10 Recruiting Lessons That You Can Learn From the Super Bowl

To most people, the Super Bowl is a fun event to watch. However, because the game is highly competitive and because only the very best teams make it to the event, there are some critical lessons that corporate managers and recruiters can learn from competitive sports and the Super Bowl:

Lesson #1 -“Minor colleges” produce some of the best players on Super Bowl teams.

It’s clear from examining the player rosters that most Super Bowl players don’t come from powerhouse football colleges. Some examples include:

  • The Star Players. The four most notable star players in the game all come from non-football powers. For Arizona, star quarterback Kurt Warner came from Northern Iowa – Burlington and star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald came from the University of Pittsburgh. For Pittsburgh, starting quarterback Ben Rothlisberger came from Miami of Ohio and running back Willie Parker came from North Carolina. Not a single one of these players former university teams made it into the Associated Press Top 25 rankings this year.
  • The Remaining Players. Of the 112 active players on the final rosters of the combined teams, only four came from this year’s top college teams that are perennial powerhouses (i.e. Florida, Oklahoma, and USC).
  • The Arizona Cardinals roster successfully recruited players from non-powerhouse teams like Louisiana-Lafayette, Kansas State, Richmond, Northern Iowa, Hawaii, Brown, Delaware, Fresno State, Tennessee State, Trinity University, UC Davis, Northern Iowa, and of course, Clarion!
  • The world champion Pittsburgh Steelers roster includes players from such non-powerhouse university teams like Hofstra, Clemson, Kent State, Marshall, Tulane, Southern Mississippi, TCU, Northern Colorado, Syracuse, Rutgers, Indiana (of Pa.), La.-Lafayette, and perennial powerhouse…Tiffin.

Lesson #2 –“Experience” isn’t required to become a Super Bowl head coach.

At least this year, previous experience as a successful head coach isn’t a requirement for getting your team to the Super Bowl.

The best head coaches aren’t always the most experienced. You can’t say the coaches of either team this year are experienced, veteran head coaches. Neither has been a head coach at a Super Bowl before. Both would have to be considered as “inexperienced” head coaches (both are only in their second year of being a head coach anywhere in the NFL), and both are relatively young.

Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh, the NFL Coach of the year, is only 36 years old (the youngest Super Bowl coach ever) and Arizona’s Ken Whisenhunt is only 44.

Lesson #3 – “Recruiting/draft systems” still need continuous improvement.

No organization puts more resources into recruiting than an NFL team, yet even their vaunted efforts can produce some major errors and omissions. There are numerous stories of how number one overall draft picks failed to excel in the NFL but there are also major omissions in the recruiting process where top performers went “undrafted.”

Even the best recruiting and screening systems can be improved upon in order to find a “non-obvious” talent.

For example, Pittsburgh’s star running back Willie Parker, a two-time Pro Bowl selection and his teammate James Harrison, the 2008 NFL defensive player of the year, were both undrafted. On Arizona’s team, Pro bowl quarterback Kurt Warner and his center, Lyle Sendlein, were both undrafted.

Lesson #4 – It takes organization-wide excellence to make the Super Bowl.

The teams with the most star players don’t automatically make it all the way to the Super Bowl.

It takes more than star players to win championships. The team with the most star players (those selected for the Pro Bowl), the New York Jets, led all teams with seven selections but they didn’t even make the playoffs.

Three teams (the Giants, the Vikings, and the Titans) each had six star players selected to the Pro Bowl. Having six stars certainly helped each team to get into the playoffs. But you won’t see them in the Super Bowl, because it takes excellence throughout their entire organization and great coaching, in addition to great players, to win it all in your conference.

Lesson #5 – Don’t stereotype top performers.

It’s easy to reject candidates “out of hand” because they don’t fit our mental stereotypes of what top performer should look like. Always use “on-the-job” performance to select top talent instead of broad stereotypes.

Be careful who you write off as being “over the hill.” Even though everyone knows pro football is a young man’s game, there are certainly enough exceptions to that rule to make you think twice before generalizing about age limits on star talent.

For example, Kurt Warner is both a Super Bowl and a Pro bowl starting quarterback and he accomplished both feats at the ripe old age of 37. Incidentally, he clearly beat out Arizona’s other well-known quarterback Matt Leinart, the much younger third-year phonon from USC.

Other Pro Bowl “senior citizen stars” selected this year include 39-year-old Jets quarterback Brett Favre, 44-year-old John Carney (the oldest Pro Bowler ever), and 42-year-old Jeff Feagles both from the Giants.

Clearly, top talent comes in a variety of ages.

Lesson #6 – Consider corporate alumni for rehiring.

It’s easy to overlook talent that we’ve previously rejected.

Keep in touch with your former employees. Pittsburgh Steelers long-snapper Jared Retkofsky was fired (cut from the team) by the Pittsburgh organization three different times. Recently, he was working as a furniture mover before being rehired by the team to fill a sudden need. This success story demonstrates that organizations should keep an eye on their former employees and then to consider them for re-hiring as a “boomerang.”

