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The Schottenheimer Rule

Don't fire your successful employees.

by James Leroy Wilson
January 1, 2009

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The Schottenheimer Rule
In sports and other activities, some people are tempted to punish success. They think will be even more successful if they get rid of the person most responsible for success in the first place.

This may make sense to some degree. Dave Kreig was a good NFL quarterback, but in 1993 Joe Montana was available. It made sense for the Chiefs to sign Montana and bench Kreig.

But often, there is no Montana lined up as the replacement. The temptation is to make a change for the sake of change.

It's usually a bad idea. And I think there should be a rule, which I would call the Schottenheimer Rule: Don't fire an accomplished, successful employee unless you already have someone even more accomplished and successful signed on as a replacement.

The rule would be named after Marty Schottenheimer, a successful head coach of four different NFL teams.

He started out as the Cleveland Browns's head coach. In his first four full seasons, he led them to three division crowns and one wild-card berth. He appeared in two AFC Championship games.

He was fired after the 1988 season. His replacement had not been a head coach in the NFL before, and was fired midway through his second season.

Schottenheimer's longest tenure was with the Kansas City Chiefs. In ten seasons, he led the team to nine winning seasons and seven playoff berths. He resigned after his first losing season, 7-9, in 1998. His replacement, who never was a head coach in the NFL before, lasted two years.

Schottenheimer became the Washington Redskins head coach in 2001. He inherited Norv Turner's 8-8 team and took it to another 8-8 season with Tony Banks replacing the departed Brad Johnson as quarterback. He was fired to make room for Steve Spurrier, who had never coached in the NFL before and led the 'Skins to a 12-20 mark over the next two seasons.

Schottenheimer then became head coach of the San Diego Chargers, and after a 14-2 season, was fired and replaced by Norv Turner, whose record included three winning seasons and one playoff appearance over nine seasons as a head coach.

More than that, I recall reading a Kansas City columnist in 2000 talk about how Gunther Cunningham, Schottenheimer's replacement with the Chiefs, confused working long with working hard or well. This columnist's first experience as an NFL reporter had been in Cincinnati during the Dave Shula era. He understood that an NFL practice involved players standing around a lot of the time while the coach would be shouting one thing or another. In contrast, Schottenheimer at Kansas City actually had practice organized and businesslike.

Several years later, quarterback Rich Gannon noted that, even though he was MVP with the Raiders and made the Super Bowl, every day was a struggle compared to playing for Schottenheimer in Kansas City:

"When I played in Kansas City, all I had to do was walk in the door. I didn't have to worry about guys showing up late for practice or meetings, guys being out drinking until 3 a.m. or missing curfew the night before games. In Kansas City, that stuff didn't happen. In Oakland, it was an everyday occurrence."

In all, Schottenheimer had 13 play-off appearances and just two losing season in 20 1/2 years as an NFL head coach. He may not have been a conference or league champion, but he was a winner, which couldn't be said of his replacements.

(I will concede that the Chargers have still made the playoffs in both of the two years under Turner, although this year they just barely made it in at 8-8.)

It is rare that making a change, when things are going well, leads to long-term success. When Tony Dungy was let go by Tampa after the 2001 season, Jon Gruden who had a good record himself, was brought in and won the Super Bowl immediately. But the team slipped to 7-9 the following year and have made the playoffs just twice since. Meanwhile, Dungy took over at Indianapolis, and the Colts have gone 12-4 or better in six consecutive seasons, with a Super Bowl victory.

When Jimmy Johnson was let go in 1994 just as his two-time defending Super Bowl Champion Dallas Cowboy stars were entering their prime years, he was replaced by Barry Switzer, who had no previous experience with the NFL. Their talent carried them to one more championship, but the franchise has been in disarray since 1996. For example, Jones fired Chan Gailey, who led them to two playoff berths in two seasons in the late 90's, and replaced him with the inexperienced Dave Campo.

In 2003, Nebraska Coach Frank Solich was fired after winning 58 games in six seasons. He was replaced by Bill Callahan, who had never headed a college program and oversaw the collapse of the Oakland Raiders. Callahan coached Nebraska to two losing seasons in four years, the only losing seasons in over 40 years at Nebraska.

In 1995, Ted Marchibroda was fired by the Colts after failing by one dropped pass from reaching the Super Bowl. His replacement, Lindy Infante, hadn't appeared in the playoffs in four years as an NFL coach. By the second year after Marchibroda, the Colts were 3-13.

In contrast, Bill Cowher was not fired by Pittsburgh even after missing the playoffs in three consecutive years in the late 1990's. He did not win the Super Bowl until his 14th season with the team. Jeff Fisher is in his 15th year with the Titans. He never even made the playoffs until his fifth year, and then he missed the playoffs for three consecutive years in the mid-00's.

Cowher and Fisher are great coaches, but they are also lucky to have patient bosses. Their bosses knew it was unlikely they would find a better replacement even when the team wasn't successful.

It makes even less sense to fire someone who is successful.

The lesson can be applied not just in football, but in all organizations. A manager or owner who violates the Schottenheimer Rule is most likely himself an example of the Peter Principle.


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