Project Management Institute

The NFL super bowl coaches project


Can the learnings from NFL Football Super Bowl coaches and how they win games be applied to a project? Is coaching highly paid football players similar to leading high end technology talent? What did Super Bowl coaches do to direct their team's talent toward reaching and winning the NFL‘s top award more than once? Can the performance management attributes of Super Bowl coaches be applied to project teams?

This paper will review three of the best NFL Super Bowl coaches and how they dealt with poor morale, limited talent and angry fans to transform their teams into champions by review of the attributes of the coaches. The goal of this paper is to provide the reader with techniques that could assist in the ability to manage performance of the teams or projects.


“The important thing isn't what the coach knows. The important thing is what the coach can impart to the people he's responsible for. If we win on Sunday, it means our information got through. That's what coaching is—the ability to transmit information.” Don Shula (Adler, 2003, p. 124)

“A life of frustration is inevitable for any coach whose main enjoyment is winning.” Chuck Noll. (Adler, 2003, p. 185)


“Every game boils down to doing the things you do best, and doing them over and over again.” Vince Lombardi (Lombardi, 2001, p. 241)


The role of a coach in any professional sports team requires the ability to evaluate and utilize the talent of each team member. This enables the coach to win games and build a successful program. In the United States, the professional sport of “American or Gridiron” football in the National Football League (NFL) is a big business.

The NFL coaches who will be highlighted found ways to win regardless of the talent or situation. Many project teams consist of very talented individuals and experts who through leadership of the project manager can accomplish the projects and tasks at hand. Super Bowl coaches are similar in that the best ones win regardless of the talent and conditions that surrounded them. (Adler, 2003, p. 342)

The goal of every NFL player and coach is to win the NFL‘s top prize, the Super Bowl. This paper will first provide a brief background of NFL football and will then review research of the attributes and tactics of three of the best NFL Super Bowl coaches and how they helped win the biggest game in the National Football League. It then applies these attributes and tactics and how they might be helpful for a project manager who is managing the talent and personnel on their projects.

NFL Background and the Super Bowl

To better understand the role that the coaches played in getting their teams to the Super Bowl, let's first do a quick review of how the game of American Football is played, how the NFL is organized today and some background on the Super Bowl. For more information about how the game and additional background is played, please refer to

  • The Football: The game is played with an oval shaped ball. The goal is to use plays to progress the ball up the field. The ball is kicked, carried, thrown, taken away, protected.
  • The Game: Each game is played 60 minutes divided into four 15-minute quarters. At the midpoint they do a halftime where teams are given time to rest and review before the next half. The team with the most points wins the game. In the case of a tie, overtime is played with the first team scoring the winning the game.
  • Player Equipment: Football is a violent sport and consists of hitting and tackling other players. Pads and helmets are provided as well as rules to protect the players.
  • NFL Teams: Currently there are 32 Teams, 2 Leagues (American and National), 3 divisions in each league, teams are geographically based. For example, New Orleans is in the Central Division.
  • Season: Each team play 17 games.
  • Playoffs: Best record of each division goes to playoffs. Each league has playoffs with the loser going home, the winner moving on
  • Super Bowl: Best team from each league plays in the Super Bowl
  • Super Bowl Background:

    - The Super Bowl is a big game

    - Uses Roman numerals to designate games

    - First Super Bowl was played in 1967

    - Super Bowl 47 played last year in New Orleans

    - Next year the Super Bowl will be played in New Jersey

    - It is called Super Bowl Sunday

    - Many famous artists perform at the half time show.

    - The large viewership allows advertisers to produce unique commercials for the game.

Some similarities exist between getting to the Super Bowl and developing a project plan. For example:

  • Getting to the Super Bowl is like a project. Every year each team puts strategies in place to progress their team towards the Super Bowl.
  • Each game is similar to a milestone.
  • Each play in the game is like a task.
  • In football, the coach has limited time to prepare.
    • 40 Seconds between plays
    • 1 Week between games
  • Set duration for Results
    • End result: the coach and team are responsible for the success of the team

The NFL is like a business in the following ways:

  • In an effort to get the best talent, the NFL has a large amount of turnover of personnel — about 25% a year. Find the talent, cultivate it, and benefit from it.
  • Good teams sell tickets, which in turn return the investment to the owners.
  • Most teams are owned by individuals, families, and the fan base (Green Bay Packers).
  • It takes specialized skills on and off the field to make the team successful. From the kicker to the sports trainer, it takes many coordinated specialized skills to run the team.
  • Changing landscape and industry. It has gone from a small fan base in the 1950s to millions of fans.
  • It takes innovation and solid game plans to be successful.

