By Lyle Fitzsimmons
A 77-year-old Texas native, Grant Teaff took over the American Football Coaches Association in 1994 after 30 combined seasons as head football coach at McMurry University (1960-65), Angelo State University (1969-71) and Baylor University (1972-92). His teams won 170 games overall, including 128 at Baylor–where he coached in eight bowl games, won two Southwest Conference titles, was named the conference’s coach of the year six times and AFCA’s National Coach of the Year in 1974.
Teaff has also written five books largely focused on leadership, including “I Believe,” “Winning,” “Seasons of Glory,” “Coaching in the Classroom” and “Grant Teaff with the Master Coaches.”
ASSOCIATION ADVISER: In looking at your career from end to end, it’s clear that you’ve always had a tendency to be in leadership positions. Where in particular do you think that spark and that philosophy came from?
GRANT TEAFF: My foundation for leadership was grounded in several areas. I was taught a particular value system by my family that largely became responsible for who I am and the things that I’ve done. I put myself in positions where integrity and honesty are valued, because they are concepts that were drilled into me and became my foundation.
AA: Why, in your view, do some people mature into leaders while others are followers?
GT: In my case, it was a natural progression. For me, I think being a leader was a combination of coming from the background I came from and being taught to be the right kind of person who would do the right thing and be aggressive toward whatever my goals were. With that mindset, it became natural to be a leader whether it was in basketball, football or the student body.
AA: How would you characterize your leadership style?
GT: I believe in inclusive leadership. I’m very big on giving responsibility and expecting results. People need to have input into the situations where they’re involved from day to day, and, if the team accepts that ownership, it creates a better team that’s more focused on its overall goals and more motivated to reach them. I’m very big on goal setting, too. If you know where you’re going, it’s a lot easier to find ways to get there.
AA: What were your goals when you took over AFCA?
GT: At the beginning, I took two months to go through and evaluate every aspect of our operation and the things we did, so when I took over and presented to the board I had 20 major goals. That’s been where we’ve come from ever since and I’m proud to say we’ve accomplished every one of them. The association was based in a strip mall in Orlando, Fla. and had three full-time employees. Now we’ve grown into a national headquarters facility and we have 13 employees, plus two more who work outside the office. Looking back, it was a matter of establishing goals and then getting buy-in from the staff to make those goals collective.
AA: Was it difficult going from the coaching side of the profession to the association and business side? How does an incoming leader best go about getting buy-in from the existing staff members, some of whom may feel they’re more of an authority than the new executive?
GT: By the time I got to our association, I was an authority because I’d made myself an authority. So, no matter what it is that you’re doing or getting in to, you have to come in prepared with your own personal perceptions and recognition of what can be. It’s important for a new leader to recognize where the team is at, and that’s a product of being honest and realistic about a situation. People will be drawn to that and respond to it.
AA: You’ve said your upbringing was hugely responsible for how you developed as a leader. Is it strictly one’s background that matters, or can leadership skills be learned along the way regardless of your background?
GT: I give a lot of credit to my family for nurturing those things in me, but even if I hadn’t had that background I think it still would have been possible. The end results are the key, no matter what the circumstances that brought a person there. If one truly wants to master leadership, it can be done. The fundamentals can be grown and I’m completely convinced that the desire to become a leader is the most important factor. You can work at it. You can implement it. It’s one thing to have knowledge, but every bit as important is the implementation.
AA: Several walks of life are full of people who credit participation in sports as the foundation for what they’ve taken to other fields, and, in several cases, for the successes they’ve had. Do you agree that sports are an ideal environment for honing skills useful later in life?
GT: My greatest asset is the experience I’ve had in sports. That’s where I learned about success and defeat, which is exactly what real life is—being able to handle success and defeat. Defeat is defeat. Victory is victory. You can learn from both and how to handle them. And looking back, leader after leader had that sort of connection with sports. I believe you can learn from every adversity you’re confronted with in life. As a football coach and a player, you’re confronted by losing on a weekly basis.
As the country has felt some anguish recently and people have been struggling, those with that experience have an added gift that tells you losing isn’t the end, and if you apply yourself with the right attitude, it can be overcome. Everyone knows it’s not easy and circumstances are 10,000 times worse than losing a game, but it’s the mental concepts that can be developed from playing [competitive sports] that will be a benefit.
AA: Tell me about the newest initiative at your association that you’re most dedicated to.
GT: To me, it’s an important opportunity for our association to bore down to those issues that children are dealing with on a daily basis. A lot of kids in a lot of situations are impacted because they don’t have a positive role model at home. The statistics are staggering as to what happens to those kids. As coaches, we may not be able to solve the problem, but what we can do is create a way so coaches can get help on how to handle it. We’ll take suggestions from experts in the various fields—whether we’re discussing drugs and alcohol, or violence against women—and we’ll lean on our most experienced coaches in the same way we do when it comes to coaching football. Our coaches will be our primary resource.
Lyle Fitzsimmons is an editor at Naylor's Gainesville, Fla. headquarters. He came to Naylor in 2007 after nearly 20 years as a newspaper reporter and a magazine editor. Sports-wise, he has completed two full marathons and three half marathons.
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