.NET Q & A: James Lavin

Wondering how the Seahawks (and other teams) can fend off the malaise brought about if there is not action taken in the face of inevitable change? An author by the name of James Lavin (and the team he loves) just might have the answers...

All year long, rumors have been flying like Peyton Manning touchdown passes. Speculation (the sports fan’s most popular sport) runs rampant. However, here’s what we know:

When their 2004 season ends (whenever it ends for them), the Seattle Seahawks’ organization might blow up like a potato in a microwave.

Bob Whitsitt could be gone. Or, Mike Holmgren could be gone. Ray Rhodes could be vacating the office from which the NFL’s most penetrable prevent schemes originate. Matt Hasselbeck could be leaving (and apparently, it's affected his season horribly!) Shaun Alexander could be leaving (and apparently, that’s the reason he’s playing better than ever!) Walter Jones, Chike Okeafor, Ken Lucas…the list goes on and on. So many of the Seahawks’ coaches, executives and marquee players could be replaced next season that one could indeed need a program just to get the names right.

Here’s what we need to remember – in the National Football League, this sort of mass decampment isn’t all that unusual. In fact, the New England Patriots had a similarly overwhelming set of options to consider as the new millennium drew near. Five years later, we’re all well aware of how well THEY handled it.

So…last Monday, I found it interesting when I happened to receive, quite out of the blue, an e-mail from a man by the name of James Lavin. Mr. Lavin was contacting me to tout a book he had written and self-published, entitled “Management Secrets of the New England Patriots”.

And immediately, he had a captive audience in this writer. I’ve made no secret of my admiration when it comes to the way the Patriots do business, and given all the uncertainty surrounding our beloved Seahawks, I thought it might be an interesting and instructive dissertation if I could interview Mr. Lavin, and share his observations on how a team can come from disorganization and dissent, pull themselves up through the NFL’s middle class using sound business and motivational practices, and land in rarefied air.

My second motivation? Put simply, “Management Secrets of the New England Patriots” is just a great book. Having read and enjoyed other football-as-a-metaphor-for-life books such as “The Packer Way” by Ron Wolf, “Winning the NFL Way” by Bob LaMonte (Mike Holmgren’s agent) and “Think Like A Champion” by Mike Shanahan, I can say that “Management Secrets of the New England Patriots” is as comprehensive and well-written a book as you can find on this subject. In addition to the economics Ph.D. he earned at Stanford, Mr. Lavin also holds degrees in political science (A.B., Harvard, magna cum laude), economics (M.Sc., London School of Economics), and East Asian studies (M.A., Stanford), and it was his intention to merge his studies of high-performance organizations and his obsession with his favorite team. This he has done most admirably.

And fortunately, he likes to talk about his new book as much as he enjoys discussing his beloved Patriots. Just to whet the appetite, here are several excerpts from the book:

View samples with Adobe Reader 5 or 6 (download here):

Table of contents (6 of 6 pages)

Praise for the Patriots (4 of 4 pages)

Preface (10 of 10 pages)

A Championship Organization (5 of 23 pages)

Good Players... Great Team (5 of 18 pages)

Two Super Bowl Victories (5 of 15 pages)

Team (5 of 50 pages)

Acquiring Talent (5 of 89 pages)

Mentality (5 of 82 pages)

Competing and Disciplining (5 of 20 pages)

Bill Belichick (5 of 32 pages)

Index (6 of 6 pages)

Take heart, Seahawk fans…with thoughtful business practices and sound football decision-making, our team can also ride out the turmoil and come out stronger!

Or not. But at least the template is there…

.NET: How did the idea for the book come about?

Lavin: I grew up cheering for the Patriots and am astounded by what they have accomplished since Bill Belichick took over in 2000. I was addicted to reading every news article and realized the overlap between my love for the Patriots and my interest in organizational behavior. While pursuing my economics Ph.D. at Stanford, I researched "high performance work organizations." I am very interested in why some firms rely heavily on command-and-control and rules while others empower employees and rely on their discretion. Too much bureaucracy and too many arbitrary rules drive good people nuts. Conversely, too much freedom leads some employees to become lazy and dedicated employees to become demotivated by the lazy ones around them. Belichick's organization brilliantly avoids both extremes by avoiding arbitrary rules, hiring only self-motivated, competitive individuals, and establishing and holding players to high performance standards. And the competitive players hold one another to high standards. There were so many obvious business lessons that I knew I could write a successful book...and writing it would give me a great excuse to feed my Patriots news addiction.

.NET: What was your objective when you began this process?

