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BOOK REVIEW

Some coaching for business from the world of sports

As even nonjocks can attest, you can't escape hackneyed football metaphors in the world of business.

Companies come up with game plans and designate executives to quarterback projects as others put on a marketing blitz. If a corporate initiative lurches toward failure, you might choose to punt. Or you go back to "blocking and tackling," which is to say, getting back to the basics of what you make, do, and sell.

The pervasiveness of football lingo and imagery in the US business world makes books like "Winning the NFL Way" inevitable. Those who have mastered the skill of leading 45 sweaty giants to a Super Bowl victory must have unique wisdom that bears on managing a business or organization, right?

Not exactly. This book by sports agent Bob LaMonte, timed to hit bookstores just in time for the 2004 preseason, offers a good handful of unusual insights into how these coaches do their jobs, and lots of jock-talk vignettes that will appeal to football fans. But there are no astonishing insights here. Most of the lessons are bromides you're certain to have read or heard elsewhere: Prepare exhaustively. Seek passion first, skill second, in your employees. Canvass your staff for feedback. Admit error quickly. And focus on gaining strength from adversity. "A well-coached team follows its game plan, but is flexible in making changes," reads one typically benign piece of advice.

LaMonte is not an objective observer, but more of a cheerleader. A former high school history teacher who dabbled in representing ex-student athletes before making it his second career, LaMonte happens also to be the agent for the five head coaches around whom he builds the book: John Fox of the Carolina Panthers, Jon Gruden of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Mike Holmgren of the Seattle Seahawks, Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles, and Mike Sherman of the Green Bay Packers.

Coaches are a good case study in chief-executive-dom, even if they are a uniquely stressed breed. If this is an average NFL year, seven of the 32 team coaches will be fired by January. More and more, coaches report to business world multimillionaires who've bought a team -- like the New England Patriots' Robert K. Kraft, king of a cardboard-box fortune -- and bring make-the-numbers pressure to bear. "One season in the NFL is like 20 years of decision-making for a Fortune 500 executive," Sherman tells LaMonte.

The take-home lessons LaMonte imparts may not dazzle you, but some of the strongest passages in the book illuminate traits that could be said to illustrate ultra-rigorous planning, or perhaps obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Gruden, for example, sets his alarm clock for precisely 3:17 a.m. every day. When he takes his Seahawks to summer camp near Spokane, Wash., Holmgren sketches out a plan for literally every minute of the six weeks of camp, meant to give "everyone the freedom to do his job without having any distractions."

At his first job interview with Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, Reid showed up with an extraordinary binder in hand, a collection of literally thousands of notes he had been making for years, ever since he first became a football coach in 1982 working for Brigham Young University's legendary Lavell Edwards.

The notes weren't just diagrams of good screen plays and onside kicks and observations on rival players. They covered everything from marketing ideas and pep talks to tips on good food service and team road-travel arrangements. Reid could be an inspiration to any 20- or 30-something cubicle rat who dreams of being the chief executive someday.

In general, all five coaches also exhibit a humility that seems alien to today's chief executives. Returning from his triumph leading the Packers to a 35-21 victory over the Patriots in 1997's Super Bowl XXXI, Holmgren offers one of his assistants a ride to the Tuesday victory parade in Green Bay. The assistant coach is stunned to see the back seat piled high with dirty clothes.

"I gotta go to the dry cleaner," Holmgren explains, "to drop some clothes off for [his wife] Kathy and the girls."

It's tempting to wonder how much an attitude like that would have saved an L. Dennis Kozlowski or a prison-bound Martha Stewart.

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

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