SBJ/20100816/Sutton Impact

Rockne’s X’s and O’s of sales carry lessons for today’s leaders

My good friend and colleague Dick Irwin, at the University of Memphis, and I have been working in the area of sales coaching for several years. During the course of our research, I came across a rare account of Knute Rockne’s involvement with Studebaker Corp. as a sales manager and consultant. The book, “Salesman from the Sidelines” by McCready Huston, was written in 1932, after Rockne’s tragic death in a plane crash in 1931.

The impact of Rockne as a salesperson cannot be overstated as Rockne was the coach who brought Notre Dame into prominence and packaged and sold the Irish as a football product to the more-established schools that he needed to play to build a reputation as a national power. 

Rockne was so successful he was able to convince the Notre Dame administration to build a 57,000-seat stadium, which opened in 1930.

I would like to share some of Rockne’s thoughts and practices for today’s sales managers to aid them in the selection, training, motivation and development of their respective sales teams. I hope they find Rockne’s thoughts and words about sales useful in structuring their own “workouts, scrimmages and contests” because, according to Rockne, “It seems to me that the same psychology that makes for success in a football organization, will make for success in any organization, particularly in a selling organization.”

What follows is the Rockne philosophy of relating how he coached football to how he worked with the sales managers at Studebaker.

“You must have the ability to cooperate with the men [and women] around you.”

Known for his leadership at Notre Dame, Rockne
(center) also worked for Studebaker Corp.

A sales manager, like a coach, is always searching for talent and then must work diligently to get those talented people to work together and follow a game plan.

“Successful men [and women] have the ability to persevere — the ability to stick in there and keep giving the best of one’s self.”

Sales people succeed less that 5 percent of the time (and I am being generous). Given that you will fail 95 percent or more of the time, perseverance is essential to long-term success and a career in sales.

“Competition is a challenge you should thrill to.”

The thrill of competing and chasing a goal as well as the thrill of competing against each other is an essential part of the sales culture. To that end, sales managers need to have short-term and long-term forms of competition designed to motivate and provide numerous opportunities to compete and succeed.

“A sales manager is the trustee of the potential worth of every salesman in his employ. It’s his job to put enough time and effort into training every individual so that the maximum worth of each will be brought out.” 

While bringing in sales trainers from time to time is a good idea and provides salespeople with another perspective, a great sales manager will have a personal development plan for each member of the staff and will work with those individuals almost daily to help those individuals realize their full potential.

“It is the job of the sales manager to know where his men [and women] are every day and what they are doing.” 

Be present in the workplace, not removed from the sales floor in an office. Understand not only the departmental goal and sales numbers, but also those of every member of the sales team.

“Selling is dependent upon strong fundamentals. The sales manager must understand the blocking and tackling aspects necessary to be successful.”

Once the sales manager has identified the “blocking and tackling” skills that need to be practiced and perfected to achieve success, he or she must incorporate a repetition and review of those skills on an individualized basis for each member of the sales team.

“I have a control plan, or as I refer to it in football terms, a chart of play. This chart tells us everything we want to know about what happened in previous games and shows us just where we can improve on the individual performance of every team member.”

Sales managers employ sales charts, call records and lead scoring, as well as call volume, call length and sales-to-call ratios to determine how to improve the performance of every sales team member. As in Rockne’s world, how you have prepared, your practices, the strength of your fundamentals, what you have done and how you have done it — these are the best measures of predictive success.

“A handler of men [and women] must be willing to break his/her group down into units and study, work and understand each one. He/she must understand the minds of each and know something of the mental hazards confronting him/her.” 

To truly understand someone, you must understand each person not only professionally, but also personally. Are they going through a divorce? Expecting a child? Is there something interfering with their ability to perform? The best chance to achieve success is to remove the obstacles blocking that success.

“The thing we insist upon and stress with men on a competitive team like a football team can be put into one word: pep.” 

In Rockne’s world, pep stood for purpose, enthusiasm and perseverance. While we have already examined perseverance, purpose and enthusiasm merit some explanation.

One of the essential qualities that I look for in a sales candidate is enthusiasm. Are they bringing a good state of mind to the work place? Are they excited about selling? 

Purpose refers to desire and focus and is usually more difficult to identify and demonstrate. At one of our recent Sport Sales Combines, I met a young man named Chris Hong, who exuded more purpose in his interview than I had seen in quite some time. Chris is now demonstrating that purpose and pep for the Atlanta Hawks and Thrashers and averaging more than $7,000 in ticket sales per week in less than nine months on the job.

Rockne was a highly organized, focused, inspirational leader who created a system that maximized efficiency and produced results at the highest levels on the football field and at the dealerships. Every sales manager needs such a consistent coaching approach to be effective.

And if they’re Irish, well, a little bit of luck never hurts.

Bill Sutton ( is a professor and associate director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida and principal of Bill Sutton & Associates. Follow him on Twitter @Sutton_Impact.

Return to top
Video Powered By - Castfire CMS Powered By - Sitecore

Report a Bug