Sports fans who watched last week's NCAA Football Championship didn't see much of a game. Despite the hype about this being the "game of the century," the Alabama Crimson Tide dominated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish from the very first drive and led 28-0 at the half. They went on to repeat as national champions and win their third title in four years by a final score of 42-14.
It was after the Tide had the game well in hand, though, that viewers could see the most striking examples of the team's ongoing quest for excellence. These vignettes might be instructive for people in nonprofit, foundation, and government organizations working to solve chronic social problems.
With seven minutes left in the game and a 28-point lead, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron got into a heated argument with his All-American Center, Barrett Jones, over a disputed snap call between them that led to a delay of game penalty. A surprised referee had to physically separate the two teammates as they got into each other's face on national television.
Meanwhile, Alabama coach Nick Saban went after the side judge with red-faced abandon to dispute the delay of game call, arguing that McCarron had called timeout before the play clock expired. Saban's coaching had grown more animated—as it usually does -- as his team's lead expanded, and he quickly shifted his intensity from his players to the referees.
After the game, a sideline reporter asked Saban if he was finally satisfied. Saban acknowledged that, "this team did a great job from the word go. Two days after we beat LSU last year in the championship game, they started working, and they never were entitled, and I am proud of what they were able to accomplish this year. But, two days from now, we got to start on next year."
Saban later spoke more about the elusive nature of success, and how Alabama's approach, which he calls "the process," is needed to keep hold of it. "The process is still beginning, it is ongoing, you have to do it every day, all the time, or you are gonna slip. You have to recruit players, you have to develop players, you have to make sure they are doing what they supposed to do personally and academically."
Sportscasters and fans trying to make sense of all this are apt to respond with a mixture of admiration, disbelief, and wariness. We don't like to see teammates confront each other or coaches going after referees when they have the game won. We expect champions to rest on their laurels, at least a bit. We can't quite fathom a team that competes not just to win against opponents on the field, but to achieve mastery by competing against the standards of the game itself.
This kind of head-shaking and the complacency it creates room for are not just limited to the realm of sports. For example, let's all take a moment to reflect on following questions:
- When is the last time you challenged a teammate for failing to advance your organization's mission?
- When is the last time a teammate challenged you for failing to do so?
- Does your organization redouble its efforts and determination to succeed after achieving major milestones?
- Has your organization developed the equivalent of Alabama's "process" to undergird and perpetuate a culture of excellence?
If you are like me, some of these questions might give you pause. If that is the case, we have some work to do.