Lavin: I wanted to write a book that appealed not only to Patriots fans and NFL fans in general but to an even wider audience. I believe anyone who understands the Patriots' story will feel inspired and impressed by what an apparently motley collection of unheralded individuals who play passionate football as a team have accomplished. I also wanted to dig beyond the WHAT to understand the WHY and HOW. I hoped to write a book that a business school professor might assign in her/his management course. Companies, non-profits, and football teams are all organizations. And the Patriots are a real-life exemplar of an organization that follows much of the advice of the management experts I most admire, like Peter Drucker and Jim Collins.

.NET: What would you like prospective readers to know about your book?

Lavin: The Patriots' story is so inspiring and informative that I need two volumes to share it with readers. But please don't assume that you can't enjoy Volume 1 without Volume 2. Both books stand on their own, especially Volume 1, which covers the Patriots' achievements, teamwork, personnel acquisition, mentality, competition and discipline, and Bill Belichick's personal growth and philosophies. Volume 2 will emphasize training, communicating, tactics, strategy/planning, motivating, marketing, and 2004 and beyond.

.NET: What was the process of writing and how long did the book take to complete?

Lavin: I decided to write this book in May of 2004, but I already knew a great deal about the team and had already started collecting material. For much of 2004, I have read everything available about the Patriots. Volume 1 was largely complete by late September, but it took me several more months to study the publishing process, learn to create my own book cover, understand fonts and book layout, build my website, etc. Writing the text was hardly the end of the process. Fortunately for me, the project is not over. I'm very excited about Volume 2, which exists as a draft but needs more work.

.NET: Did you have access to the organization, i.e., did you do interviews?

Lavin: Patriots players and Bill Belichick have given thousands of public interviews. When I began this project, I planned to exhaust public information sources, write a first draft, and then approach the Patriots to fill in any gaps in my knowledge. As the months rolled on, I was overwhelmed with so much great material that my "book" became far too long for one book. I split it into two volumes and focused on editing the first volume (which is still a long book!). So there's obviously a lot of public material. And it's all great stuff because everyone in the organization "gets it." Much of the material is humorous and/or insightful quotations from players, coaches, executives, and owners. My book is a compendium, synthesis, and analysis of thousands of details about the team as revealed by statements from those within the organization, though I have never personally met anyone in the organization.

What was the best story you found? The most poignant?

Lavin: There are so many about this team. Tom Brady is a remarkable man who really makes those around him practice and play much better. And his off-field character blows me away. The story of Brady putting his life on hold to stay with Charlie Weis' wife while Weis was having "routine" surgery that turned into a near-death experience was certainly poignant. It also epitomizes that the Patriots are a true "family." Everyone respects and looks out for everyone else.

.NET: What was the funniest story you uncovered?

Lavin: It actually involves then-Seahawks free agent tight end Christian Fauria. He had bet his father-in-law that the Rams would crush the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. He thought he was stealing his father-in-law's money. But when he saw the Patriots emerge onto the field as a team rather than one-by-one as individuals, he KNEW he had lost his bet and tried to weasel his way out of it. He realized he had completely ignored the power of teamwork. And Fauria decided instantly that if he had a chance to become a Patriot, he would grab it. Two years later, Fauria's Patriots won Super Bowl XXXVIII.

.NET: Did you come away from this project having learned things about the team that you didn’t know before?

Lavin: I learned a ton. I didn't realize how funny these guys are, including Bill Belichick. That's one secret to their great chemistry. No one takes himself too seriously, and no one is afraid to call out a teammate (or even a coach) for sub-standard performance. I was also extremely impressed by the creativity of players like Ty Law and Rodney Harrison when it came to the invention of new training techniques. Most people would assume only coaches innovate new training methods.

.NET: Bill Belichick had one previous tenure as a head coach - with the Cleveland Browns from 1991 to 1995. What is the primary difference between Belichick in Cleveland (where his tenure is commonly seen as a failure) and Belichick in New England? What do you think he learned from his time in Cleveland?

Lavin: Great question! In the final chapter of the book, "Bill Belichick: Development of a Coaching Legend", I address this in a section titled "Genius or Moron?" I quote Belichick's brilliant New York Times op-ed piece addressed to the winner of Super Bowl XXXVII: "The Smart Coach/Moron Coach Meter... can be very moody." Belichick's "failure" in Cleveland is completely overblown. He was just 39 when he took over, and he made some serious early mistakes (esp. trying to copy Bill Parcells without Parcells' charm). But he assembled an astounding staff in Cleveland (including two assistants, Kirk Ferentz and Nick Saban, who have both since won NCAA Coach of the Year honors), a topic I will address further in Volume 2. Every single member of that staff agrees that Belichick inherited an atrocious football team and set the franchise on a path toward a Super Bowl victory. The Browns became the Ravens and did indeed win a Super Bowl a few years after Belichick was ignominiously fired. That franchise continued to be run by many whom Belichick had mentored, such as Ozzie Newsome. Also, Belichick's 1994 Browns defeated the Patriots, ironically coached by Parcells, in a playoff game.

