Oswald Letter

Star Performer Says He Benefited from Firing

In the book Bear Bryant On Leadership: Life Lessons from a Six-Time National Championship Coach, one of the legendary football coach’s former players says, “The best thing Coach Bryant did for me was kick me off the team.”

Now, it might seem surprising for a college football player to say being kicked off the team was the best thing a coach ever did for him. It wasn’t receiving a scholarship, which provided a college education, or even the privilege of playing college football that was the best thing his coach did for him. It was getting kicked off the team that benefited him most.

That quote comes from Rich Wingo, a star linebacker for the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 1970s. To fully understand why Wingo might say that kicking him off the team was the best thing Coach Bryant did for him, here’s the story.

Before his junior season, Wingo was voted a preseason All-American and, reportedly, he started to think pretty highly of himself.

In a morning practice during the preseason, Wingo was doing a drill. He later said, “I’m sure I wasn’t hustling, although I certainly wasn’t consciously thinking about it.” After doing the drill several times, the player heard Coach Bryant say, “Wingo, go out there and do it again.”

According to Wingo, it was the first time Coach Bryant ever made him do a drill again. One of the assistant coaches threw him the ball and he sprinted to the sideline.

Coach Bryant said, “Do it again.”

Wingo says you could have heard a pin drop when that happened. So, Wingo did the drill again, and Coach Bryant said, “Get off my field.” Wingo started jogging off the field. That’s when it happened: “I looked back and everybody was just staring at me. That’s when I realized I’d been kicked off the team.”

Wingo got dressed and waited for Coach Bryant after practice. He told his coach, “The last thing my dad told me before I left home years ago that no one’s going to fight for Rich Wingo any longer except for Rich Wingo. I’m here to fight.”

Coach Bryant invited Wingo into his office. That’s when the legendary coach told him, “I just don’t know if I want you on my football team.” Bryant explained that he thought Wingo was just “content” with being a starting inside linebacker and that’s the way he’d play. Bryant said he wanted people on his team and those around him to be “committed” instead of “content,” people who wanted to get a little better every single day.

Wingo told the coach he didn’t want to play anywhere but Alabama and asked for his spot back on the team. After a night of thinking about it (and letting Wingo sweat it out), Bryant reinstated Wingo the next day.

“That conversation impacted my life,” Wingo later said. “The concept of being ‘committed’ and not ‘content’ is a major part of my testimony today. He wanted people who were totally sold out on the program. He said, ‘Rich, I’ll take people who aren’t the best athletes, but I’ll win with those guys if they are sold out every day.’ ”

“Starting that day, I went from being ‘content’ to being ‘committed.’ I learned how to practice and get better every day. All of my friends told me that after I jogged off the field that day, they had the best practice of their entire career at Alabama, because they didn’t know who was next.”

That’s quite a story and there are plenty of lessons in it for us as managers and employees alike. As managers, we need to make sure we have people on our teams who are committed, not just content. We need to surround ourselves with people who want to make themselves and the team better every single day.

As a manager, you know who is really committed and who is just going through the motions. You need to know when even a good performer is hurting the team. And, like Coach Bryant, you need to be willing to take action.

Maybe the coach was just trying to get Rich Wingo’s attention and that of the entire team.  If he was, his method definitely worked. Maybe he really intended to play the season without the star player and was convinced otherwise by Wingo’s plea to stay on the team. Since Bear Bryant is no longer with us, we’ll never know. But either way, Bryant’s apparent willingness to let a top player go because he was content, not committed, had its desired impact on the team.

As employees, we can learn from this as well. Rich Wingo was going through the motions because he could do so and still be a starter. But he wasn’t living up to his potential. Are you committed to what you do every day? Do you want to get better? Do you make your team better or does the example you set hold others back? It begs the question, are you committed or just content?