mundane: execution, discipline, trust, and coherence. In making sense of all this, it has helped mightily that Bill Belichick’s New England Patriots have put on a two-decade clinic in sustained excellence, even as (more talented) imitators and challengers have come and gone. Now, onto number 16, originally published on February 7, 2011.

Well, the football season is over. I have nothing to add regarding the Packers’ victory, the mediocre slate of commercials, or on the implications of the impending lockout. Before we turn the page, though, there’s one lesson worth drawing with an eye to turnarounds.

Last week, New England coach Bill Belichick won his third NFL coach of the year award. Owners desperately seeking to turn around their teams are wondering how they get their own version of Belichick or another successful coach. The most popular answer is to get a chip off the old block; NFL teams love to hire the assistants of winning coaches. This is thought to provide access to the secrets, strategies, and steely purpose that fuel their success.

Turns out that it’s hard to replicate successful strategies—even when new coaches have trained at the knee of a successful icon and have an unlimited ability to build staffs, teams, and cultures in their own image. Over the past few years, Belichick is 126-50 in the regular season, 14-5 in the playoffs, and has coached his team to three Super Bowl wins. If success was as simple as figuring out what works and then doing it, one would expect Belichick’s former assistants, having observed his methods firsthand, would be poised to replicate them. And if turnarounds are mostly about importing better staff and “proven” strategies into failing organizations, their records should seemingly reflect Belichick’s.

But six former Belichick assistants have had NFL head-coaching gigs, and they’ve produced a uniformly mediocre record. Romeo Crennel was 24-40 with the Cleveland Browns. Jim Schwartz is in the middle of an 8-24 run with the Detroit Lions. And when Josh McDaniels was mercilessly fired in the middle of last season, he was on a 5-17 run with the Denver Broncos. All told, former Belichick assistants are a humble 100-152 as NFL head coaches. Whoops. Oh, and that doesn’t even count former offensive coordinator Charlie Weiss’s dismal tenure as coach at Notre Dame.

Belichick’s success seems to rest on attention to detail, excellent personnel management, and a “whatever works” philosophy that makes use of a number of role players. Belichick’s record has also been intertwined with the success of the enormously talented Tom Brady and a committed, stable ownership. Trying to parse out the universal secrets that can be readily exported to new organizations has thus far proven an uncertain task. In fact, Belichick had been a losing coach in Cleveland before he came to New England.

In school reform, there is a similar fascination with finding out “what works” and imagining that “successful” leaders can make this work, or that a seemingly effective model will work anywhere. In just the past couple weeks, we’ve seen breathless coverage of the new effort to replicate the Harlem Children’s Zone in New Jersey. Everyone’s supposed to be reassured that it’ll work because iconic HCZ founder Geoffrey Canada is going to play some kind of vague advisory role. Count me as unconvinced. Just this fall, new DCPS chancellor Kaya Henderson ousted the Friends of Bedford from D.C.'s Dunbar High School because their turnaround effort, premised on a model they’d used successfully in New York, had fallen flat.

Even in the NFL, where coaches are largely free to hire, fire, and operate, we see how poorly a fancy pedigree can predict success. If educators can take one insight away from the NFL as the calendar turns, let it be that an excited search for “best practices” or successful turnaround models is more likely to fuel faddishness and churn than consistent excellence.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.