Monday, September 29, 2008

T.O. Undoes a Year of Image Building

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

I was never one of the believers.

For the past several weeks I sat back and listened to the chatter about how the Dallas Cowboys were the favorites to win the Super Bowl - or that at the least they were clearly the class of the NFC. I also heard quite a bit about how Terrell Owens had transformed himself and become a good citizen.

This is the same team that relies on a quarterback who seems to have enormous physical tools combined with an extremely fragile psyche and an inability to maintain his concentration in critical situations as well as Owens, one of professional sports' most talented and volatile athletes.

It's amazing how much of a difference a day can make. After a surprising 26-24 loss to the upstart Redskins yesterday, suddenly the Cowboys are being portrayed a team with internal issues and defensive shortcomings. Clearly Dallas still is one of the teams to beat in the NFC. They have big, strong offensive and defensive lines and depth at every offensive skill position. Yes, they have issues on the defensive side of the ball, but what NFL team doesn't have deficiencies at this point? The demise of the Cowboys is as much of a media overreaction as were the sentiments that Owens was a changed man.

I'll admit that over the past year Owens had made strides as a person and a teammate. It appeared as though he was trying to build his image. He hadn't complained about how he was being used, hadn't pointed fingers at teammates or coaches following losses, hadn't been involved in any off-field issues and was generally keeping a low profile off the field while putting up amazing numbers on the field. But, like anyone fighting internal issues, people with a track record tend to fall back into their past behavior patterns when faced with emotionally charged or otherwise stressful situations.

The guy who had torn two teams apart and publicly ripped two quarterbacks who had helped him put up Pro Bowl numbers was a time-bomb waiting to go off. I knew it. I'm just not sure why the "experts" didn't know it. The worst part for Owens was that all of the work he had done to rebuild his tarnished image went out the window with one five-minute press conference.

Following the loss to the Redskins, despite his team's still-impressive 3-1 record and the fact that he had touched the football nine times in the game and that the ball was thrown his way on another 10 occasions, Owens decided to complain about not being used enough. This despite a first half in which he was blanketed by Shawn Springs, a solid cornerback who is not quite the player he used to be, to the point that he appeared to give up on more than one occasion. And despite the fact that he flat-out dropped one ball and didn't go after another pass for fear of getting hit.

Owens was seemingly targeted on almost every offensive play in the third quarter, including a touchdown pass, as the Cowboys rallied from a halftime deficit. But as the Redskins seized control and the time was ticking down, Owens could be seen on the sidelines by himself with a look of disgust on his face. You could just sense that something was burning inside him and that it was not going to end well. He looked like a kid who had dessert taken away.

With the cameras rolling in the locker room Owens decided to question the game plan and express his frustration at not being utilized more even though he was featured more than any other player on his team. Because of a few choice words spoken out of frustration after a difficult loss, suddenly a team that had been penciled into the Super Bowl was thrown into the midst of an unnecessary controversy with the regular season only one-fourth complete.

Owens' comments have been replayed and analyzed by every talking football head in the country over the past 30 hours or so. He has been chastised, questioned and told by former players to "just shut up." One five-minute interview in which he let his emotions and built-up frustration get the best of him has undone more than a year's worth of time and effort spent to improve his image. Since T.O. seems to struggle with this lesson, perhaps other professional athletes can learn from his mistakes. Someone should.

Body Language Comes Through Loud and Clear

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

Professional athletes, by and large, are some of the most competitive people in the world. They have to be. Without that type of drive, commitment to excellence and desire to achieve success, they would not have ascended to where they are. Competitive or not, with thousands of people in the stadium watching and hundreds of thousands or millions viewing in high def, these guys have to gain a better understanding what their body language says about them.

Football, in particular, is the ultimate team sport. You are truly only as strong as your weakest link. If all 11 players are not in sync on a particular play, the result can be disaster - a loss of yards, a turnover or even an injury. With that being the case, why do so many of the higher-profile athletes show open disgust every time a teammate blows an assignment. If you are a quarterback and ended up on your back at the end of a play, what makes you think that publicly expressing your displeasure with the lineman who missed the block is going to make that player perform better the next time?

Leaders don't shake their heads, raise their palms to the sky, belittle teammates or stare down those who aren't performing to the best of their ability. A leader picks his teammate up, pats him on the back and says, "You're better than that. Let's get them next time." Leaders rally the team instead of beating it down. Leaders don't show negative emotion through their facial expressions or actions. Leaders exude confidence in themselves and their team and never let that confidence waiver publicly. Leaders are attractive to general managers, coaches, businesses and fans.

In the past 48 hours I've watched numerous NFL players excude negative body language on the field. Fans pay big money to watch millionaires run around like little boys, so they have every right to express their displeasure when a player or team's effort is subpar. Personally, I don't like negative or bandwagon fans - many seemed to be at Heinz Field tonight, by the way - any more than I like a professional athlete who is a crybaby or a finger-pointer. Still, those fans work hard all week for the right to express their opinion, and this is a country built upon that very unalienable right. Players, especially players with talent who play in traditional leadership positions, have the same right, but they need to be more guarded about when and where they express that displeasure. There is a time and a place for everything. The time is not during the game and the place is not in direct view of thousands or millions of people.

Ben Roethlisberger certainly was being hung out to dry earlier tonight against the Baltimore Ravens. He had no time to throw and was taking a beating for the second straight week. Still, his head-shaking at teammates on the field and coaches on the sidelines, smiling when he threw an interception as if that could never happen to a player of his caliber and general look of disgust in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage wasn't helping the situation. Despite the intense pressure from the Ravens, for the second week in a row Roethlisberger was taking too long to set up, was completely immobile in the pocket and was not making quick reads. And, on top of that, he wasn't adapting. He wasn't dumping the ball off, calling appropriate audibles or trying to get rid of the ball more quickly.

So, while his teammates weren't doing their jobs, Big Ben - as the leader of the offense - certainly was doing more to hurt the situation in terms of his reaction and performance than he was to help it. In Roethlisberger's defense, he often plays hurt and does hang in the pocket despite absorbing punishing blows. If he can combine those leadership qualities with a little better on-field demeanor, who knows how could he might become.

Another example of bad body language came courtesy of Donovan McNabb. McNabb never has been considered a great passer. But, at times he has been a great quarterback because of his athletic ability and knack for moving around long enough to give his teammates time to get open or to run for a big game. Over the years McNabb has taken his team to multiple NFC championship games and one Super Bowl. He has been a great player, but has he been a great leader? A great teammate?

McNabb has cost his team many games over the years because of poor decisions and careless interceptions. Yet, more times than not, when he makes a mistake he gives the impression that the receiver ran the wrong route or otherwise crossed him up. He did it again last night when rookie receiver Desean Jackson was bumped off course while running a pattern. McNabb threw the ball to where Jackson should have been - even though it was pretty clear that he had been re-routed, so to speak - and the result was an ugly interception. McNabb threw his hands in the air as if to say, "Where were you going?" And then he hung his head before realizing that he better try to keep the defensive player from returning the pick for a touchdown.

Jackson is a rookie. McNabb is a veteran. He is a veteran who has had his share of ups and downs. The Eagles haven't had a playmaker with Jackson's ability on the outside for a long, long time. McNabb should make this kid his best friend and nurture the relationship for the good of the team. He should be a mentor. A well-placed pat on the back or arm around the shoulder and some fatherly advice would be better for the young player, the team and McNabb's image. Donovan McNabb is a good guy with a lot of talent who has won a lot of football games. He's never been able to understand why he's not liked better in Philly. Maybe he should start studying the game film for different reasons.

If you are an average talent who works hard, is a team player and gives 100 percent every time out, you can become a crowd favorite. If you are a player with great talent who does the same you can become an icon. If you are an enormous talent who is perceived as selfish, you may spend an entire productive career bouncing from team to team wondering why you are underappreciated by your teammates, the media, the fans and the business community.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Richt, Coaches Should Take Responsibility for Team Performance

By Scott Lowe
API Management & Marketing

What is it with coaches - specifically big-time college football and basketball coaches - that makes them think they are smarter than everyone else?

Don't they realize that other than the loyal students and alums who blindly support their programs they often come off as arrogant and ignorant when interviewed during and after important games? Why is every question asked by a reporter who "never played the game at this level" a stupid question? (Believe me, there are more than enough stupid questions that get asked, but sometimes those questions can actually be a lot easier to deal with than the more informed and challenging variety.)

The latest example came tonight during Alabama's throttling of Georgia between the hedges in Athens. Nick Saban's Crimson Tide program still has a ways to go and many difficult SEC battles to fight before it can officially be considered a true national contender. There are just too many young, inexperienced players filling gaps for 'Bama to be taken seriously - yet. But there's no question that from a football-intellect standpoint Saban prepares as well or better than any other coach in the country. He had his team as ready to play mentally, physically and emotionally as any I've seen this year.

Georgia coach Mark Richt, who leads one of the nation's most talented programs, came up short in the preparation chess match. His team clearly didn't take Alabama seriously and came out flat en route to a 31-0 halftime deficit at home. Richt's team had no answers for the fired-up Tide, which seemed to have read the Bulldog play book cover to cover. As much as Alabama bewildered Richt and his troops during the first half, the Georgia coach proved incapable of handling some soft-ball questions from ESPN's Holly Rowe going into the locker room before halftime.

Richt had every reason to be upset with his team and disappointed by their performance going into the intermission. But, as a coach, when your team isn't ready to play a huge conference game on national TV, you have to take some responsibility for that performance.

Big-time college and professional coaches need to understand that it's diffcult times like this - when nothing is going right and they find themselves on the short end of an old-fashioned butt-kicking - that they can earn points in the public opinion forum. We live in a country where no one takes accountability. People in positions of authority often accept credit for successes and blame others for failures. The majority of Americans aren't in positions of authority, so they have become accustomed to this type of behavior and extremely cynical toward those who hold the power. It is refreshing for most of us to see a coach under pressure on a national stage stand up and say, "We weren't ready to play and didn't perform at a level that is acceptable, but it's my team and I have to take responsibility for that. We are going to do everything we can in the second half to get back in this game and make our fans proud."

That type of response earns immediate respect among players, fans and the general public. It's what a leader says. The coach has every right to admonish his team in the locker room, to question their effort and commitment and to send a message to the players that they are accountable for their performance on the field. What happens in the family stays in the family. This approach is acceptable and applauded when it gets results. But more important, when paired with the behavior described above in which the coach publicly takes responsibility, it elicits respect from team members, media members, students, alumni and the population at large. The coach is viewed as a leader, a person of character and "somebody I'd like to go to war with."

Unfortunately, and Richt is a prime example, many coaches at the collegiate level prefer to act like they are the smartest person in the room at all times - especially when it comes to the media. Probably sensing that Richt was on edge after his team's listless first-half performance, Rowe asked safe, but reasonable questions about his quarterback's uneven play, his team's body language and how Richt would help his squad regain it's confidence heading into the second half. Richt's response was to act like those were the dumbest questions he'd ever heard, telling Rowe that he wasn't in charge of his quarterback's body language and asking her if she was analyzing it. Then, when she told him that she was referring to his defense (he hadn't even listened to the question), he got irritated and told her, "We just need to get after their ass," before turning from her and running off the field.

Rowe could have come out and said that his team stunk in the first half and asked him how it was possible that they weren't ready to play in such an important matchup. But, understanding the emotion involved and the dire situation the coach was in, she chose to lob a few beach balls up there for him to pummel. Instead of being thankful for the easy questions and taking accountability, he came off looking like a sore loser and a baby. His use of the word "ass," while not inappropriate in a locker room, also portrayed him as someone who doesn't understand that when you lead a nationally recognized athletic program, everything that you do or say can impact positively or negatively on how you are perceived.

In the grand scheme of things, from a business and personal perspective, this is just one of many football games that Mark Richt will coach. He may not always coach a team that is so talented. He may not always be in a situation where his program is recognized as one of the nation's elite and his job is secure. There might be a time when he is trying to find work and win back some of the respect he and his program currently enjoy. When that day comes, if he had handled this situation in front of the nation in a more appropriate manner, he would have made a positive impression on someone in a position to give him another opportunity to prove himself. But if I'm an athletic director, after witnessing Richt's performance on the field and in front of the camera, I'd probably say to myself, "That guy doesn't coach my football team."

Candid interviews that are full of insight and humor and expose someone's personality can be great for a coach's reputation, but temper tantrums in front of the nation that belittle others don't do much for people these days. Mark Richt may be a good guy who let his competitiveness get the best of him. But maybe, just maybe, he's a poor leader who isn't suited to mold young men. I can't make that judgment based on this one situation, but that seed has been planted in my mind...and I'm sure that I'm not the only one.

All-Pro Image - Management and Marketing is a sports management and marketing firm that specializes in assisting athletes and coaches with image building, brand building and marketing. API also runs its own branded events and is contracted to manage events for other entities. API has been hired to run the inaugural BIG EAST/Big Ten Baseball Challenge February 20-22, 2009 in St. Petersburg/Clearwater, FL. For more information please contact Scott Lowe at