Selection of the Three Best Super Bowl Coaches

Let me preface this section with a statement: There are many great coaches who have coached in the NFL. Some coaches have been overlooked intentionally to keep the presentation manageable. The main premise of the selection was identified by Brad Adler in his book Coaching Matters that “great coaches win regardless of talent or conditions.”(Adler, 2003, p.242) The book Coaching Matters is a great collection of coaches and provided excellent research for this paper.

The criteria used to select three of the best Super Bowl Coaches were:

  • Won two Super Bowls. To have two Super Bowls reduces the list from 50 to 12.
  • Be elected to the Hall of Fame. This precludes some great active coaches, from 12 to 7.

    1. Vince Lombardi

    2. Tom Landry

    3. Don Shula

    4. Chuck Noll

    5. Bill Walsh

    6. Bill Parcells

    7. Joe Gibbs

  • They had to have an overall winning record throughout their coaching career of .566.
  • Taken a losing program over and transformed it into a winning program with a minimum of 10 complete seasons.
  • Respected by their players after the players have left playing football.

The three NFL Super Bowl coaches selected are Vince Lombardi, Don Shula, and Chuck Noll.

Vince Lombardi

If you had the task of hiring an NFL football coach for the Green Bay Packers in 1959 it might read like:

  • NFL Team needs coach to help avoid 12th losing season
  • Last 10 Year record is 37 Wins, 93 Losses, 2 Ties
  • Low attendance at games and brutal fan base
  • Cold climate

“You can stay here and pay the price for winning, or else you can get the hell out.” These were the words of Vince Lombardi upon his arrival in Green Bay. (Adler, 2003, p. 47) Vince Lombardi turned the Green Bay Packers around by winning games and transformed the prevailing defeatist attitude of a losing team and molded them into champions that would win the first two Super Bowls. He convinced the players that they could win. In his book Instant Replay, a diary written by Green Bay player Jerry Kramer detailing the 1967 season, his statement sums up what Lombardi did for the team: “It's a feeling of being together, completely together, a singleness of purpose, accomplishing something that is very difficult to accomplish, accomplishing something that a lot of people thought you couldn't accomplish.”(Kramer, 2011, Loc 3605)

Attribute 1: Sell the game plan
Lombardi was able to sell the philosophy of his game plan and gain-allegiance from players. He stated “We're going to have a football team, and we're going to win some games. And you know why? Because you're going to have confidence in me and my system.” (Adler, 2003, p. 47)

Attribute 2: Stick to basics and do things right
“Gentlemen, this is a football.” he would exclaim when working with his team. “You don't do things right once in a while, you do things right all the time.” (Adler, 2003, p. 66) In his book Instant Replay, Jerry Kramer details this “doing things right” Lombardi attribute: “he pays such meticulous attention to detail. He makes us execute the same plays over and over, a hundred times, two hundred times, until we do every little thing right automatically…But we win.” (Kramer, 2011, Loc 805) The combining of the basics and making sure they were done right, every time became a trademark of Lombardi's coaching style.

Attribute 3: Reduce Distractions
As I have studied Vince Lombardi, I have discovered many theories on what it was that made him such a great coach and leader, and how he was able to transform his team and the organization. The closest approach found to aligning what Vince Lombardi had to a business setting is the research done by Patrick Lencioni in his book The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business. When you compare Vince Lombardi with some of the not so successful coaches, Lencioni's statement rings true, “the truth of the matter was those companies weren't smarter than their competitors: they simply tapped into the adequate intelligence they had and didn't allow dysfunction, ego and politics to get in their way.” (Lencioni, 2012, Loc482)

The other coaches who competed against Vince Lombardi's team were often better educated, had better fan support, possessed better talent, had more coaching experience, etc. Lombardi found success with the Green Bay Packers by constantly clearing distractions from his players, ensuring his team functioned like a well-oiled machine, and treating every player equally.

So if Vince Lombardi was your project manager, he would:

  • Get the allegiance of the team and convince the team of the benefits of the project. He would take the project and team to places they thought they would never go.
  • Not be late for meetings and be preparing a rousing speech of why this project will succeed.
  • Stick to basics of managing scope, schedule, budget and they would be done right every time.

Don Shula

Don Shula coached the Baltimore Colts and then the Miami Dolphins. The statistics he accumulated throughout his career are:

  • Coached 490 Games
  • 30,000 minutes of football
  • NFL‘s all-time winning-est coach of 328 Wins, 156 Losses and 6 Ties
  • 2 losing seasons on 33 years
  • More Super Bowls than any coach, going to 6 total and winning 2

Attribute 1: Don't dwell on the past
Some important career intangibles are even; although he won many games, he had many big game losses, four Super Bowl losses and other conference championships. Don Shula was known for not allowing his team to dwell on any game beyond the next day.

