Press Box

The Tao of Bear

The Paul “Bear” Bryant lessons on leadership Howell Raines failed to absorb.

New York Times Executive Editor Howell Raines frequently cites former University of Alabama Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant on leadership and motivation, believing that the lessons taught by the legendary gridiron helmsman translate directly to the newsroom.

“He was a very influential figure for any student of leadership,” Raines told The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta last summer. “When Coach Bryant walked onto a football field, everybody in that stadium knew that football would be played here today.”

Times staffers cringe at Raines’ Bryantisms, and rightly so. It’s one thing for a crag-faced coach to inspire a bunch of post-adolescent muscleheads with his football platitudes and quite another for an editor in chief to apply those same command-and-control ideas to 1,000 accomplished newspaper professionals.

And yet … had Raines actually practiced the Tao of Bear since taking over the Times 20 months ago, would he and his managers have so fumbled the Jayson Blair crackup? Let’s go to Bear’s wisdom, collected on the CoachLikeaPro Web site, and see.

The Times blamed the Blair debacle on Blair. Here’s Bear on accepting responsibility and delegating credit:

If we have an intercepted pass, I threw it. I’m the head coach. If we get a punt blocked, I caused it. A bad practice, a bad game, it’s up to the head coach to assume his responsibility. … If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, then you did it.

Since taking over the executive editor slate, Raines has encouraged more than a dozen accomplished journalists to leave the Times while relying on too many green reporters like Blair. Here’s what Bear had to say about managing talent:

Get the winners into the game.

Bear on the one-size-fits-all style of personnel management:

You have to learn what makes this or that Sammy run. For one it’s a pat on the back, for another it’s eating him out, for still another it’s a fatherly talk, or something else. You’re a fool if you think as I did as a young coach, that you can treat them all alike.

Raines and the Times tried to save Jayson Blair from himself. Bear knew better:

The biggest mistake coaches make is taking borderline cases and trying to save them. I’m not talking about grades now, I’m talking about character. I want to know before a boy enrolls about his home life, and what his parents want him to be.

Raines’ “flood the zone” approach to covering news has burned out his staff. Bear conserved his troops:

Don’t overwork your squad. If you’re going to make a mistake, under-work them.

The Times staff says Raines favors kowtowers. Bear warned against them:

Be aware of “yes” men. Generally, they are losers. Surround yourself with winners. Never forget—people win.

Raines’ high self-regard blinds him from seeing himself as his staff sees him. Bear’s advice:

Scout yourself. Have a buddy who coaches scout you.

Raines runs the Times on the star system, favoring reporters such as Steven Weisman, Elisabeth Bumiller, Alex Kuczynski, Alessandra Stanley,Douglas Jehl, Felicity Barringer, David Barstow, and especially the error-prone Rick Bragg over the paper’s “B team.” Bear taught the Crimson Tide to play as a team:

People who are in it for their own good are individualists. They don’t share the same heartbeat that makes a team so great. A great unit, whether it be football or any organization, shares the same heartbeat.

And, finally, the Raines regime disregarded Blair’s personal deficiency and promoted him beyond his abilities. Bear cautioned against such double standards:

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.


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