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Change the Rules

I follow college football and have been a HUGE fan of the University of Michigan football team since my days as an MBA student. I’ll pull for Michigan over anyone except maybe Minnesota where I received my undergraduate degree. I was shocked recently (along with most of the country) when Michigan, ranked at #5 nationally in a preseason poll, was defeated by Appalachian State (a division I-AA team) in their opening game 34-32. Last weekend they followed this “fluke” by being humiliated by Oregon 39-7. It was the first time since 1959 that Michigan has opened a season with 2 losses at home.

The post game critiques were ferocious. Many announcers / sports writers called for Coach Lloyd Carr to resign or be fired. Some questioned the passion of the team which is usually beating up early season opponents especially at home. The consensus comment was that Michigan was not used to or ready for the “spread” offense.

What happened?

A team with a spread offense thins out the defense by positioning eligible receivers across the entire width of the field instead of packing them in the middle for protection. If the quarterback can get his receiver the ball quickly there is less room for error for the defense. The players are extremely fast and the play is accelerated. Appalachian State runs without a huddle. Michigan’s defensive line couldn’t keep up. Appalachian State got one touchdown, then another. It was 28-17 at the half. Sports Illustrated reported “it was obvious to everyone that the Wolverines had no answer for the spread.” Mitch Albom wrote after the Oregon game “they have played two games now and the defense is apparently still checking into the dorms.” The TV announcers said Michigan liked to play “smash mouth” football. They were out of their comfort zone.

The rules had changed.

Appalachian State and Oregon had proactively changed the rules of the game. They did not try to run up the middle against Michigan’s big line or drop their quarterback into a traditional pocket. Michigan seemed unprepared and could not compete.


Didn’t Coach Carr know these two teams were on his schedule? Didn’t he know they both ran the spread? Shouldn’t he have been preparing for these two games since January? Yes, yes and yes. For some reason either he didn’t do a very good job of planning and/or his team didn’t implement well. He was outcoached. He commented after the Oregon loss “maybe the game’s passed me by.” – WOW

So where am I going with this? How can David kill Goliath or at least create havoc?

As a marketer I try to put myself into the shoes of my customers, my suppliers, my distributors and finally my competitors and then play a “what if” game. I play to win. If I implement a certain tactic how will it be perceived by these key groups? How will they react?

In the military they call it out flanking your enemy. Rather than going head to head against an opponent’s strength (or competing the way everyone else is) figure out a weakness of the opposing army and exploit it. Appalachian State and Oregon proactively chose not to play traditional “smash mouth” football against Michigan. They apparently had a stable of smaller, faster players and used them to their advantage. They took a risk, changed the game and won. Michigan was caught off guard.

Now tie this back to your product, your service, your company or maybe even you as a person. How can you publicize, promote, sell and/or distribute your product in such a way that your competition won’t have an answer for how to compete? Think out of the box. Your competition may be so invested in the current system that they can’t or won’t change until it is too late.

How do you change the rules of the game? It probably will involve taking calculated risks since few companies in your market are successfully doing it now but the potential rewards are huge.

Now I hope Michigan can turn it around against Notre Dame this weekend. At least the Irish don’t have a spread offense. Go Blue!

Until next time – All the best!


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