Attribute 2: Use the veterans and clear the deadwood
Don Shula also had a skill of being able to rejuvenate veterans’ careers. He was known for taking players beyond their prime and using them in ways that helped enhance their careers. He was also known for taking less skilled players with high moral standards and strong work ethics over the so called “superstars” that did not always play for the good of the team.

Don Shula gave up a successful team that he built up in Baltimore and took to his first Super Bowl for the new market of the Miami Dolphins. He shocked the owners and the fan base in Miami by what he called “clearing the deadwood” or eliminating players for new players with fresh outlooks as well as skilled veterans.

Attribute 3: Adjust to match the talent and conditions
The top attribute is in his preparation, being ready for anything and his ability to adjust the game, team and players based on the unique style of each player. He was aware that each person has a different style and adjusted to his style; an example of this is the 1972 season. The Miami quarterback Bob Griese is injured in week 5 with a broken ankle. Shula uses the 38-year-old backup Earl Morrall as the new quarterback. He adjusted and revised the playbook for the new quarterback, which allowed Miami to not lose a game in the regular season. As they moved to the playoffs, Griese was healthy but Morrall struggled, as they barely won the game in Cleveland. The next game was the Pittsburgh Steelers and while playing Pittsburgh, Morrall is struggling. At halftime, Shula replaces Morrall with Griese and Miami won the game 21-17. Griese then played against the Washington Redskins in the Super Bowl and they beat the Redskins 14-7 to preserve a perfect 17 win and zero loss season. On the need to make a decision, Shula said “I‘m willing to make a decision. Part of being ready is being able to shift your game plan at will. I want to be prepared with a plan — and then expect the unexpected to change that plan.” (Adler, 2003, p.108)

If Don Shula was your project manager, he would:

  • Have no “dead wood” or unproductive players on the team.
  • Not be afraid to change the project plan, but will have prepared alternatives.
  • Always be adjusting. What worked on the last project might not work on this project. How else do you think he remained successful for 33 years?

Chuck Noll

The following four NFL coaches have gone to the Super Bowl four times: Chuck Noll, Bud Grant, Marv Levy, and Dan Reeves. One coach has won each time his team has gone to the Super Bowl. That coach was Chuck Noll.

Chuck Noll was the principle architect of one of the greatest teams of all time, winning four Super Bowls in 6 years. He took a team that had not had a winning season and quickly put them in a position to go to the Super Bowl.

Attribute 1: Under high pressure, remember: it is just a game.
To set the proper context of the Super Bowl, it is a very high pressure game. Players and teams have worked all year for the opportunity. As a player and a coach, to have the opportunity in your career to play in the Super Bowl is a great achievement. The Super Bowl has lots of hype, press, publicity and intensity overload. Very similar to the high pressure situations we have on projects.

So what did Chuck Noll do to prepare his teams? What did the other coaches do to lose 4 Super Bowls? Let's first look briefly at Marv Levy, the great coach of the very talented Buffalo Bills with quarterback Jim Kelley at the helm. In 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994, the Buffalo Bills under Marv Levy lost four Super Bowls in a row. Many theories arose as to why the Buffalo Bills lost four in a row. The theory that is most prevalent is Marv Levy allowed letting the players egos get in the way. They were known as the “Bickering Bills.” Many felt this distraction caused them to lose focus in big games. Coach Levy also tried new ways of doing things in the Super Bowl, which often confused his players.

In comparison to what Chuck Noll did to win four Super Bowls, the findings are interesting. Chuck Noll was a master at game day management. He was a tactician who built flexible strategies and systems. He was a strong believer in sticking with the game plan used all year. He viewed the Super Bowl as just another game that can be won or lost. He stated “I gave up trying to determine if players are ready emotionally a long time ago. I don't worry about the mental aspect. I just prepare the players for the game and what to expect from the other team. It will all come down to blocking and tackling, that's all.”(Adler, 2003, p. 183) The case in point is that he was criticized for being very relaxed with his players in the off field activities in Super Bowl 9 in New Orleans and for allowing his players to spend time on Bourbon Street.

Attribute 2: Avoid failing by concentrating on winning.
The next finding of why Chuck Noll was successful in high pressure situations like the Super Bowl is that he focused his energies on winning. Often we act differently when our projects experience high pressure situations. Do we then spend more energy in not letting it fail or managing risks that we forget to complete the tasks? So what was the difference between Marv Levy and Chuck Noll? Warren Bennis in On Becoming a Leader documents the factors of the Wallenda Factor that relates to failing. (Bennis, 1989, p. 151)

Karl Wallenda was a tightrope walker. In 1978 he fell to his death while attempting the most dangerous walk of his career. Later when interviewing his wife about the tragedy, she noted:“All Karl thought about for months before was falling. It was the first time he'd ever thought about that, and it seemed to me that he put all his energies into not failing than walking the tightrope.” (Bennis, 1989, p.151)

Chuck Noll knew that spending more time on failing than just strategizing how to win would not create success. He knew walking a tightrope at three feet took the same actions as walking one at 1000 feet. Playing a game like the Super Bowl is the same as playing a regular game if his team focused on walking the tightrope and not being concerned how high the tightrope is. It seems his other counterparts like Marv Levy got stuck or distracted by avoiding failing rather than “walking the tightrope.”

