He's in the Cockpit. Great Leaders Delegate
My name is Scott Matheny. This is an excerpt taken from "What Great Leaders Do", my book. I was the chaplain for the New York Jets for eleven seasons and met some very interesting leaders. Some were great. Some were not. Some were believers. Some were not.
Here is something that I learned.
“He’s in the Cockpit.”
GREAT Leaders Delegate
I remember the first time I met Coach Bill Parcells. It was during the spring of 1997, in the parking lot at the Jets’ complex at Hofstra University. Hofstra had been the home of the Jets since the days of Joe Namath. I made many trips to their Long Island headquarters and I never quite knew what each new day would bring. The world of the National Football League can change in an instant. Players are cut and traded. Staff members are fired and hired. Team policies shift both in principle and practice. Every NFL club looks a little different each day. This day would begin a new era in the way I would view my job and the League.
I had been anticipating this day for a while and had no idea how it was going to go. My sense was that Coach Parcells would not talk to me much at all and certainly not be interested in what I had to say. I guessed that he would not care much about the chaplaincy program and not consider that it was important. It seemed to me that he was going to be an intimidating person and that I was not going to enjoy the exchange. I was not very confident. There was always this nagging uncertainty surrounding life in the League and I couldn’t escape that.
I was introduced to Coach Parcells by Steve Yarnell, the club’s Director of Security and former FBI agent. I had just met Steve and he seemed a little intimidating as well. He was a tough-looking, stocky guy with steel-blue eyes who had played football for Parcells at Army and had handled security details for the Patriots at the Super Bowl the previous January. I had begun to wonder if everyone on Parcells’ staff was going to be this way; tough, hard-nosed. Would I be able to relate to any of them? Was I tough enough for this crowd? I just had no idea what awaited me.
We approached Coach Parcells between cars and Steve stated rather matter-of-factly, “Bill, I want to introduce you to someone. This is Scott Matheny, the team chaplain.” I immediately reached out my hand and Parcells grabbed it. It was enveloped by the Coach’s big mitt. Coach Parcells is a big man, very big. He had to be about 6’4”, and I have no idea what he topped the scales at. He played football himself, so he was not a slight man. There was nothing tiny about him. He was just a big guy with a booming Jersey accent.
Coach Parcells looked at me for a second with his piercing blue eyes and then looked away quickly and I will never forget what he said. He responded this way, “Sometimes I use bad language, but I don’t mean it.” I just kept shaking his hand with no real idea of how to respond to the legendary coach. I just kept shaking. It started to become awkward. Then, once again, he said, “Just so you know I might use bad language, but I don’t mean it.” OK….? Now, what do I say? All I could come up with was, “It’s nice to meet you.” He let go of my hand, thankfully.
And with that, I met the future Hall-of-Fame coach on a chilly, wind-swept April day on Long Island. There was no fanfare, no bold pronouncements. It was just the oddest exchange of my life. Here I was 33 years old and shaking the hands with one of the best NFL coaches ever, and all we could talk about was his language. I felt at a loss. I am not sure what I had anticipated, but it was nothing like that. Did I really accomplish anything?
I had heard many things about the man nicknamed the “Tuna.” I had heard that he was gruff and moody but that he could be witty and sarcastic and that one never really knew which Bill one might get on any particular day or at any particular time. For my part, I was not going to pre-judge him based on the reports of others or hearsay. I was going to respect the man and his authority and hoped to work well with him in those areas we had common interest and responsibilities. We both wanted the players and coaches to win on and off the field. We both wanted good men to succeed, and we wanted to win in the right way. We just wanted to win. I was tired of losing. Coach Parcells had been hired by then Jets’ owner Leon Hess earlier that spring. This came on the heels of Bill leading his former employer, the New England Patriots, to Super Bowl XXXI in January of 1997. The Green Bay Packers had beaten New England 35-21 in New Orleans, and rumors were flying about the possibility that Parcells might be moving to New York to coach the Jets. I had more than just a little interest in this possibility and was following the breaking news religiously. Any change to the coaching staff or front office could have significant consequences on me and my role with the team.
