What W&M football coach Jimmye Laycock taught me about leadership and business

William & Mary football does not come to the tip of the tongue for diehard college football fans, particularly for power conferences such as the SEC and the Big 10 (William & Mary did play Penn State in 1984 and Georgia in 1988!).

But William & Mary has played football for 125 years and has been led by outstanding coaches: Marv Levy who coached the Buffalo Bills to four Super Bowls and Lou Holtz who coached Notre Dame to its last national championship are just two. In addition, the school has produced some top NFL players and a strong cadre of college and professional coaches. In fact, you probably didn’t know that William & Mary currently is tied for the most number of graduates serving as head coaches of NFL teams (Mike Tomlin in Pittsburgh and Sean McDermott in Buffalo).

William & Mary’s current head coach Jimmye Laycock announced earlier this year that he will retire after 39 years. I played for him in the early 1980s, and I still carry the many leadership lessons he taught me.

Coach Laycock is an anomaly in today’s college sports. He coached at the same place for 39 years because that’s what he loved to do. Nick Saban (Alabama) and Dabo Swinney (Clemson) together probably make more money in one year than Coach Laycock made in all of his years coaching at William & Mary. Coach Laycock is also probably the last of a breed of coaches who both played and coached for his alma mater (he actually played QB for both Levy and Holtz) for a combined total of more than 40 years.

Coach Laycock certainly had success on the gridiron and has compiled an outstanding record, winning 248 games in his career (11th most wins for a Division 1 head coach), including five conference titles, 10 NCAA FCS playoff appearances (national semifinalist on two occasions), and 24 winning seasons.

But Coach Laycock is much more than just a football coach. He has been an outstanding leader and teacher of young men for almost 40 years, emphasizing to them the importance of leadership, teamwork, and always doing things the right way. I am grateful to have played for Coach Laycock. Here are some of the important leadership lessons I learned from him:

Play to win; don’t play not to lose – The objective of both is to win, but they are very different approaches to a game, to business, and to life. The former is about taking the initiative, taking thoughtful risks, and putting it all on the line to achieve an important objective. The latter is about being on defense, avoiding risk, and letting the other team take the initiative.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare – We would sometimes run the same play over and over again in practice until we executed it perfectly. Coach Laycock was intentional in practice in putting his teams in every possible game situation he could think of so that they were prepared for anything they would face in an actual game. The team studied film of opponents, looking for tendencies and anything that would give them a game day advantage. There were no shortcuts to being fully prepared. Preparation is also critical in business. The difference between winning and losing is oftentimes very small. The better prepared team usually wins.

A team is only as strong as its weakest link – Admittedly, it has been 36 years, but I remember a time during three-a-day practices when a few of my teammates broke curfew and Coach Laycock heard about it from campus officials. To make a point about the team only being as strong as its weakest link, Coach Laycock called out the offenders and asked them to come stand beside him as the rest of the team ran extra sprints. Talk about making an impression. It is usually the offenders who run extra. Instead, Coach Laycock was making key points about the importance of the team, team leadership, and how a few weak links can bring a team down. Those players never broke curfew again.

Do the little things well – Some football teams are just athletically superior to other teams (think Alabama). But oftentimes the key to being successful is the accumulation of doing a lot of little things well. Coach Laycock emphasized this repeatedly. Execute on the little things exceptionally well and you will build a winning team and organization. This is true in football, in business, and in life.

Be authentic – Coach Laycock’s success on the gridiron led to many overtures and several offers to leave William & Mary and coach at bigger programs. In fact, Coach Laycock actually accepted the Boston College head coaching job and then, after returning home to Williamsburg, changed his mind. Boston College’s second choice and eventual coach, Tom Coughlin, would later go on to coach professionally and win two Super Bowls with the New York Giants. I know Coach Laycock has been teased about this – you could have been a Super Bowl winning coach and made millions of dollars! What if! But Coach Laycock’s authentic self was coaching his alma mater. It is what made him happy. It is what was best for his family. By staying at William & Mary, he was being true to his own values and doing what fulfilled him professionally. Being authentic and your true self is so important to successful servant leadership, whether as a college football coach or as a business leader.

On Nov. 17, Coach Laycock will coach his final game against the University of Richmond. Several hundred of Coach Laycock’s former players are expected to be in attendance. It will be a day of great emotion and a celebration of a remarkable career. While Coach Laycock is certainly proud of his won-loss record and accomplishments on the gridiron, I know he is most proud of leading a program for 39 years that never had even the slightest whiff of scandal and, most importantly, for all the young men in his program who graduated from William & Mary and went on to become husbands, fathers, and leaders in various professions.

Todd Stottlemyer is a longtime technology sector executive and CEO. He played offensive line for Coach Laycock and is a 1985 Phi Beta Kappa graduate of William & Mary.

About the Author

Todd Stottlemyer is the CEO of the Inova Center for Personalized Health.

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