Most U.S. sports fans don’t know who Sir Alex Ferguson is much less his accomplishments as manager of the most highly valued sports franchise in the world, Manchester United. In his 27 years, the “Red Devils” have won 13 Premier League titles, 2 European Champions League trophies, and assorted English tournaments. He stands along the most successful and recognizable managers such as Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, or Tom Landry (NFL), John Wooden or Mike Krzyzewski (NCAA), Casey Stengel, Joe Torre, or Tony LaRussa (MLB), Red Auerbach (NBA), or Scottie Bowman (NHL). In terms of league titles, Sir Alex exceeds them all. Of course, their degree of revenue-sharing differs widely across leagues so that such comparisons are relatively crude.
What makes these managers successful for so long? The individuals listed above achieved success over decades with different personnel. Even the ones with financial advantages, like Ferguson, far exceeded the success of their closest peers, predecessors, or successors who held similar advantages. One could read the books by these coaches and coauthors, but the success question is much more difficult to answer than many might think. The “how I did it” books resemble the variety of golf swings among great golfers – many unique and noisy elements are folded into the critical and common elements. Furthermore, a new idea, a key player or two, or just lightning in a bottle can make a manager successful for a short time. In my book, From the Ballfield to the Boardroom, I explored these common elements in more detail. What stands out includes
Eye for Talent and Its Application: These managers could spot players with skills useful for their teams. This includes star players along with role players. Imitators of Vince Lombardi under-valued this contributor to his success and over-valued his verbal abuse. The skill goes beyond merely recognizing skill players, however, and involves making the best use of them. Earl Weaver, the longtime Baltimore Orioles manager, liked to say, “I focus on what players can do, rather than criticizing them for what they can’t.” Of course, part of the job involves seeing where a player has outlived his role. Alex Ferguson cut loose the very popular David Beckham.
Motivators: Among long-lived managers, personalities differ a great deal, often, too much is made and too much imitation of glaring, distasteful aspects. John Wooden, Scottie Bowman, and Sir Alex dealt with players in very different ways. For whatever reason, players responded to their instruction. Wooden liked to say, “it’s not what I know, it’s what they do.” Player-management struggles were not part of the equation. Players got with the program or moved to the bench or off the team. Randy Moss stopped his antics when he signed up with Bill Belichick, and when he started them up again, he found the door quickly.
Inflexibly Flexible: Most of these managers present a paradox. There is no doubt who was in charge. No internal struggles for control, or short-lived ones. They all held firm ideas about what they wanted to do. However, over the course of their careers, they bent with trends. Interestingly, few of them were really noted as innovators. Innovators sometimes make big splashes, but long run success is more than just a good idea or two. On the flip side, they adapted to changes in the game. They didn’t hold on to the past. Various ones adopted a slogan such as “when I’m through changing, I’m through.” In fact, whenever the adaptation slowed down, the success did also, as one could observe with Bob Knight or Tom Landry.