retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

There’s a simple reason why we frequently talk about sports (almost as much as we talk about movies) here on MNB, and it goes well beyond the activities Kevin and I enjoy. In many ways, the finite drama of athletic competition provides endless opportunities to distill business lessons on an almost non-stop basis.

But this past week may have surpassed all of that with one of the most shocking endings ever to a college football game. First my apologies for non-sports fans, but hang with the details because the management lessons in this story are worth knowing.

And second, my apologies to any University of Alabama fans who knew this was coming; Auburn’s stunning victory over your beloved Crimson Tide deserves to be considered.

What happened was this: with little time left in the game, Auburn tied the score against an Alabama team that is bordering on historic levels of achievement. Alabama entered the game seemingly on its way to becoming the first team to ever win three consecutive national football championships. There’s little chance that will happen now.

With one second left in the game, Alabama’s highly successful coach Nick Saban decided to have an untried player attempt a 57-yard field goal—an extremely long distance for a football player at any level. His thinking was probably that there was little risk in the play and the reward would be avoiding the highly entertaining, yet nerve wracking overtime. Not surprisingly, the kick failed.

Everything after that was surprising, but not unplanned. The Auburn coach positioned a player deep in the end zone on the theory that the long kick would be short. The player caught the kick and proceeded to run untouched for 108 yards, scoring a touchdown and giving Auburn the victory.

In hindsight it’s easy to see management lessons galore. Saban took a chance. That’s admirable, but he took it knowing his odds of success were incredibly long. His kicker had no history of making such a long field goal and his team is so talented that he had good reason to believe Alabama would prevail in overtime. Chances are always worth taking, but risks and rewards have to be considered. It’s doubtful Saban will ever do this again.

Worse yet, he seemingly failed to anticipate an alternative outcome. His players were the conventional blockers for the kick, meaning there was no one on the field with the speed to match the kick returner. If you watch the replay you can see how easily the Auburn player sped by the Alabama team. Outcomes, even unpleasant ones, always have to be part of your thinking.

Auburn’s coach in contrast found a way to turn the odds in his favor, by playing to the likelihood of a short kick. He couldn’t possibly anticipate the stunning run that followed, but he created the potential for that scenario. In truth, even a calculated gamble will fail most of the time, but with creativity and luck the odds can shift. Even an underdog can sense those moments and find a way.

Certainly there are many more lessons from this one play. Already Saban has been criticized for blaming some of his players, rather than taking the blame himself for a very flawed strategy. Execution always trumps strategy, but when the strategy was so poor it’s hardly time for shifting blame.

There’s one last lesson that we talk about frequently here on MNB and it ties to Monday’s story on Amazon’s futuristic delivery plans, including the potential use of drones to handle the last mile. Many of you probably read that or saw the 60 Minutes report and dismissed it out of hand.

Remember again our favorite Star Trek philosophy that “things are impossible until they are not.” It happens in football games, supermarket competition and might one day be the reason there are small drones zipping down your street. Just because something is unlikely doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

The impossible keeps happening.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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