Warning: at first glance, this post is about sports. Or maybe it’s not about sports. You might have to read past the first paragraph and gauge for yourself.

A couple of weeks ago, Georgia Tech concluded its search for a new basketball coach, selecting Brian Gregory from Dayton. For most Tech fans, that choice was underwhelming, as it appears Gregory is more steak than sizzle. Yes, he’s good. But his team isn’t in the NCAA tournament, and he didn’t come from a major conference. Tech fans have a high-enough view of their program that they think they could have hired a great coach away from another big-name school. So Gregory is bound to crush expectations.

Tech’s athletic director had a choice to make, and it just so happens that it’s the kind of choice any leader makes when it comes to succession planning and search committees. I think sport serves as a fishbowl, bringing certain choices into the open that often happen behind the scenes. The choices Tech faced, stated in general leadership terms for greater application:

1. Covet a shiny object. There are a number of “Cinderella teams” who crashed the NCAA tournament this year. Every time Butler or VCU won, the dollars projected for a bigger school to steal their hot coach rose significantly. Yet who’s to say their recent success in a smaller organization would translate to a regular winning program? Most organizations can point to people who, by their movement in an organization, are bound to be noticed. Yet there are concerns. For someone who has been successful at every level, what happens when they face adversity? What happens if their inertia collides with the Peter principle and they exceed the limits of their competence? Have they been adequately tested? Can they handle the increase in complexity and profile? How much risk is there in promoting the latest trend? One area to watch for is managing expectations. This leader better win, and soon. With all sizzle, he’s likely to win spectacularly or fail spectacularly.

This week, I read the story of David and Goliath again. David’s qualifications for taking on Goliath were that he had defeated lions and bears. King Saul had a decision to make: promote or protect this young, eager leader.

2. Stay safe with experience. In contrast, the safe choice looks attractive. He’s slow and steady. He’s never stood out as a rising star, but he’s also had few down years. Mr. Consistency has been successful at just about every level and is solid in the fundamentals. He’s likely a workaholic, accomplishing success through hard work and effort. He might be boring, but he’s put in the years and earned the right to be considered for the position.

My biggest concerns here are whether the person has the passion and energy to motivate followers and the courage necessary to lead change. If the organization has systemic challenges, it needs a leader, not a manager. Sometimes the safe choice is the biggest risk. In Saul’s case, the safe choices were hiding. The organization needed a fool who would “rush in where angels fear to tread.”

3. Stay close to home. In Georgia Tech’s case, a duo of former players indicated an interest and built a strong enough argument to at least get interviewed. Willing to work for less money and put their heart and soul into the job, home grown leaders have the opportunity to tap the culture and win over the fan base. In this case, both lacked head coaching experience but had been successful at lower levels. There’s risk, because they’re unproven, but patience among the fan base, who is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.

This is the kind of leader Jim Collins calls a Level 5 Leader: someone from within who is passionate about the organization and stubbornly wills it to success. In a sense, David tapped into that passion. His drive came from the fact that Goliath mocked his God. Nobody should get away with that!

4. Go with reluctance. In the person who never sought the job, you find humility and a low salary. While similar to the passionate leader in being homegrown, there’s a distinct difference: this person showed no initiative, nor did he dream that he would be considered. My concern is that someone who never thinks himself a leader and doesn’t take personal development seriously. He might do a competent job, but he’s not interested in growing as a leader so may never take the organization any further. When adversity comes, he may buck responsibility and wither. On the other hand, expectations are low, and followers are pulling for his success, so he may be given a long honeymoon period.

We absolutely love the Rags to Riches story, and we have a strange desire for a leader who stands up and says he never wanted the position. But the risk is that he’ll burn out because it’s a bad fit or quit because of the stress. Or perhaps he’ll turn down your offer in the first place.

There are lots of examples in the Bible of reluctant leaders who begged God not to send them, but David wasn’t one of them. I love the way he verifies the reward before taking the risk with Goliath: “What will a man get for killing this Philistine?” While they weren’t his primary motivation, David didn’t refuse the attractive salary package (the king’s hot daughter and a tax exemption for life).

So, which is the right strategy? It depends. The fact is that every organization is different, and every organization is at a different stage when looking for a coach or president. In Georgia Tech’s case, they needed fundamentals, consistency and a low salary. That led them to replace a coach who looked uninspired with an experienced coach who has hardly excited the fan base. In another setting, they may well have made a different choice.

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In an attempt to get inspired to write regularly again, let me take a moment to jot down some random Friday thoughts and see if I can tie them to leadership.

It seems that every time a long-time football coach retires, he talks about how he saw his role as a developer of young men. Many certainly have. I can think of a number who have left a long wake of young men who were having trouble with school or the law and turned them into students and men of character who could succeed in life. If that’s true, then football coaches are indeed among the best of models for leadership.

That brings me back to the word, “de-commit.” It’s a word that’s being more and more widely used in the world of college athletics recruiting. I saw it again in the paper this morning. An athlete commits to one school but circumstances change or the athlete, claiming youth and immaturity, simply changes his mind. He then “de-commits” and then commits to another school.

But “de-commit” is not a word. Instead, let’s call a spade a spade: the athlete is breaking his word. The reasons might be defensible, but his promise is no longer dependable. What makes it worse is that coaches don’t stop recruiting someone when they commit somewhere, because they can always de-commit. What a horrible starting point if the object is to develop men of character. That’s what was so refreshing about this story last year about Paul Johnson, coach at Georgia Tech:

A quarterback from Tampa made a commitment to Georgia Tech but wanted to take a visit to Auburn. Perhaps he realized he hadn’t taken full advantage of the lavish attention poured out on recruits during their official visits. Perhaps he wanted to keep his options open. Perhaps he was having doubts. Either way, Johnson warned him that he’d lose his scholarship offer if he visited another school. He decided to call Johnson’s bluff, and Johnson let him go. I think the most remarkable part of the story is that this episode made the news.

If my boys were interested in playing football, I’d put Georgia Tech a little higher on my list because of this story. I desire that my kids grow up to be men of character. And coaches like Paul Johnson know how to build men.

Jeff Jagodzinski was fired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday. For those who haven’t heard of him, let me fill you in. “Coach Jags” spent two years coaching Boston College and did so well that NFL head coaching positions seemed attainable. That was clearly his ambition, and the timing must have felt right.

The problem was that Boston College thought it violated his contract, so they warned him that if he even interviewed with the New York Jets, he would be fired. Jags took a gamble that they were bluffing… and ended up looking for a new job. He ended up with neither. But it still worked out for him: in January, he was hired as an assistant coach in the NFL. He made it to the upper levels, just not his dream job.

Now Jagodzinski has been fired from two jobs in 10 months. That’s gotta hurt the resume.

What can we learn from him? Ambition can be a blessing and a curse. That drive for achievement has to be tempered with wisdom, council and patience. It’s always better to be asked to take a position than to ask for it. See Luke 14, especially verse 11:

For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

I hope Jagodzinski learns from George O’Leary, coach of the UCF Golden Knights. O’Leary had a similar moment: a chance to jump to his dream job at Notre Dame. When that dream came crashing down after two days because of an error in judgment early in his career (stacking his resume), UCF eventually gave him a chance. He’s now diligently working his way back. He hasn’t had a lot of bigger schools calling, but he doesn’t seem discontent where he is. He’s pouring himself into his job and his student-athletes, and I think his reputation is recovering. Jags looks younger than O’Leary. I hope he can follow the same route. Perhaps the right opportunity will come around again someday… if he just has patience.

That’s the view from the back row, as football season begins — the most wonderful season of all.