Lesson #7 – Prioritize your positions and business units.

NFL teams excel at prioritizing both individual positions and units.

It has been proven statistically that “defense wins super Bowls,” so most teams that are serious about getting to the Super Bowl prioritize their recruiting to ensure that they have the strongest defense. This year’s likely Super Bowl winner, Pittsburgh, has both the #1 ranked rushing and passing defense. Likewise, businesses also need to learn that not all functions, departments, and business units have the same impact on winning and profits.

Not a single corporation that I’m aware of prioritizes positions as effectively as NFL teams. You can clearly tell what positions are “mission-critical” on an NFL team by identifying the positions that they draft first, the average amount that they pay for that position, and the number of backups for that position that they carry on their roster.

Most teams focused their recruiting and development efforts on four key positions, quarterbacks, pass rushers, receivers, and running backs. Other positions are rated as low impact.

For example, an average punter might make $200,000 a year, they would never be drafted in the first round and the team would only carry one punter (with no backup).

In direct contrast, the high-priority position of quarterback will be paid millions, the position would be a top draft target, and there would be two or even three backups kept on the roster to fill in for injuries and to allow time for development.

Corporations need to also prioritize their recruitment and development efforts and resources on the 20% of the positions that are mission-critical and thus they make the most impact on innovation, competitive advantage, revenue, and profit.

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Lesson #8 – “The ability to handle pressure” is critical to make it to and win a Super Bowl.

Everyone knows that it takes a combination of both “A” and “B” players in order to win championships, but not everyone accurately defines what an “A” player really looks like.

Define excellence to include the ability to handle pressure. The NFL provides numerous great examples of how players that perform well during the regular season suddenly “unravel” under the pressure of the playoffs and the Super Bowl. Teams that fail to win the Super Bowl one year proactively go out and recruit individual players who not only can compete head-to-head against last year’s Super Bowl winners but who have also demonstrated that they can handle the “pressure of “big games.”

For example, running back Efrain James for Arizona was a mediocre player during the regular season but in the playoffs he was given the starting assignment. He has excelled during the playoffs as a result of his extensive playoff experience. Other players like Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald have clearly demonstrated their ability to “step up” and move to the “next level” under playoff pressure.

Corporations need to also develop mechanisms for recruiting and assessing their employees to see which ones best handle the pressure and thus can perform at the “next level” when the corporation needs extraordinary performance.

Lesson # 9 – It takes a competitive analysis to win championships.

Many in HR and recruiting look at their firms’ needs in relative isolation. In the NFL, however, recruiting and game plans are developed after analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing team.

Recruit and organize to develop a competitive advantage. During the regular season, but especially during the playoffs, team managers conduct “side-by-side” analysis in order to identify and develop matchups, which provide their team with a winning edge.

Recruiting and player selection in key positions is done in such a manner as to provide “an edge” over  competitors. The “plays” of competitors are also analyzed to a painful degree in order to identify weaknesses that your team can exploit.

Every team develops and modifies its plays in order to take advantage of the head-to-head player matchups where you have a higher probability of coming out with a big play. Teams consciously avoid trading or losing key players to teams that they frequently compete against because that could lessen their chances of winning against that competition.

Corporate recruiting managers need to develop the same competitive advantage mentality and periodically “chart” areas where recruiting can give your firm a significant competitive advantage over your direct competitors.

Lesson #10 – It takes a performance culture to win consistently.

Some sports teams win consistently over the years, even though their players change at a rate of 20% or more per year. For example, the LA Lakers have dominated their opponents for years, while the LA Clippers, who play in the same city and building and recruit from the same sources, are perennial losers.

Build a performance culture. The best teams in sports are laser focused on becoming and staying number one. In order to do that, they develop a “performance culture” that makes winning everything.

As Vince Lombardi once said, “Winning isn’t everything…it’s the only thing!”

A performance culture in any environment focuses on recruiting, retaining, developing, differentiating rewards, and making assignments based on performance data and results. Because everyone throughout the organization has the expectation of winning, performance permeates every management aspect of the firm.

In the NFL, teams like the Steelers, the Cowboys, the Colts, the Giants, and Patriots consistently excel during the regular season and later win championships because they have all developed performance cultures.

The players leave their current team at nearly 20% per year, the coaches change also but the performance culture approach is a constant. Unfortunately, many HR and recruiting departments are more focused on equal treatment and avoiding criticism.

Establishing and maintaining a performance culture is hard work and it certainly gathers criticism. As a result, few in HR are willing to take the heat and the risk to their own job security that comes with transparency and basing everything on performance.

Final Thoughts

By the time you read this, the Super Bowl will be over and its importance will begin to wane.

However, if you’re smart, you’ll avoid the criticism that invariably comes from HR people (i.e., “I hate sports analogies.”)

Instead, study the most competitive of all endeavors outside of war (the Super Bowl) in order to learn many valuable lessons about people management. It is my contention that the recent catastrophic failures of mortgage firms, Wall Street financial institutions, and other corporations could never have occurred under the glaring criticism, transparency, metrics, and the performance cultures that are necessary in order to get teams to the Super Bowl. The NFL model is a good one to study and copy.

