Successful Careers Rely on Details
By GARY J. CARUSO
Life is usually peppered with sports metaphors when explanations need embellishment. Playing on a level playing field is an overused term. Yet, successful careers often hinge on the very intangibles that are characteristic of championship teams whose play prevents its opponents a level field. The secret for success in both the sports and business arenas is an attention to detail. Consequently, the more precisely focused on detail one is, the more successful one will be in attaining a goal.
Some sports analysts blame last Saturday's football loss to Michigan on the delay of game penalty called after Notre Dame's final touchdown. A Notre Dame player barely called attention to himself by quickly making a gesture to a television camera. The resulting 15-yard penalty, coupled with a late hit out of bounds penalty, virtually handed half a field's worth of yardage to Michigan and the eventual win over the Irish.
If only one reason could be attributed to the unsuccessful outcome of that game, it would be the lack of coaching the minute subtleties of team discipline and knowledge of the rules. It was once common practice at Notre Dame for players to perform like a championship caliber team throughout every game. Each player was taught the rules, but more importantly, taught to play so that the rules were second nature to his performance.
Initially, Rockne's shift and forward pass innovations were not moves that Irish players, nor the football community at large, would consider second nature. Yet Rockne emphasized and practiced these plays until they became as familiar to his players as walking or breathing. The Rock won through his emphasis of detail to the point of near perfection.
No player ever exhibited non-classy behavior on the field. Players on both offense and defense were expected to jump in sync with other players to the snap of the ball. Every player was expected to score points. That was the definition of playing like a champion that day.
During the heyday of the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1970s, Notre Dame players mirrored the Steelers success with two national championships. After scoring touchdowns, both teams‚ players simply dropped the ball or tossed it to a referee because they had accomplished what was expected of them ... scoring points. It was incumbent upon the coaching staff to instill a sense of professionalism and accomplishment in the team, to pay attention to every detail and nuance of the game. That attitude was so prevalent in the team philosophy that a player was not excited to the point of overt celebration after accomplishing what he knew he was capable of doing ... and doing quite often.
A decade ago, when top-ranked Notre Dame faced Miami, one relatively minor coaching detail prevented the Irish from a second consecutive national championship. In the third quarter with momentum in Notre Dame's favor, Miami had the ball and fumbled deep in their own territory. The Irish defensive lineman merely had to fall on the ball within the 20-yard line for a first and ten. Instead, he attempted to pick up the ball and run for a touchdown. He never got a handle on the ball, and Miami recovered for third and 26. The Hurricanes next play covered 27 yards for a first down. They proceeded to eat most of the clock in the third quarter while eventually scoring the touchdown that ultimately defeated Notre Dame.
Most fans remember Miami's 27-yard third down conversion during that game. Few recall that the rule that year prohibited the advancement of fumbles. The Notre Dame coaching staff's failure to instill such an understanding of the details of the rules pertaining to defensive players cost the team the championship that year.
How many times has Joe Paterno focused on the slightest flaw of an opponent and ultimately won because he noticed the weakness? I attended a game at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh when Pitt was a formidable favorite over Penn State. Paterno's team won 7-6 because he noticed that the center would wiggle and then stay low after snapping the ball for extra points. A Penn State defensive player practiced hurdling over a bent-over center all week and successfully blocked the extra point during the game.
Outcome: A Penn State upset win.
The 1999 Notre Dame football team, if playing a near-perfect game, can beat any team in the country this year. While last week's game proved the Irish potential, last week's end zone antics may prevent the team from matching up against a Florida State or Penn State next New Year's Day. It is a lesson that Notre Dame coaches will most likely not repeat during their tenure under the Golden Dome. It is an event we should remember throughout our lives whenever we search for a sports metaphor to assist us with our careers.
Gary J. Caruso, Notre Dame '73, is currently serving in President Clinton's administration as a Congressional and Public Affairs Director and worked at the U.S. House of Representatives for seventeen years. His column appears every other Friday, and his Internet address is Hottline@aol.com.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Viewpoint Stories for Friday, September 10, 1999