According to reports, Coach Parcells wanted more control over personnel decisions than New England owner, Bob Kraft, had been willing to give him. Bill wanted to be able to “shop for the groceries” as he had put it. He wanted to choose the players that he would coach. Leon Hess was willing to give him the shopping cart and the credit card. Eventually, Bill came to the Jets and the franchise has not been the same since. It was a watershed moment for a franchise that had always taken a backseat to the Giants in New York and could never seem to win consistently. Every year, the team in green would fail; and you would hear “same ole Jets” around the water coolers of Long Island.
After Coach Parcells was hired, I was able to connect with team executive, Scott Pioli, who along with Mike Tannenbaum, advised Bill Parcells on player personnel and salary cap issues. Scott Pioli had Bill’s ear, and I had some things that I wanted Bill to consider with regard to the chaplaincy program. The coming few months would make or break my time in New York, and Pioli held the key.
During my previous two seasons in New York, I had been effectively shut out from the team. With the exception of the occasional visit to the team facility and conducting team chapels at the team hotel prior to games, I was not allowed in their world. I was hidden.
The previous coach, Rich Kotite, had placed strict controls on the chaplain before me; and I was under those same protocols. I couldn’t be around the players much, and that didn’t make much sense to me. I just couldn’t do my job. I felt that doctors had to be able to be around their patients and that chaplains should be allowed to be around those who may want to connect with them. I needed someone to intervene in this. I needed Scott Pioli to come through for me and for the sake of the players who needed guidance and care.
During my initial conversation with Pioli, I made this all very clear; and he was in agreement. I needed access to the players on a regular basis and in a variety of contexts. I asked for the mother lode. I asked Scott to go to bat for me. I asked for an office at the team facility. I asked to travel with the team and stay at the team hotel. I asked to be allowed in the locker room. I basically asked for everything that I could think of, in the hope that I would at least get something better than I was getting under Coach Kotite. I would have left New York had nothing changed. It did. Everything changed. The chaplaincy program has not been the same since then either. Bill was a catalyst for change in so many ways.
Scott Pioli approached Coach Parcells on my behalf, and I got nearly everything I wanted. The only thing I didn’t get was an office in the facility, but “beggers can’t be choosers” and I was on my knees asking for help and I got it. I still marvel at this. I still am amazed that I received the access I had asked for. I was pretty sure that Bill would say no to everything and that I would be back to where I had been with Coach Kotite. Looking back, I owe the changes to a couple of factors that were supporting me at the time although I didn’t know it.
Parcells had been with two previous NFL teams, the New York Giants and the New England Patriots; and at both places he had had a positive experience with their chaplains and with players of faith. I think he saw the role of the chaplain as an important one. I think he saw the benefit of having someone in my position around the team. I would never have guessed this. Since I had been kicked to the proverbial curb under the previous regime, I was prepared for the worst, but I got the best.
I cannot understate the role of Curtis Martin in this. Although Curtis was not to come to our team until the next year in 1998, I think that his influence on Coach Parcells and the Patriots made Bill a proponent of the chaplaincy program on his team with the Jets and in later years. Coach Parcells loved Curtis Martin and I believe that anything that Curt did or believed in was highly respected by Coach. I think that I received the benefit of that relationship when Scott Pioli spoke with Bill on my behalf that day.
It probably didn’t hurt that Scott was dating Bill’s daughter at the time, either. They eventually got married and Scott became Coach Parcell’s son-in-law, a tall task I am sure. Scott Pioli was a tremendous help to my career that spring of 1997. His one conversation catapulted me from obscurity to the front lines of the NFL. I was now part of the team in some very tangible ways, and I was contributing to the change in culture surrounding the Jets. I felt really good about all of that.
There was a lot to like about Coach Parcells. He was funny and smart and knew how to motivate his players. Whether he dangled the carrot or the stick, he found a way to get the best out of his guys. He knew how to get inside a player’s head to unlock the vast potential in each man that he coached. This is part of what made him great. He was a master psychologist. I remember one story that illustrates this ability.
Often, Bill would give a player a nickname. I think it was his way of either showing his affection for a player or trying to motivate the man in some way. We had a defensive back from Texas A&M University named Ray Mickens. Ray was a great guy who was a very good defender and made significant contributions to the Jets over the years. Ray was not a tall man, and I am sure had been told all his life what he could not accomplish because of that.
