Lessons Schools Can Learn from the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Let me speak the truth for a minute:  June and July are terrible, horrible, no good, very bad months for NFL fans.  There’s LITERALLY nothing worth watching on television.


Life returns with NFL training camps in August.  Guys like me break out our jerseys and start talking trash again — tracking the progress of our team’s rookies and praying that no one blows out a knee or breaks an ankle in practice.  Jonesing for REAL sports, we even tune in to preseason games filled with players who will be cut long before the season starts — including last week’s Bills/Browns matchup, which I’ve now watched twice thanks to the glory of DVR.


Somewhere in the middle of the second half, I started to realize that schools are often run a lot like NFL teams.  Need proof?  Check out these observations:

The Cleveland Browns:  The Browns are currently best known for the fact that they have had nine different head coaches (see: Eric Mangini) and 22 starting quarterbacks (see: Kelly Holcomb) in the past 15 years.  They fail because there is no consistency in leadership at the top of their organization.  Constantly changing directions leaves Browns players and fans frustrated and lost.

The Buffalo Bills: Despite being the BEST NFL FRANCHISE of ALL TIME, the Bills have been darn near terrible for the past 15 years.  That’s largely because we haven’t invested in accomplished head coaches.  Instead, we’ve wasted time hiring well-intentioned yet completely uninspiring guys with no real track record of success (see: Doug Marrone).  Then, we feign surprise when those same leaders struggle with the complexity of the job and fail to move their teams in a positive direction.

The Washington Redskins:  The defining moment for the modern-day Washington Redskins was trading away their entire future for the right to pick Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft.  It was the ultimate “all-in” move, investing everything in a player simply because he fit the fad — athletic quarterbacks that could make plays with their feet — sweeping the NFL at the time.  Of course, their plans have failed miserably — Griffin hasn’t been the same player since a knee injury at the end of his first season — but Washington is so invested that they are unwilling to pull the plug on their failed experiment and find a genuine pocket passer to lead their team.

The New England Patriots:  They are full of supposedly squeaky-clean pretty boys who cheat to win.  Enough said.  (see: Deflategate)

The New York Jets:  The Jets grabbed the national spotlight this month when a second-year defensive end broke the jaw of starting quarterback Geno Smith in a locker room brawl over a $600 plane ticket, proving once again that internal dysfunction over petty disagreements can bring any organization — including a storied NFL franchise in one of America’s largest media markets — to a grinding halt.

Can you see your school and/or district in any of those teams?  Do you fail because you lack stability or refuse to invest in leadership or chase fads or cheat or fight with one another at every turn despite being on the same “team?”

Or is your school functioning — and it is going to PAIN me to say this — like the Pittsburgh Steelers?  The Steelers have been one of the NFL’s most successful franchises for almost 40 years because they avoid the professional traps that have tripped up the Browns and Bills and Redskins and Patriots and Jets.

They’ve had TWO head coaches in the past 15 years — and THREE in the past 46 years.  That kind of organizational stability has allowed the team to pursue succcess with tenacity.  What’s more, the Steelers are committed to the fundamentals of good football.  They run the ball.  They play great defense.  They pay attention to details, fail to make big mistakes, and innovate at the edges of professional football’s box instead of taking the kinds of ridiculous risks that doom other teams.

If schools were anything like the Steelers — if they set a clear direction, remained true to a small handful of fundamental principles, and put in the kind of hard work that it takes to be successful — the critics of our nation’s public schools would quickly become our biggest fans.


(*see what I did there?)


Related Radical Reads:

Leadership Lessons from the 5-9 Chicago Bears

I Wouldn’t Want to Work with Walter Payton

What Can #edpolicy Nation Learn from Andrew Luck?


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  • BillIvey

    Though I’m no NFL fan…

    … and am in fact a WNBA fan (#AlsoASummerLeague), I quite enjoyed reading this. I’m also happy to report that my school doesn’t fit any of these dysfunctional models – any more. We did kind of struggle with heads for a while, but have excellent and stable leadership now and have had for some time.

    Hmm, is there an NFL team that achieves reasonable success despite a relatively lean budget? That might be us! #HopefulChat

    • BillIvey


      Two of our last three Heads of School, both of whom moved us strongly in a progressive and student and faculty voice-focused direction, were women. #PatSummitChat #JenniferWelterChat?

  • Dan Winters

    pittsburgh Steelers


    Great analogy Bill,

    Clear direction

    small number of fundamental principles

    Hard work

    I think that's a recipe for a great school and a pretty good football season.