You Play to Win the Game - Leadership Lessons Westside Toastmasters, in Santa Monica
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Play to Win the Game

During my second year with the Jets, we started out bad. Really bad. We won our first game, but the team looked mighty ugly. And then, believe it or not, it got worse. All I can remember is that we were in Miami and then we were in Jacksonville, and at the end of both games what I recall is how hot it was outside. It seemed like it was 120 degrees on the field-and it was always the same score. I'd look up at the scoreboard, and I'd be thinking, 'We lost by 30 again?' It was like that movie Groundhog Day. It was the same game. And suddenly we were 2-and-5.

Everybody was counting us out, except me. I never felt that we were 2-and-5, that we were going to finish 4-12. I know that for teams that are 2-5, that's generally your destiny in this league, but it was never in my thought process.

So we're 2-5 and I go into my weekly Tuesday deal with the media and somebody asks me if I think my team has quit. And I really couldn't believe what I was hearing.

'Quit? What, are you kidding?' I asked.

'Yeah, have your guys quit?' the reporter asked again.

It was as unacceptable a question as I've ever gotten in my entire playing and coaching career. Because to me, in football and in life, quitting is not an option. You have an opportunity in your lifetime to do something well, and you think about quitting? That isn't on my radar screen.

In sports, you don't quit; you retire. Sure, when you lose, people on the outside start assuming you quit. But my teams will never do that. The whole conversation that day really ate at me. It really did. And it showed. It was one of the few times I raised my voice to the media. But this time, I let them have it.

'This is what the greatest thing about sports is: You play to win the game,' I said, my voice rising. 'Hello? You play to win the game. You don't play to just play it. I don't care if you don't have any wins; you go play to win. When you start telling me it doesn't matter, then retire. Get out, because it matters. You play to win the game.'

My angry outburst was replayed and replayed over and over on just about every TV station in New York and on ESPN. It sort of became my mantra. But it's just what I believe.

What happened was short of amazing. We didn't panic. I'm not a panic guy, never have been. I deal with reality, not perception. I kept hearing that our season was over, and I kept telling my team that it wasn't, because it wasn't-we still had 10 games to play. When I spelled it out, our players began trusting the message, trusting the staff, and I guess they started trusting me. We became the first team in NFL history to go from 2-5 to divisional champs. We played to win the game.

I'm very fortunate because I had a lot of adversity in my life, starting as a young guy. I was crazy enough to play football and play cornerback, one of the hardest positions you can play. Your heart is in your throat every play because basically you are standing out there all by yourself. So your whole life you're covering this guy. So suddenly I'm doing that as a head coach; I'm just playing cornerback right now and still trying to cover this guy. I will try to cover this guy until I go to heaven. That's just kind of my motivation. Sometimes you get beat for a touchdown and you lose the game. But you get back up. I just try to do my best every day. That's how I function.

The way I see it, you get only certain chances in life. You can't waste them because society says you've got no chance. You don't give up on a child with learning disabilities because the doctor says he'll never read. You find a way. You find a special teacher, you find special books, you work with him every chance you can. You give him every tool he needs, and you don't stop until he's reading. Now, this doesn't mean that it's always going to work, but how are you going to know unless you try?

You don't give up on a relationship because everybody tells you it's not going to work. Not if you really believe in the relationship. Everyone has problems; everyone has flaws. If we based staying in a relationship on the number of flaws a person has, we'd have no families, no children, no future. You want to win that game, and you find a way to do it. You change the culture; you change the system.

For my wife, Lia, and me, it's date night. That's something we've discovered we really need in order to keep our relationship strong. Every Friday night, no matter what, is our night. Now, you have to realize that I'm up and at the office at 4:30 a.m. just about every morning and I don't get home until past midnight every night. I leave in dark-thirty and I get home in dark-thirty. That's a lot for a wife to put up with; I know that. So I make sure and she makes sure-because she's not just sitting home doing nothing; she's got just about as many activities as me, what with the charity work we do, the Jets women's organization, and dealing with our families-that Friday night is date night. Sometimes we go out to dinner, but with the excitement we've created with our football team, it's sometimes hard to have a quiet dinner and be nice to the three dozen people who come up to congratulate us, and that's something I just can't let go unnoticed. So we've taken to staying home and renting a movie or just talking. It's something we need to win the game of marriage.

She travels with me on all of our road trips because Dick Vermeil told me when I got this job to always take my wife. 'Marriage is hard enough. You need her with you. Make sure she sits with you on the plane, that she's involved with what you're doing. The road is a lonely place. Make sure she's around. You'll see why.'

At first the players were surprised to see a woman on the plane. But we changed their culture, and they soon understood what a priority having her around was to me. Having her with me on road trips has allowed me to win the marriage game and a few on the field, too, because I listen to her.

That said, Lia takes the losses much harder than I do. I remember that 2002 season when we lost against Cleveland to make us 2-5 and Lia cried all the way home, she was so upset. But when we got home, it was Lia who said, 'You're not getting through to them. You're not talking to them. They don't hear you. You're a great coach. You've got to find a way to get through to them.'

She was right. And it was the next day that I went in and gave them the 'you play to win' speech. Guys were telling me for a long time what that meant to them. It gave them their pride back, even though the record said they had no right to pride.

Give everything to what you do, the people you love, and what's important to you, and you will not be disappointed. We might not have gone on to win the divisional championship that year, but because we did not quit, because we played to win the game, it wouldn't have mattered.

Profile of a Winning Team

  • A winning team feeds on itself, not just by attracting better talent, but by raising its own level of confidence and passion for the team.

  • A winning team plays to win, not to lose. That is often the difference between success and mediocrity.

  • A winning team has a winning attitude. Team members believe in themselves and in their teammates.

  • A winning team keeps improving. Team members know that if they stop improving, their time is finished.

  • A winning team is made up of players who make their teammates successful. Few people are successful unless a lot of people want them to be.

You Play to Win the Game - Leadership Lessons Westside Toastmasters, in Santa Monica
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