Coach Parcells started calling Ray, “Reveille”. Why would he call him that? “Reveille” was the name of the small dog who was the mascot for the Aggies of Texas A & M. I think that Bill was trying to motivate Ray to continue to pursue greatness in spite of his stature. I think he dug at Ray to find that place where Ray would continue to fight and scratch to be the best he could be. Some might have seen it as an insult. I don’t think it was. I think it was part of the way that Bill operated. He would find particular ways to motivate his men to be excellent, and he would do it in his way.
Was he gruff? Yes. Was he moody? Yes. He came to the Jets as advertised in that regard. I remember several times walking by him in the halls at the Jets facility or on road trips and greeting him, and he would look at me like he had never seen me in his life. It really didn’t matter because he knew how to take a completely fractured franchise as the Jets were in 1996, and make them warriors and winners; and that was going to be his legacy with our team. I didn’t care if he addressed me or not. I didn’t care if we were buddies and went to the horse races together. We were no longer laughingstocks of the League and that made my job easier.
The Jets had been in a complete free fall during my first two seasons with the team in 1995-1996. In fact, we had hit rock bottom, or deeper. We had only won four games in two years, four games. There were many reasons for this. We didn’t have the most talented team, but there was more to it than that.
There was very little accountability on or off the field and that showed on Sundays. Our tight end, and first round draft pick at the time, Kyle Brady, related to me that he had no position coach his first year with the team in 1995 and that he was not really positive that he knew all the plays in his first game against Miami. That year the team finished 3-13 and could only find hope in drafting highly prized college players the following season. I was told that many of the guys were simply not doing their workouts. They would show up, sign in that they had worked out, and leave. We were, frankly, out of shape. We had linebackers 40 pounds over weight. We were sucking wind in the fourth quarter of our games.
It was a complete disaster and hard for me to be a part of. This was not what I thought the NFL was supposed to be about. I thought the League was supposed to be the best of the best, and in New York, it appeared to be a joke. I thought the League was about excellence, commitment, and competition. The Jets just went through the motions.
Bill put an end to all of that foolishness quickly. He hired a top-notch strength and conditioning coach named John Lott, who had trained top athletes like Carl Lewis and others at the University of Houston. The team began to get in shape. There was accountability for working out, and players had to meet goals for their weight or they were fined. They were fined hundreds of dollars for every pound they were over their goals…each day.
Bill began to hold everyone accountable to a very high standard, and it showed. He expected everyone’s best. There was a new attitude, a new direction, new expectations, and a new way of doing things. None of this was optional. It was Bill’s way or the Long Island Expressway. If you didn’t toe the line, you were out, and quickly for that matter.
Not surprisingly, the team turned around quickly and won nine games in 1997 with former Steeler, Neil O’Donnell, at quarterback. We missed the playoffs on the last game of the season in Detroit when Barry Sanders ran all over us in the second half, passing 2000 yards for the season. In less than one year, we had gone from the laughingstock of the League to a playoff contender, and it was all because of Bill’s presence and his guiding principles.
How did he do it? I think this was the key.
Coach Parcells was the master delegator.
The story I am about to tell you will show that not only was he a great coach, but he was great because he found great people to coach with him. He surrounded himself with greatness. He attracted men who were like him, both in theory and in practice. Great leaders do it this way.
As previously written, Coach Parcells allowed me to travel with the team to their road games. In order to travel, though, I had to have another job on these trips beyond what I was doing with regard to my role as chaplain. Everyone had to be able to do multiple things. I soon became familiar with the adage that Bill also preached, “The more you can do, the better.”
For those years that Bill coached the Jets, I assisted the video team with taping and coordinating game film on road trips. Every game in the NFL was videotaped by each team from multiple locations high up in the stadium. The coaches would then break down the tape, analyze it and use it as discussion and teaching points with players later in the week.
That was true of our team, but we went a step further. Under Coach Parcells, we always did.
I was responsible for taping the game as it was being played onto a small eight-millimeter recorder so that the assistant coaches could watch the game as soon as they sat down in their seats on our chartered flights after games. They didn’t want to waste one minute. Every minute counts in the NFL, even minutes on airplanes. As soon as they would sit down in first class, I was up in front giving them their machines with the appropriate game tape that I had edited during the contest. It was like clockwork. I really began to respect the work ethic of Parcells’ staff. I began to understand how and why these men would win.