Attribute 3: Players can accentuate other players.
So besides winning Super Bowls, how did Chuck Noll take the worst team and transform them into champions? His attribute of being a personnel evaluator was important. By selecting the right players at the right time with the right winning attitude he crafted a team that allowed each position to accentuate the other players. He looked at the whole team to get the correct mix of talent. An example of this is his draft of a quarterback named Terry Bradshaw, who was not the most accurate throwing quarterback. A bad throw results in a term called an interception or when a pass is thrown and the other team catches it. This results in a turnover and is a costly mistake. He was weak in throwing the shorter pass and threw many interceptions. However, he did have a great arm to throw the ball down the field. To compensate, Noll recruited players like Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, who became two of the best receivers to play the game. Bradshaw only needed to throw the ball in their direction and they would catch it.

If Chuck Noll was your project manager, he would:

  • Remember to stay with plans when high pressure high stake situations arise. Walk the tightrope.
  • Look at how other members of the team can help strengthen others on the team. Look at the whole team.
  • Remember solid game-day management wins in the end. Plan as if it is just another game.

Super Bowl Recipe

Is there a single ingredient that promises a Super Bowl win to a Coach or guarantees a successful project to a project manager? No. It is a mix of many ingredients that make up the correct recipe. In Brad Adler's Coaching Matters, he identifies ingredients to the correct Super Bowl recipe (Adler, 2003, p. 327), with highlights from the paper inserted:

  • Precise mix of tactical competency
    • Chuck Noll and his game day management to call the correct plays.
  • Communicators abilities
    • Vince Lombardi was a master at knowing how and when to say it.
  • Player evaluations talents
    • Chuck Noll and his ability to strengthen other players by adding new players.
  • Disciplinary skills
    • Lombardi and his pursuit of doing it right
  • Administration's proficiency
    • Don Shula organized the team so he could concentrate on coaching
  • Mesh to produce a winning formula
    • Don Shula and his ability to shift his team to match the winning approach
  • Management capability
    • All three coaches were masters at organizing the organization to produce great results.
  • Motivational expertise
    • There was none better than Vince Lombardi to motivate a team to victory by capturing the hearts of his players and using his strategies to convince them they are winners.

Attribute Assessment

The attributes of the three NFL Super Bowl coaches highlighted are principles that can be applied to the management of talent on a project or an organization. The questions below are meant to self-assess how each attribute might be applied to your current project.



  • Attribute 1: Sell the game plan
    • Does my team project team know “what a successful project will look like”?
  • Attribute 2: Stick to basics and do things right
    • How well are we with the basics? Are they being done according to A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) standard?
  • Attribute 3: Reduce Distractions
    • Do politics, egos, dysfunctional teams hinder my project?


  • Attribute 1: Don't dwell on the past
    • Do we re-evaluate past decisions that have no merit today?
  • Attribute 2: Use the veterans and clear the deadwood
    • Are there better team members with more experience? Are there any team members who are hindering the project?
  • Attribute 3: Adjust to match the talent and conditions
    • If new team members are added, how do their skill and background change the project?


  • Attribute 1: In high pressure, remember it is just a game.
    • When stakes are high, does the project team change personalities?
  • Attribute 2: Avoid failing by concentrating on winning.
    • Are we so concerned about failing that we forget to get the project done?
  • Attribute 3: Players can accentuate other players.
    • When looking for new team members do we consider how the candidate can help other team members?


The opportunity to take a project team's talent in a way that produces a successful project is often the highlight of project managers and project team members. Just as the skills of the successful NFL Super Bowl coaches adjusted to the talent or conditions to win a Super Bowl, each of us as project managers have the opportunity on a daily basis to coach our teams to a successful project outcome.



Adler, B. (2003). Coaching matters: Leadership and tactics of the NFL‘s ten greatest coaches. Dulles, VA: Brassy's.

Bennis, W. (1989). On becoming a leader. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Kramer, J., & Schapp, D. (2011). Instant replay: The diary of Jerry Kramer. New York: Doubleday: Kindle file.

Lencioni, P. (2012). The advantage: Why organizational health trumps everything else in business. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Kindle file.

Lombardi, V., Jr. (2001). What it takes to be #1. New York: McGraw-Hill.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©2013 Reed D. Shell
Originally published as a part of 2013 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – New Orleans, Louisiana



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