1995 started quite well until Art Modell ripped the heart out of Cleveland and Belichick's players by announcing that he would uproot the team. No one who was there holds 1995 against Belichick. The trendline in Cleveland was quite positive. Having said that, Belichick himself admits he was wiser in 2000 than he was in 1991. In Cleveland, Belichick learned how to delegate more and learned that he had to find self-motivated players willing to push themselves as hard as Belichick pushes himself. Belichick requires smart, blue-collar players. He cannot work with prima donnas and has zero tolerance for lazy players. Part of his maturation was better understanding the kinds of players his coaching style requires.

.NET: How do you think the 2004 Patriots will fare down the stretch?

Lavin: I would have been shocked if the Patriots had not made the playoffs. Now, they would need to win three straight games over top teams (perhaps the Colts, Steelers, and Eagles) to repeat as champions. Can they? Of course. Will they? Who knows? The salary cap and professionalism of coaching and scouting makes domination impossible in today's NFL. On any given Sunday, any team can lose to any other team, as the Patriots recently proved against the Dolphins. But I would never bet against the Patriots, not even after all the injuries they have sustained and not even on the road in Pittsburgh. They usually find a way to prevail. But no one can win 'em all. If they do win three Super Bowls in four seasons, it would be an off-the-charts amazing achievement in this league engineered for parity.

.NET: With offensive coordinator Charlie Weis headed to Notre Dame and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel likely to get serious postseason inquiries from teams in need of head coaches, how do you think Belichick and the Patriot organization will revamp their system? How much of a hit will Weis' departure be? How do you think the team will fare in 2005 and beyond?

Lavin: Belichick will do everything possible to promote someone from inside the organization. The Patriots use complex schemes on both sides of the ball, and an outsider would require time to adjust. Also, promoting internally encourages effort and rewards loyalty. Eric Mangini (who a year ago spurned an offer to become the Raiders' defensive coordinator) is probably the man if Romeo departs. Mangini is the guy who suggested this off-season trying out Troy Brown on defense for an emergency, so he's a pretty creative young man. Weis is an excellent coach, especially in teaching younger players. Virtually every young player who had Weis as a position coach (a list that includes Ben Coates, Curtis Martin, Terry Glenn, and Tom Brady) played superbly in the years that Weis coached them. Having said that, Belichick always grooms replacements at every position, and his coaching staff is no exception. Weis himself started off in the NFL by breaking down film for Belichick. I believe Weis said he was basically treated like "a graduate student" his first year.

Belichick is tough on everyone until they prove their mettle. Any assistant who has spent several years in the Patriots system has proven himself and would likely do a good job at the next level. The Patriots also demand that everyone share his knowledge with everyone else, so Weis has few secret jewels locked up in his head. He's also a loyal guy, so he will try to transfer whatever knowledge he has to his successor.

The basic offensive philosophy (spread the ball around to keep defenses guessing) is obvious to everyone. Teams that rely heavily on any one person are vulnerable to institutional knowledge walking out the door. The Patriots spread their institutional knowledge throughout their institution. I argue on p. 103 that "Even Belichick is dispensable." Knowledge sharing separates great leaders from good ones. Belichick's players and coaches all place the organization's success above their personal glory. And this enables the Patriots to survive personnel turnover, whether among players or coaches or scouts. The AFC has become very competitive, but the Patriots should continue to live with the playoffs teams for quite a while.

Belichick wants to build his legacy in New England, gets along great with Robert Kraft, and will have no trouble attracting quality free agents or assistant coaches. So 2005 should be another playoff season. Same for 2006 and 2007 and 2008. I can't tell you how excited I am to see a healthy Benjamin Watson, the Patriots' 1st-round tight end who injured himself at the beginning of the 2004 season.

