Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Leaders, Teammates and Talent: Searching for the Perfect Blend

December 26, 2019

As part of our Year in Review series we're taking a close look at why the 2019 Nebraska football season went the way it did. The series originally appeared in the December issue of Hail Varsity. Make sure you don’t miss more stories like this by subscribing today.

First up, a look at Nebraska’s leadership. It was still a work in progress in 2019 and that was certainly a factor in how things went.

Google “leadership in football” and three of the top four questions go like this: 

  • How do you show leadership in sports? 
  • Who is the leader of a football team? 
  • Why is leadership important in sports? 

There are 326 million results trying to answer these questions. There are related book suggestions, plenty of blog topics and podcasts all trying to get to the heart of leadership in football. 

Because it’s important. 

It’s been a focus for Coach Scott Frost since he arrived at Nebraska. Following his first spring game with the Huskers in 2018, he talked about the effort of his team and shared that “a lot of guys” were working toward becoming leaders. 

“That’s what we need,” he said. “And we need more of it.” 

A year and a half later, the leadership on the team still wasn’t where it needed to be. 

“We have some good leaders but not enough and we still have a few pieces that are working against that. That doesn’t help,” Frost said prior to facing Maryland this season. 

He made note of tight ends Austin Allen and Jack Stoll, offensive lineman Matt Farniok and quarterback Adrian Martinez. All four are examples of the “good leaders” Frost wants, but it’s not enough. 

"We’ll be in a better place when those guys are senior leaders and in charge of everything and setting the standard for everybody,” he said. 

It goes beyond the need for leadership for Nebraska though. It’s about the type of leader Nebraska needs. Frost has given examples—to a degree—of what he’s looking for. It’s the “Wardaddy Up” mentality. The intensity that makes a player want to go above and beyond, to do more than what’s asked of him. 

Take freshman outside linebacker Garrett Nelson for example. Before he ever set foot on a Nebraska practice field, the coaches were singing the praises of the “old-school player” who’s “got a lot a lot of juice to him.” 

"I don't know how to say it. If you're just around the kid, you understand," Frost said. "He would have fit in well with the guys that I played with on defense." 

By November, Nelson had only impressed the coaches more. Inside linebackers coach Barrett Ruud called him “genuine” in an interview with The Athletic, citing the enthusiasm he brings to the team every day. 

Quentin Lueninghoener
This story originally appeared in the Dec. 2019 issue of Hail Varsity.

“In a way, that’s been missing at Nebraska,” Ruud said in that interview. “We need guys like him. If we had a lot of Garrett Nelsons running around, we wouldn’t have some of the issues that we have.” 

How you define Nelson’s leadership is probably the bigger trick. There are believed to be three traditional types of leaders in sports: autocratic, democratic and laissez-faire. 

Autocratic leaders are authoritarian, making decisions based on personal ideas and judgements while rarely accepting advice from others. Democratic leaders are participants, inviting feedback and ownership from the team in decisions. Laissez-faire leaders tend to lead by example, offering little guidance beyond their own responsibilities. All three have their positives, all three have their negatives too. 

Where does someone like Nelson fall? Defining his leadership style—the “Wardaddy Up” method, if you will—is probably key in what Frost is trying to build. It’s easy to say you need to be better at leadership, but what specifically is most important to your team and its success? And when you find it, how do you replicate it? 

Leadership isn’t the only piece to consider either. There’s talent, too.  

A team can have all the leadership in the world, but what would it be without talent? Recruiting exists for a reason, as do recruiting rankings. That’s why for every question on leadership in football, there’s a follow-up on its relationship with talent. 

A study by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern set out to answer two questions: “What does it take to create a successful team? How much depends on individual talent and how much on teammates’ ability to work together?” 

Through the study of professional sports teams, Brian Uzzie—a professor of management and organizations at Kellogg—and his fellow researchers found that the best teams find a way to combine talent with leadership and past success. The combination is how you get the underdog stories everyone loves. It’s how less-talented teams beat more-talented teams. 

It’s how you get the 2017 Central Florida football team and its undefeated season. 

That doesn’t mean talent alone isn’t incredibly important to the long-term success of any football team. There’s a reason people say the “recruiting ranking of today determines the national champions of tomorrow.” When recruiting rankings first became a thing, around 2002, evaluation of talent versus success truly began. 

In 2018, 247Sports looked at those 16 years of recruiting rankings (across all available ranking platforms) and compared it to 16 years of national championship games. Fourteen different teams appeared in the national title game during that time. Not a single one did so without a 5-star player on the roster. Talent matters. 

Nebraska, for reference, has only had one 5-star player in that time period according to 247Sports: running back Marlon Lucky. But “talent doesn’t reach its full potential unless you get them to work as a team together,” Uzzie wrote. 

And so, we’re back to square one. How did we get here? It’s not that the Huskers haven't had team leaders over the past 20 years—they have—but it just seems like something hasn’t clicked. Whether it’s the style of leadership a player possesses or not enough of it, it’s hard to say. 

But it’s something that has weighed on Frost’s mind. The leadership code is one he’s been desperate to crack. There have been times he’s been close, with players leading film studies, holding each other accountable in the locker room and trying to build one another up. Frost has brought former teammates Jason Peter and Grant Wistrom in to speak to the team. Frost has even considered bringing back Nebraska’s Unity Council, but he doesn’t believe the culture is right for it just yet. 

The Unity Council probably speaks the loudest about Nebraska’s leadership woes. It was started in 1991, with two representatives from each position group meeting weekly to discuss anything that the team needed to hash out. Coach Tom Osborne oversaw it all and there was a point system for disciplinary matters. The council lasted for 13 years until Bill Callahan abolished it in 2004. Bo Pelini tried to bring it back, while Mike Riley tested a slew of leadership systems in its place. 

For the better part of two decades, Nebraska has been trying to figure out how its talent and its leadership intersect. In some ways it’s had a snowball effect and Frost has found himself at the bottom of the mountain looking up. 

In 2019, Frost tried finding his footing on the mountain. He tried inspiring more of the Nelsons and the Martinezes and the Allens, while also encouraging those who might not be natural leaders to find their roles, too. 

Frost doesn’t want followers. He defines it as “good teammates,” the ones willing to listen and help set a standard by doing their jobs to the best of their ability every single day. 

“Leadership usually starts when you’re able to do that," Frost said. “Then brings that one person along with you then that spirit grows and you’re able to bring more and more people with you. You don’t need a whole team of leaders; you just need a team of good teammates and several good leaders." 

There are a lot of reasons Nebraska ended the 2019 season 5-7 and there will be a lot of reflection on how the Huskers got where they are right now. As for fixing it all, especially the leadership component? 

It’ll take far more than a Google search to figure it out.

  • Never miss the latest news from Hail Varsity!

    Join our free email list by signing up below.