Dr. John Sullivan, professor, author, corporate speaker, and advisor, is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business-impact talent management solutions.

He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," Staffing.org called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website www.drjohnsullivan.com and on staging.ere.net. He lives in Pacifica, California.



15 Comments on “10 Recruiting Lessons That You Can Learn From the Super Bowl

  1. Nice article John- lots of nuggets in there.

    However, for the rest of the year, when you try to bring up practices of major-sports as models for business, you are dismissed out of hand.

    I blogged last week about Tuesday Morning Quarterback’s picks for the Unwanted best players,


    and previously about TMQ’s observation that Pittsburgh does better than any team at making the best of its draft picks and talent development.


  2. John, this is your best work I’ve seen in a very, very, long time. I say that for one big reason: Your article here focuses on questioning traditional conventions.

    So many Talent Acquisition Pros simply ‘follow the sheep’, blindly adhering to mindsets and practices that worked during the Industrial Revolution, however are meaningless today.

    The only additions I’d make to the list are the following:

    1. It’s never too late to turn performance around. The Cardinals were 9-7 coming into the playoffs . . . and only got in because they were Division Winners of the weakest Division in the NFL. Several teams with better records did not get in because they did not win their division and didn’t have a good enough record to earn a wildcard birth.

    2. The Arizona Cardinals now can justify a ‘performance culture’ because they got to the Big Dance. The Cardinals were 9-7 this year, 8-8 in 2007, 5-11 in 2006, and 5-11 in 2005. That’s a record of 27-37, hardly a ‘performance culture’ . . . but the playoffs this year was a defining moment. It’s never too late to turn the culture around and leverage espirit de corps.

    3. Know your strengths . . . and stick to them. The Superbowl is not the time to change your corporate identity.

  3. Good analogy to the game of football, but I must interject as I saw a glaring error in the opening of the article that must be corrected. “Not a single one of these players former university teams made it into the Associated Press Top 25 rankings this year.” If you mean end of year, then that is correct but both Pittsburgh and North Carolina were ranked for a majority of the year (maybe not in the final poll at the end of the year), and the school’s although not known to those outside football, are large schools who generally have strong football recruiting classes. The reason for the difference between those who are strong in college and those in the NFL, is because they are essentially very different games (this can further be compared to basketball, where many top players in college don’t translate well into the NBA; as they are different games and look for some different characteristics in their players). Being an HR professional I actually do enjoy the parallels between sports and recruiting. Also, the player that was cited as “Efrain James” and who was cited as “having a mediocre season” did not actually get a chance during the year to shine, getting very few reps all year until the end of the year. His correct name is actually Edgerrin James and he is a future hall of fame towards the end of his career. A challenge we sometimes face (like the NFL) is that they (Hiring teams) don’t give people a shot who may go to other teams and situations and become superstars. It’s tough for people to produce and shine without at least given an opportunity. So many times a hiring manager will say “They don’t have this or that” and that is the end of that candidate (internal or external) being considered. I feel sometimes their are great candidates who are not given a shot because they may have done x and y but don’t have z.

  4. John, enjoyed the article. Not only is there much to be learned from the Super Bowl teams but much that can be learned from athletes in general(exclude pac man jones:). As someone who works with both collegiate & professional athletes as they make the transition into life after sports I have (as have numerous organizations) found that the skills & attributes acquired during the course of athletic competition are directly transferable to the workforce & these former athletes create a positive impact on their “new team”. Follow the link below for these athlete attributes:




  5. A variety of comments:

    First of all, I like sports analogies. I think the football analogy is particularly appropriate for a couple of reasons:

    1)Professional football team franchises are highly mercenary in their dealings with their host communities, often requiring substantial subsidies through the construction of new stadiums with partial public funding which *may not often show overall economic benefits to the host communities. I think this is a valuable lesson for employees/vendors when we have the upper hand.

    2) As previously mentioned in a comment, there are a few hundred professional NFL players and they get very well paid, and I think (most of them) are worth it. If you are quite good but not NFL quality, you can not expect to make $100k/yr playing non-NFL football in the US. If you do world-class sourcing/recruiting, you are performing a very high-level service and are “entitled” by the market to a world-class compensation. If you are not in that class or do not have something special to offer, you will be competing with folks who get much less for the quality work they do. IMHO, recruiting will become the realm of a relatively small number of highly-compensated elite recruiters, who will have “sticky” skills that can’t be easily eliminated, automated, or outsourced. I do not see much future for mid-level Western recruiters and sourcers who do quality work for a decent, middle-class income.

    As Martin S. said: I also recommend the Gladwell article. Gladwell is interesting and an easy read. I also like him because he seems to be making very substantial speaking fees telling “fat cat” types that some of their traditional wisdom is wrong. Finally, before he got famous, he actually answered one of my emails! (And “No”- he didn’t say “cease and desist,” either….)


    Keith “Can’t Think of a Slogan Today” Halperin
    keithsrj@sbcglobal.net 415.586.8265


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