I enjoyed the mental effort last month in comparing the worlds of tennis and archives.  I also find value in looking at issues from unexpected perspectives, so today I want to apply the lessons of football to archival work.  I’ll do so by considering a few tactical points in football that are applicable and (in keeping with my plan for Archives Month) also by reflecting on some quotes from well-known football coaches.

Accountability and Transparency.  I have long been fascinated by the amount of accountability that we require of student-athletes during their games.  With the explosion of cable channels, streaming services, and games on virtually every night of the week, it seems that almost every game is available for mass viewing.  So not only the fans within the stadium but people far and wide know when a player makes a mistake because the referee announces the infraction and identifies the player by number.  I wonder what could happen in the archival world — or in any workplace, for that matter — if we all had to acknowledge our mistakes in such a public way.  I, for one, believe it would lead to better quality work simply out of an effort to avoid the embarrassment of being exposed.  But based on the difficulty I’ve encountered in writing up biographies for the archivists whose writings I’ve reviewed over these years, it seems that the archives world is not very committed to letting the rest of the world know who we are.  The 2002 challenge issued by Michelle Light and Tom Hyry (echoing the suggestion of Terry Cook) for archivists to document ourselves in annotated finding aids so that our subjectivity can be evaluated by researchers has also not been embraced.

Reviews.  Every play in college football is now reviewed in real time, and if a coach feels like the review team needs more time to make an educated decision, he can call a timeout to prevent the next play from occurring before the review is complete.  While archival work doesn’t have the same sort of goal lines as are marked on a football field, I do think there’s value in periodically stopping to review the work that has been done in order to evaluate what has gone well and what still needs improvement (or what may have gone off the rails altogether).

Don’t get behind the chains.  Football commentators speak a language unto themselves, but they all seem to share a similar point about approaching a goal in attainable chunks.  Teams sometimes go for a long pass on first down, hoping for the spectacular result, but more often that not, the play fails and the team loses yardage.  This leaves them behind the ten-yard chain that measures the distance to a first down and makes the next two downs even more challenging if the drive is going to stay alive.  Whereas if the team had executed a play on first down that made a modest gain, they could have much more flexibility in play calling for the following downs.  Similarly, in archival work, it seems that we often hold out hope for the spectacular solution to our backlog or to handling electronic records — rather than simply making slow but steady progress all along.

Clutch players.  This goes for any sport and for any business environment — there’s great value to identifying your clutch players.  These are the people who shine the brightest when all the focus is on their performance.  We also need the people who don’t relish the spotlight but can still turn in a workmanlike performance.  But before a crisis hits, you need to know who can handle the pressure and calmly catch the big pass to keep the drive alive or competently package the deliverables to satisfy the funders.


Bear Bryant

The long-time coach at the University of Alabama (1958-82) offered some sage advice about advancing toward goals and requiring everybody to work hard:

  • “Never quit.  It is the easiest cop-out in the world.  Set a goal and don’t quit until you attain it.  When you do attain it, set another goal, and don’t quit until you reach it.  Never quit.”
  • “We can’t have two standards, one set for the dedicated young men who want to do something ambitious and one set for those who don’t.”

Vince Lombardi

The famous coach of the Green Bay Packers (1959-67) offered numerous snippets about competition, goals, and achieving excellence.  There’s a lot of talk in the archival world about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, but I personally like the notion of catching excellence.

  • “Football is a great deal like life in that it teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness and respect for authority is the price that each and every one of us must pay to achieve any goal that is worthwhile.”
  • “The quality of a person’s life is in direct proportion to their commitment to excellence, regardless of their chosen field of endeavor.”
  • “If you’ll not settle for anything less than your best, you will be amazed at what you can accomplish in your lives.”
  • “Don’t succumb to excuses.  Go back to the job of making the corrections and forming the habits that will make your goal possible.”
  • “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

Nick Saban

The current coach of the University of Alabama (2007-present) is well-known for his focus on process and for demanding that his players be the best team they can be, no matter the opponent.  Striving for consistency is an apt goal for us all.

  • “Eliminate the clutter and all of the things that are going on outside and focus on the things that you can control with how you go about and take care of your business.”
  • “Process guarantees success.  A good process produces good results.”
  • “What happened yesterday is history.  What happens tomorrow is a mystery.  What we do today makes a difference.”

The last quote challenges archivists, despite our Janus-like tendencies to look at the past and the future, to recognize that we must also make progress in the present.

David Cutcliffe

The current coach at Duke University (2007-present) has led a resurgence of this program.  He is well-known for his tutelage of quarterback stars like Peyton and Eli Manning, and his ability to read people is equally remarkable.  He talks about taking recruits out to dinner and realizing that the kid who can’t make up his mind about what to order is not going to be able to make the quick judgements that are necessary on the playing field.  He actually encourages his quarterbacks to hold the ball no more than 2.8 seconds after the snap — but rather than requiring them to make unreasoned decisions, he prepares them to understand the looks the defense will show so they can process their options quickly and accurately.  Would that archives could operate with such efficiency!  Coach Cut also echoes wisdom that I learned from my grandparents and wish that all could embrace:

  • “The most important lesson to me is to leave a place better than you found it.”