It was years ago when Todd Haley got the book, before the pages were creased and stained with highlighter marks. He still consults it a few times a month, searching for a lost proverb, hunting for validation.
Where would he find it this time? In "The Art of War," where was there an explanation or reason for this?
It is last Sunday. The Chiefs are in Oakland and, as they have often this season, are struggling. Are trying to escape this battle with a rare victory. Trying to earn some of that validation that Haley has turned back more than 2,500 years to find. There is a fourth down, the fringe of a momentum shift, and Haley calls timeout an instant before the ball is snapped. The Raiders fumble, but it doesn't matter because the timeout nullifies the play. Assistant head coach Maurice Carthon chastises Haley, and Haley returns fire. While television cameras zoom in, the Chiefs' head coach and his top lieutenant engage in a verbal, R-rated spat.
"He was getting after me," Haley will say a day later, after the Chiefs leave Oakland with a 16-10 win.
Haley could smile about it then. In earlier weeks, Haley has cursed at players, publicly reprimanded coaches, berated referees and screamed at distractions. He also has questioned, or eliminated, the soldiers he deems too weak. Videos exist of some of Haley's more intense moments. Others transpire behind closed doors. Intensity and passion are, he says, the measure of a worthy general — even if Haley is putting to use an aging and disappearing method: that a military approach commands respect and compels his men to work the way he needs them to.
"I can't say I've ever felt like I've gone too far," Haley says. "That's my personality. I think I'm well-equipped to handle that. I think I kind of thrive in it."
But the philosophy isn't as popular as it once was. As effective as it might be and might have once been, it is nothing if not unpopular among those being commanded. Championships are won these days with players' thoughts, feelings and comfort in mind. Tony Dungy did it that way in Indianapolis. Mike Tomlin is doing it that way in Pittsburgh. One of the reasons that coaches are turning to softer philosophies is because emotion is combustible, and when it boils over, few things are as dangerous.
Forty miles west of Kansas City, that is becoming abundantly clear. Mark Mangino, the football coach at Kansas, was at the center of a controversy this week after former players accused him of verbal abuse. He had lost control of his emotions too often. Whether Mangino coaches with intimidation, intensity or fear as his primary motivator, going too far is enough to land a coach in career-threatening trouble.
"You can be successful a lot of ways," Dungy says. "You have to be true to yourself and your personality. That's what your players want."
Haley says he can only coach the way he knows. He grew up with a fiery mother, was raised with an appetite for an intense game, and studied under the tutelage of a man who coached with the passion and audacity of a general. Haley learned the game's finer points from Bill Parcells, and Parcells learned them from Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist. Haley was on Parcells' staff when the old coach quoted from "The Art of War," and used its teachings — that strategy, preparation and respect are the hallmarks of a victorious leader.
Haley had to read it. He tried to absorb everything Parcells offered, but few lessons made sense the way Sun's teachings did.
Throw your soldiers into positions whence there is no escape, and they will prefer death to flight. If they will face death, there is nothing they may not achieve.
Haley devoured the words, marking in the book and making notes. If football is war and players are soldiers, then a unit's leader must command respect at every turn, at every position, at every level.
He will win whose army is animated by the same spirit throughout all its ranks.
He must expect perfection. He must shame and banish the weak. Haley kept coming back to it, several times per month even now, and revisiting his favorite passages and finding a kind of validation that was written in the 6th Century B.C., in times of vast bloodshed and worldwide tumult, but still strikes a chord with football men who want to lead others by attracting respect the way ancient commanders once did.
Bestow rewards without regard to rule, issue orders without regard to previous arrangements; and you will be able to handle a whole army as though you had to do with but a single man.
It is because of this that Haley insists he is in control of his emotions. It is part of the plan, he says, and if outbursts are planned and explosions are managed, they have purpose and meaning. It is when they are not calculated and are tied to reactions that a leader loses control and, as in the case of Mangino and every coach's worst fear, loses his men.