The wild card is Nick Saban, Belichick's defensive coordinator in Cleveland. Saban is as close as you will ever find to Bill Belichick until they perfect cloning. They are both sons of football coaches, and they share extremely similar philosophies. At LSU, the school Saban led to a share of the NCAA championship, they call the Patriots "LSU North." Now, the genius who ran it will lead the Miami Dolphins, the only AFC East team without a chance of making the 2004 NFL playoffs. So, this ratchets up the competition even further. But the Patriots are strong enough to make the playoffs for the foreseeable future. No team is ever "a lock" to win a Super Bowl in a 32-team league, so I would never predict a Super Bowl championship.

.NET: Who was Belichick's primary influence in organization-building? How much did his time with Bill Parcells influence him?

Lavin: Parcells' influence is greatly overrated, and Belichick resents that. Belichick has worked with hundreds and hundreds of football coaches since he was literally six years old. Belichick would name his father and Jerry Glanville long before naming Parcells as coaches who influenced him. And the list of coaches Belichick has learned from is incredibly long. It includes even legends he met as a child, like Paul Brown and George Halas.

.NET: What can you tell us about Vice President of Player Personnel Scott Pioli and the amazing job he's done with personnel and the salary cap?

Lavin: Pioli's another driven guy whom Belichick started out in the basement who worked his way to the penthouse. Pioli jokes that he did so much photocopying for Belichick's Browns that he got a suntan. Pioli writes everything down and is incredibly detail-driven. But he also steps back periodically to think about what he's doing and why. He has crystallized his philosophy into a document that apparently impresses the heck out of everyone who sees it. Pioli's success also stems from his perfect understanding of what Belichick wants, what he doesn't want, and what tradeoffs he's willing to make. He understands, for example, that the objective is not collecting the most "talented" football players but building the best football team.

Pioli and Belichick's mutual trust enables them to work so effectively as a team. Pioli's staff screens out 4,900 of the 5,000 potential draftees each year before Belichick gets involved in draft preparations. Pioli is also a loyal guy who cares more about team success than money or personal glory. His draft class of 2001 (starting with Richard Seymour in the first round) was perhaps his best work. Some NFL executives said they wouldn't have wanted a single one of Pioli's free agents on their team, yet those players collectively won a Super Bowl. The Patriots had greatly overspent the salary cap in the late '90s, so Belichick and Pioli had to under-spend. They balanced the Patriots' checkbook and won Super Bowl XXXVI in the process. And Pioli's no one-hit wonder. Pioli and Belichick did the same thing with the late 1990s Jets.

.NET: Who’s your all-time favorite Patriot and why?

Lavin: I refuse to answer because this is truly a TEAM. I hate the concept of MVPs, for example. The Patriots are wise. When Belichick wins Coach of the Year, Pioli wins Executive of the Year, Crennel wins Assistant Coach of the Year, Brady wins Super Bowl MVP, etc., they all deflect praise back to their teammates and colleagues. It's not false modesty. They understand in their guts that no one achieves anything in football on his own. Having said all that, there's a special place in my heart for Tedy Bruschi. I can't help but smile every time I see the intensity in his eyes or hear how he doesn't bother with an agent because he wouldn't consider playing anywhere else, all professional athletes are overpaid, and how heart-broken he would be to watch New England fans see him in another uniform.

.NET: Are you self-publishing exclusively? Are you looking for a publisher?

Lavin: I am open to working with an established publisher to put my book in front of a broader audience but have made no attempts to contact one. After studying the economics of the publishing industry, I was shocked. Publishing involves so much overhead and such a bloated distribution model that only about 20% of authors ever earn back their advance. It's a completely hit-driven industry. But my biggest concerns were speed and control. Time spent searching for an agent and a publisher is time not spent improving my book. Also, after a traditional publisher receives a final manuscript, they normally need a year to put the book into bookstores! And the author has little or no control over the book cover, inside layout, etc. I desperately wanted to make my book available to Patriots fans (and everyone else curious about their superb organization) as quickly as possible. Waiting another year was completely out of the question. And I wanted to design my own cover, choose my font, etc. Learning to do all these things on my own and set up my website took me two extra months after completing my book.

James Lavin earned his economics Ph.D. at Stanford, where he analyzed "high-performance work organizations" (like the Patriots). He also holds degrees in political science (A.B., Harvard, magna cum laude), economics (M.Sc., London School of Economics), and East Asian studies (M.A., Stanford). James grew up in Wayland, MA cheering for many disappointing Patriots teams. He decided to write "Management Secrets of the New England Patriots" after realizing that Belichick's Patriots are as successful at organization and management as they are at football. Mr. Lavin can be contacted at james@patriotsbook.com.

For more information on “Management Secrets of the New England Patriots” (including online purchase), please visit www.patriotsbook.com.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at doug@seahawks.net.

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