I also provided the coaches with tapes of future opponents we were going to be playing as well. Often our coaches were two to three weeks ahead in game planning, and watching these little machines gave us the edge. Teams were always looking for an edge, anything to get a leg up on your opponent. Our coaches were game tape junkies on the airplanes. Well, not all of them. Coach Parcells wasn’t.
I never once gave him game film on any of those flights. I would ask the guys up front where he was, to see if he might want the game tape; and the answer most often was, “He’s in the cockpit.” Yes, this was prior to September 11, 2001, and Bill was not about to look at game film while cruising at 32,000 feet. He had access to the pilots and wanted to hang out with them. He had other coaches who looked at game tapes, and boy, did they!
Coach Parcells surrounded himself with a “Who’s Who?” of assistant coaches. Great coaches do that. They hire the best to support their vision and its implementation. These guys were glued to their eight-millimeter screens for most of the flights going in and out of New York. Bill relied on these men, and it was to his advantage to do so. On his staff during those years were Bill Belichick, Eric Mangini, Romeo Crennell, Charlie Weis, Todd Haley, and Al Groh. The coaching talent on those planes, the ones staring at those videos and taking copious notes, was beyond belief.
Each of these men would find themselves as head coaches, either in the professional ranks or in college, with varying degrees of success. I had no idea at the time that I was handing off those videos to men who would become so successful in their own right. When you see the title ‘assistant’ next to their names, you might tend to overlook their abilities. Coach Parcells didn’t, and that was a part of his genius. He always surrounded himself with good people and let them do their jobs. He delegated to superior talent.
Coach Parcells not only brought in top assistants to help steer the ship, he also filled the locker room with “his” guys. Everyone knew who Bill’s guys were. They were men who had played with him on other teams and knew the “Parcells’ Way.” They were men who had played for Defensive Coordinator Bill Belichick in Cleveland and could be trusted to play it “Belichick’s” way, which was “Parcells’ Way.” They were not always the most talented athletes or the best at their positions, but they understood what needed to be done and how it was going to get done. They were leaders among the other players, and they set the tone in practice and on game day. They were players of influence, and they garnered the respect of everyone in the organization. When I think of Corwin Brown, Pepper Johnson, Anthony Pleasant, Rick Lyle, Curtis Martin, and Otis Smith, I think about players who knew Parcells’ system and were loyal to the Coach and his assistants. This became part of the recipe for success.
I think that was the key, loyalty. Coach Parcells delegated to men who knew what he wanted, and they were loyal to him. Many of his coaches would end up leading their own teams. Moving on to coach other teams was understood as part of the business and not being disloyal. Head coaches want their subordinates to have the passion and fire to move up the chain and coach their own squads. This was so in New York. Later, I would see Coach Parcells coaching against his former assistants and realize the legacy he had left in the League. This was all because he made delegation an art form.
Much has been made of the rift between Coach Parcells and Coach Belichick after the 1999 season when Parcells resigned as head coach and Belichick decided not to coach New York but take his services to New England. I have no comment about that, and I was not privy to any of those conversations. All I can say is this, when both Bills were together, the Jets were fantastic. Both will be in the Hall of Fame. Both helped turn the franchise around.
It is quite telling how Eric Mangini and Bill Belichick learned from Bill Parcells because they later filled their staffs with great assistants who either coached or played with them on other teams. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Coach Parcells knew how to delegate and win. He taught those same principles to his assistants who have been doing that as well.
Whatever weaknesses Parcells may have had as a head coach, he made sure to cover them with the strengths of others. This became his greatest strength as a coach in my opinion. This became his genius.
GREAT leaders know their strengths and weaknesses and, out of that knowledge, delegate to others. They are honest self-evaluators. They realize that their flaws may hinder what they are trying to accomplish and they delegate for the sake of the team as a whole. Great leaders are not too proud or insecure to let others handle responsibilities. They equip and empower those under them. They affirm the gifting of others.
GREAT leaders inspire loyalty in others. They find trustworthy people and give them appropriate levels of responsibility and neither micromanage nor neglect those under them. I know that Bill Parcells watched plenty of game film in his life, and the fact that he wanted to sit in the cockpit during flights after games did not mean that he didn’t pay attention to details. But what it does show is that he had found a way to delegate to men who would accomplish much in their own rights. GREAT leaders are able to handle the duties of their position but they find others who aspire to greatness, as well, and find ways to put them in positions to win.
GREAT leaders delegate.