"I'm very aware of what I'm doing," Haley says. "Very aware."
The problem is that it, many times, Haley's responses don't seem calculated. Screaming at a daydreaming player during practice is one thing, but what is the value — and what are the risks — of engaging in a profanity-laced shouting match with a top assistant while thousands of others, including Haley's impressionable players, watch?
"If it works, that's a problem, too," says Robert Troutwine, an Kansas City-area applied psychologist who works with sports teams. "It reinforces the idea that I can settle all my problems by doing that."
Troutwine says that coaches sometimes overvalue intimidation and fear; that if a mistake is made, regardless of its severity, there could be extreme consequences. He says it's a common mistake, and if the approach is used improperly, it is a certain way to the firing line. Troutwine says that if a coach has established respect among his players and that trust is strong, the coach can lead the way he sees fit.
Parcells, after all, has won two Super Bowls. But if respect and trust are still in the building phase — Haley is in his first season as a head coach, and under him, the Chiefs are 2-7 — then the coach could be taking a calculated risk that, amid all the outbursts, a valuable message might be lost.
"Just like you can tune out the guy running the lawn mower outside," Troutwine says. "You just stop hearing it after a while."
That's why Haley is one of a handful of NFL coaches who don't dampen their emotions, whether in private or while television cameras pull in close. It's a risky coaching decision, and one that Sun Tzu might have been reluctant to advise of a first-time leader.
For every Haley or New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin, another intense and unforgiving coach, there are growing examples of Dungy and Tomlin finding success without risking their players' respect or attention spans. Even in college, Mangino and those like him are outnumbered by coaches who passed on the tyrant act and instead embraced the big-brother role, such as Southern California's Pete Carroll, Texas' Mack Brown and Iowa's Kirk Ferentz.
"That's kind of just the way I was raised," Dungy says. "I just felt that was just the way I always wanted to be coached.... You're giving information to players, trying to help them become better, but also listening to their feedback."
For his part, Haley is undeterred. He says he's comfortable in his skin and with his approach. He says the only thing that will matter is whether it's effective.
"I think you'd better win, whatever you do," he says. "It's a bottom-line business for us. That's the way it's always been. That hasn't changed. That being said, this is a big job. This is a team that hasn't won a lot of games in a handful of years. It was obviously broken. I've been put in charge in the coaching area of fixing that, and it's not for the faint of heart."
There are other lessons, of course, that have found their way under Haley's highlighter.
He will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight.
That's the challenge. Haley says that, as the Chiefs toughen, mature and improve, the pressure on his soldiers will ease. It's only fair. He says that's part of the plan and that, in some ways, he already has loosened his grip. The best leaders recognize their subordinates' strengths and weaknesses — and when they need rest.
As the Chiefs approached their bye weekend last month, Haley threatened that the team might work through the weekend if practices didn't sharpen. The coach had little plan of carrying through with it, but he got his intended response. Players and coaches had a free weekend, and considering the circumstances, it probably felt liberating.
They returned to the practice field, and if their play or conditioning or mental approach had slipped, then they paid for it. If details were a problem, they fine-tuned them. Haley says he's unconcerned with his players' opinions of him, as long as they mind his message. He says he has a family to love him. He has friends to laugh with him. He says he needs only commitment and, if he had his way, perfection from his players.
He says respect will come in time — but only if he's successful. After all, the other leaders who mastered the art of war never stopped trying to improve and find a better way to chase perfection. Haley says he won't, either.
Making no mistakes is what establishes the certainty of victory, for it means conquering an enemy that is already defeated.
"As you make progress," Haley says, "I think you're still pushing the team hard. I'm always going to coach hard. I'm always going to expect good results. I would say that if I stop expecting good to great results, then there's a problem.
"As long as it's not affecting your judgment — and judgment is critical. We all have to play within the boundaries, and I think I do that."