There are lessons from college sports that can be transferred to other areas of life, even to higher educational administrative apparatuses. Personnel moves on the football field can mirror personnel moves in departments or schools. People are put in different positions and called upon to execute different roles and assignments.
The people who are moved are not emotionless robots, but human beings who feel, think, and have their own personal aspirations in addition to the goals of a particular entity. This can make personnel moves complicated and multi-dimensional. A poorly thought out move that doesn’t take a multitude of factors into account can destroy the atmosphere of a working environment and foster division instead of collaboration. There is responsibility on both those who make the decisions and those who are impacted by those decisions.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a new onslaught of organizational redesigns, demotions, pay cuts, layoffs, resignations, and firings. Each of these can create significant disruptions for the operating efficiency and effectiveness of organizations. A great example of how to handle a demotion and career redirection was provided by former University of Alabama Quarterback Jalen Hurts.
Hurts began his career at Alabama as the backup Quarterback. He became the starter after performing well in his first game in replacement of the starting quarterback Blake Barnett after he had been pulled out by Head Coach Nick Saban. Hurts went on to lead the Crimson Tide to a victory over the University of Southern California Trojans.
He would remain the starter and lead the Crimson Tide to the National Championship game where they eventually lost in overtime to a Clemson University team led by quarterback Deshaun Watson. Hurts had a stellar season and was named the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Offensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year. Hurts would again lead Alabama back to the National Championship game as a starter during his sophomore season.
Though they were winning games during the year, some glaring holes in Hurts’ game were beginning to show and be exploited by opposing teams. He was an outstanding runner and leader of his teammates, but he passing performance was inconsistent and need significant improvement.
This weakness finally caught up with him as the opposing Georgia Bulldogs had his Alabama Crimson Tide team down 13 to 0 at halftime of the 2018 National Championship Game. At that point Hurts was benched in favor of the more dynamic passer Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa lead Alabama to an exhilarating comeback victory that was capped off by a game winning touchdown pass. Hurts outwardly congratulated Tagovailoa and celebrated with his teammates but must have felt some sense of dejection at the same time.
Hurts would say later in an ESPN interview that reflected on the game that the “day made me who I am, I wouldn’t change it for the World.” Most people will never have to deal with that kind of public demotion in front of millions of people, but they will deal with some level of harsh critique, role reduction, dismissal, or career redirection.
It can cause an identity crisis for those who have identified a lot of themselves with their job. It can cause one to question their own value, ability, and purpose. It can be extremely disappointing to invest a great deal of one’s life into a certain job only to be discarded or pushed aside.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down entire industries and caused massive employment losses and downsizing. The trend of human jobs being lost to automation only accelerated more. The numbers of those who have been let go have been widely reported, but there is also a need to go beyond the numbers and look at the human impact.
It would be prudent for those who have been impacted by this kind of career adversity to study how Jalen Hurts handled the loss of his starting role. Tagovailoa had replaced Hurts as the starting quarterback. Hurts could have pouted and thrown himself a pity party because of his demotion. Instead, stayed the course and took the time to evaluate his game and work on his weaknesses. He supported his teammates and continued to be a team leader from a reserve role. He learned how to lead from behind.
He worked and prepared himself for the next opportunity that he would have to play. He made the most of the time that he did get in games. He held his cards close to his chest so even if he was disgruntled in some way, he didn’t show it externally. He could have transferred right away after learning that Tagovailoa would be the starter for the following season, but he stayed with the team and used the time to improve.
In the college football playoffs the next year against Georgia, Hurts would come in for Tagovailoa after he was sidelined by an injury and lead the Crimson Tide to a victory. By the time that Hurts did transfer to another football program a year later at the University of Oklahoma, he was a significantly better player in every area.
His unprecedented demotion after leading Alabama to a 26 (wins) and 2 (losses) record and two consecutive national championship games ultimately catapulted him into becoming a significantly improved version of himself. He arrived at the University of Oklahoma as a far superior quarterback than he was at any point in his Alabama career. This momentum carried him through a standout final college and exceptional rookie season with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles where he was named the starter during the latter part of the season.
The mindset and strategies that Hurts employed can be utilized by others in different fields who are facing similar career storms. A person can do all the storm preparation in the world, but one only truly knows the quality of their preparation when it is put to the test during a storm. Those who are truly prepared and made deep investments in themselves will be fortified during a storm, those who did not will be blown away.
It is clear that Hurts and his support system made many internal investments in him that fortified his character so that he would be able to sustain and get better during his career storm. Periods of adversity can make or break a person. The wise use the time to do a thorough self-evaluation and confront those areas within themselves where they feel insecure, inadequate, incompetent, or inconsistent. They use these periods to dig deep and discover characteristics about themselves that they may not have known. Follow the Jalen Hurts template when dealing with career storms and make the shift from being a victim to a victor.
Dr. Marcus Bright is a scholar and educational administrator.