Four factors make two teams champions

Seeing as it's college football's Bowl Week, it seems fitting that we consider how the nation's top two teams - the Auburn Tigers and the Oregon Ducks - rose to the level of championship competition, scheduled for Monday evening in Glendale, AZ.

Let's note first that both teams are led by men in only their second year as head coach of their respective teams. (In fact, no matter which teams wins, the victorious coach will set an NCAA record for quickest rise to the BCS Championship game.) Neither Chip Kelly (Oregon) nor Gene Chizik (Auburn) had particularly distinguished resumes prior to taking the helms of their respective teams.

But each coach put together winning combinations , taking teams from the second tier to the top tier in a hurry. Four major factors contributed to each team's success, each of which provide lessons for the rest of us:

1.  Leadership on the field. It's great to have a genius for a head coach (or a CEO). But real winning teams lead from within. In Auburn's case, Cam Newton emerged as a surprise phenom in his sophomore year, breaking school records in almost every important category for quarterbacks. He hefted the franchise onto his mammoth shoulders and carried Auburn to its perfect (so far) season.

In Oregon's case, LaMichael James, also a sophomore, quietly led the nation in rushing. The 5'10" running back showed that determination and hard work matters more than size.

  • Lesson learned: It's everyone's job to lead.

2. Strategy. The teams each had a goal and a plan. The goal for each was the same:  win each game, one opponent at a time.

The strategy for Oregon was, in a word, speed. Oregon wastes no time setting up and executing plays. Their speedy backs and receivers literally run circles around their opponents.

Auburn's strategy:  surprise. With Newton's previously unknown talent for both running with and throwing the football at any time, opponents are never quite ready for the next play.

  • Lesson learned:  Keep the competition off-balance by staying one step ahead.

3.  Overcoming adversity. Heeding Nietzsche's dictum, what didn't kill these teams (or at least, their championship hopes) made them stronger. Not only does each team play in one of the toughest conferences in the NCAA, but each had to overcome difficult off-the-field distractions.

In the 2010 off-season, Kelly bounced the Ducks' star senior quarterback from the team in response to alleged personal transgressions in his private life. Unknown sophomore Darron Thomas stepped in and strove for excellence rather than glory. In Auburn's case case, Newton became the subject of pay-for-play allegations late in the season that threatened the team's championship hopes. Auburn teammates rallied around Newton and helped each other ride through the difficulties, including impressive wins against perennially tough opponents Alabama and Louisiana State.

  • Lesson learned: Winning teams need compelling challenges to rise to their own level of excellence.

4. Have fun. One feature both teams share:  they really enjoy what they're doing. Chip Kelly in particular defies the head coach stereotypes of either a temperamental screamer or the quiet stoic with his smiling, back-slapping exuberance. Equally entertaining is quarterback Newton's easy nonchalance, his ability to smile even after absorbing a crushing hit from a 300-pound defender.

  • Lesson learned: When you love what you're doing, doing it well is second nature.




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