Super Bowl Goes Business School

This year’s 51st installment of the NFL Super Bowl (American football) was a spectacular case study of principles you should/could learn in the best business schools.

Please indulge me this moment to explore what I mean. I accept that there are some of you out there who hate sports analogies. To those, my apologies, but this one is too big to ignore.

Super Duo at Super Bowl
Super Duo at Super Bowl

The New England Patriots took on the Atlanta Falcons. Each team’s back story is compelling in it’s own right, but I’ll save that for another post. Suffice it to say the headline here was whether Patriots duo of Bill Belichick (coach) and Tom Brady (quarterback) could pull off a record setting 5th Super Bowl win.

As the game began, it was clear the Falcons had upset in mind. They came out on fire. It seemed nothing was beyond their reach. The Patriots on the other hand, looked flat and confused. Despite their tenured experience being on this stage, they were the ones who first looked like amateurs. Then the tide turned.

Belichick and the Patriots erased a 25–point deficit in arguably the greatest Super Bowl of all time, for the 5th  title in the legendary head coach’s New England tenure.

Business School Principles

Here are the key things that should be taken from this lesson is business management, leadership, and execution. Then I’ll discuss the details.

  • Planning
  • Preparation
  • People
  • Coaching
  • Execution
  • Heart


Every great business effort includes planning. You make start-up plans, annual plans, quarterly plans, project plans and plans of all kinds. Whether you have a particular method of planning, the presence of the planning discipline is critical.

[shareable]Failing to plan is planning to fail[/shareable]

The Falcons had their plan that relied upon the league leading scoring team’s ability to score at will. They knew they could run and pass with great confidence. They began with a mix of those tools being implemented to start the game.

The Patriots had their plan which usually involves key ways to attack whatever weaknesses Belichick believed he saw in the opponents abilities.

As the game opened, the first quarter was scoreless, with both teams looking more like prize fighters than football players. Then the game exploded with the avalanche of points scored by Atlanta, 21 to be exact before New England was able to put points on the board.

Clearly something was wrong with the Patriot’s plan. As reality set in, there was a need to adjust the plan in mid-course. This is where Belichick does his best work. More on this in the execution section below.


In football preparation is broken into two fundamental parts.

First, there is the basic training and practicing where conditioning, blocking and tackling get done. Players and coaches work on strengths and abilities to fine tune an athlete’s preparation individually. As a team, the squads break up and work on their play calling and execution.

Practice allows plays to be run time and time again until all the players know exactly what they should be doing on each play. They learn each other’s roles so they can harmonize on the team, supporting each other, whether blocking on one play or handling the ball on another play.

There preparation is about repetition so that much of what has to be done is conditioned into the person’s mind and body.

The second part is game preparation. Depending upon the master plan that has been developed for the actual game, the preparation gets tuned to rehearse how that game plan will be used. It might be as simple as some plays are deemed vital to the plan so they get run time and time again in preparation for that week’s game. Other plays are not practiced quite as much.

Just by virtue of making it to the Super Bowl, it can be said both of these teams knew how to prepare for performance at a high level.


The magnitude of organizational effectiveness as demonstrated by Super Bowl contenders is amazing. Front office, coaches, players, and support staff all carry huge weight in making a franchise achieve Super bowl sized greatness.

Yet when the the whistle blows and play begins, the spotlight is on the players and the coaches. The guys actually running the plays on the field make the difference. Having the right person in the right position, running the right play according to the right plan all comes down to the selection of talent.


No one has proven an ability to plug-and-play better than Bill Belichick. Players get hurt. Players come and go. Yet Belichick has developed his own system for player evaluation and selection that is unmatched. The names on the backs of the jerseys change each year, but the success of the organization does not.

Belichick didn’t wait for halftime to begin coaching and making adjustments when he saw the original game plan was not working. He was quickly moving around the sidelines, talking to players, drawing diagrams, and talking to his assistants. He knew changes had to be made and he was making them without waiting for the break.

Time was critical and he didn’t want to wait for the intermission to make his moves.


Both teams were trying to execute their schemes and plans. Players were playing hard, coaches were coaching. Yet one team (the Patriots) was able to execute just a little more perfectly the whole time period of the 60 minute game and into overtime. The other team (Atlanta) suffered a few mental mistakes in the final stages that allowed New England to tie the game, sending it to overtime.

When New England won the coin toss to start overtime, the final outcome could be sudden death if they could score a touchdown.

Here, their mental and physical toughness shined through. They never quit trying. I’m not saying the Falcons quit, because they didn’t, but their effort fell just a few steps short of New England.


For all the technical knowledge about management and leadership, I find heart still wins the day. Heart is not something they usually teach in business school, I know they didn’t at mine. Heart is something you figure out along the way or you get shown how it works by those around you. People who do all of the things above and yet lose heart usually don’t prevail.

The people that stay true to their core, believe in themselves and one another are able to overcome insurmountable odds (like a 25 point football deficit) to win. Julian Edelman, a receiver with the Patriots, made an amazing catch that required intense concentration while arms and legs were flying all around him.

His own training, preparation, skill, and focus combined with his totally committed heart to win allowed him to make that play. It was a critical moment in the game when the Patriots needed to sustain momentum to tie the game before pushing it into overtime. If Edelman had missed that catch, there is no way to know if the Patriots could have kept their drive alive.

Edelman Catch

In 1995 the Houston Rockets were another sports team who overcame improbable odds to win its second NBA championship. When the best of seven series was over and the Rockets had won, their coach Rudy Tomjanovich famously said:

[shareable]Never underestimate the heart of a champion.[/shareable]

Need a coachSummary

You can love or hate sports metaphors. But this year’s Super Bowl is one of the best business schools I’ve heard from in a long time. It was crammed full of meaningful lessons and examples that business titans everywhere can embrace.

You may not win a big fat championship ring or get a bonus check for your athletic skill, but applying some of these lessons will get you over whatever your next goal line may look like.

Introducing the WHY.os. Learn YOUR why, how, and what that drives your passion and motivation.


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