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April 3, 2014

Books, Journals & More A closer look:

James Earle

EarleThe book “100 Yards of Success: Leadership Lessons from College Football,” by James V. Earle, is the culmination of leadership lessons gained over the span of two decades at Pitt and a lifetime of involvement in sports.

“You read a lot about the things that are wrong” in college athletics, said Earle, who spent more than a decade in Pitt’s Athletics department before moving to lead Housing and Food Services a decade ago. “I thought it would really be neat to share some of the great things that go on behind the scenes in college athletics and the lessons leaders could really benefit from,” he said.

While Earle no longer works in Athletics, his passion for sports remains. Sports themes are the basis for many of the posts on his leadership blog (; in addition, Earle, the father of three boys, coaches his sons’ soccer and basketball teams.

Earle, who became assistant vice chancellor for business in 2008 and earned his doctorate in education here in 2009, got his start at Pitt as a volunteer in Athletics while in the MBA program here two decades ago. “I knew I wanted to work in college athletics,” he said, admitting, “I had to beg for them to let me volunteer.”

Within a matter of months, a full-time position in non-revenue sports opened up, and Earle joined the Athletics staff. It was there he met then-Pitt football coach John Majors. “When he was looking for an assistant athletics director for football operations, he knew me from the department and I was able to move into that role,” Earle said.

From football operations, Earle moved to the business and marketing side of Athletics, leaving in 2004 when the opportunity to lead Housing and Food Services arose.

Working behind the scenes gave Earle a glimpse into the complexity as well as the efficiency of college football programs, and the seeds for the book were sown.

“When you think about it, moving 130 people to an away game or to a bowl game requires a lot of organization, a lot of efficiency in operations,” Earle said. “I remember thinking at the time: Most people don’t realize how organized, how effective, how structured, these programs are behind the scenes, how disciplined they are behind the scenes. I thought then it would be neat to really share this one day,” he said.

“Having worked in this organization in the time I have, I’ve seen a lot of great leadership; I’ve learned a lot about great leadership,” Earle said.

“There were really, really tough times in the ’90s and I was fortunate to be there when we really changed our Athletics department and our reputation nationally. And to be a part of the University through this 20 years of Chancellor (Mark) Nordenberg and see what he and (Executive Vice Chancellor) Jerry Cochran have done here. Just to be part of that and see how it happened, I’ve really benefited in terms of learning about leadership and seeing great leadership.”

Where pride was lacking two decades ago, there’s been an “unbelievable” culture change to one of excitement and passion. “Now people are proud to say, ‘I work at Pitt,’” Earle said, crediting the tone set by Pitt leadership.

“It’s so important that we, as leaders, set that tone, that we are passionate about what we do. … The organization tends to emulate us. And if they get excited about what we do, then customers start to feel that excitement and then you can have a successful organization and you can sustain it.”


100 yards of successWhile the idea for Earle’s book is 20 years old, dating back to his football operations days, the actual writing — from outline to publication — was done over the course of three years, he said. The book is arranged in an easy-to-read format that progresses lesson by lesson through a 100-yard drive to the end zone.

“It’s not so theoretical that people can’t grasp it. I hope it’s very practical,” he said. “I tried to make it a broad application that anyone interested in leadership at any level — from somebody just starting out in a student group, to a CEO — could read this and get some thoughts out of it,” he said.

“When I started to really think about the book and how to structure it, I thought yard-by-yard matching a football field would be a really neat way of attacking it. It would allow readers to read a yard or two at a time,” said Earle. “I wanted it to be short, quick-hitting lessons that you could read one or two of them, then put the book down.”

Of course, using a football analogy presented a challenge: “If you’re going to go yard by yard, you’ve got to complete the field,” he said, quipping that while the first 75 yards came pretty easily, “I pushed to get the rest of them.”


Although it’s not explicitly stated, the book is arranged to move a new leader or someone building a new organization through a logical sequence. “It starts with knowing thyself, which I think is the most important leadership principle,” Earle said.

“We can’t lead effectively if we’re not honest about who we are, what our strengths are, what our weaknesses are. And you know, people don’t often like to talk about their weaknesses,” he said, adding that he hopes the book will make people think about their weaknesses in order to educate themselves to overcome or compensate in those areas, or to hire people with complementary talents to fill those weak spots.

“Then I move through a progression of recruiting and hiring the best talent. As we used to say in athletics, ‘Great players make great coaches.’ It’s the same in leadership. Great employees make great bosses. If we hire a great team, we’re going to be perceived as a much better organization,” Earle said.

“I walk through a progression of recruiting, hiring and, once we have the team in place, how to manage performance, holding people accountable and responsible.”

Next comes organizational structure: how they fit in the organization. Then on to teambuilding and motivation.

“We’ve got this team in place: How do we really get them to come together and be a great team? And then how do I as a leader motivate them? What characteristics are important for leadership? What qualities and traits do I need to really get the most out of that team?” he said.

“I hope that there’s an inspirational, positive  sense  at  the  end  of  it  too,” Earle said. “Some of the lessons — like the importance of enthusiasm and positivity and courage — they’re things that won’t just motivate your team but hopefully will keep you, the reader, motivated and inspired as well.”

The positive message is by design. “What I’ve seen is that coaches and leaders who tend to have sustained success are very positive,” Earle said. “Their positivity really is conveyed to the organization and becomes a culture in the organization.”

Earle said he relates positivity to sustained success because he has observed that positive people tend to bounce back while those with defeatist attitudes find it more difficult to recover from challenges.

“Sustained success comes to those organizations that bounce back and see the light at the end of the tunnel: ‘We can get through this and we’ll be okay,’” Earle said.

“The teams that can come back from a tough loss and turn it around the next week and have a positive performance are ones that tend to be positive in that week of practice after the loss,” he said. “If you lose a tough game and the coaching staff is demoralized for the whole week leading up to your next game, there’s a good chance you’re going to lose the next game.

“That positive theme is an important one for me and it was something I was able to see firsthand. It’s something that I’ve tried to bring to leadership positions I’ve been in: that idea of being positive and optimistic and staying focused on the long-term goals and long-term vision so the short-term defeats don’t bring you down.”

“I think I was fortunate to work for some great leaders and some great coaches who taught me a lot,” said Earle. “I learned a lot from the bad coaches too.” Those lessons in how not to lead are set in positive terms. “Rather than talk about a coach that talked all the time and never listened to players and just was kind of a dictator… I would talk about how important listening is,” he said.


Anyone looking for a tell-all book from an athletics insider stands to be disappointed. The book doesn’t recount specific anecdotes about Pitt coaches or athletics directors, by design, Earle said. “I didn’t want it to be about this coach or that coach. I wanted it to be a little bit more universal: Leadership principles that people could use and apply,” he said.

“I could probably link 80 percent of those (lessons) to “This coach made me think about this, or this coach made me think about that … but if I did that, then what (readers) remember is ‘when Coach (John) Majors did that’ or ‘when Coach (Walt) Harris did that.’ … They don’t remember the leadership lesson, they remember the story about Coach Majors,” Earle said.

“I really wanted the focus to be on the lessons, improving leadership. My ultimate goal — whether it’s from the book or whether it’s from somebody listening to a talk I give about leadership — the ultimate goal is that they become a more effective leader.”

An effective leader improves the lives of his or her employees and his or her organization’s customers, Earle said. “If their lives are better, then I’ve been an effective leader.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow