Skeptics views it as a stunt. An organization looking to bolster its signature event selects – i.e. pays – an athlete, coach or entertainer to give a “keynote” address. The celebrity arrives five minutes before the speech, struts to the podium, grabs a few notes and rambles for 30 minutes, rehashing the same stories he or she has been telling for decades.
(Pictured: Youngstown Country Club superintendent Timothy Cunningham and Earnest Byner)
Attendees might chuckle a few times during the 30 minutes, and a few might be lucky enough to snap a selfie with the recognizable name. A handler then whisks the keynote speaker away because he or she must give the same speech in an adjacent hotel in 27 minutes.
Posting a picture of celebrity at the podium might generate a few Twitter and Facebook likes for attendees. But, if they are using the boss’s money to attend the event, how did they really grow from the experience?
The fleeting thrills associated with keynotes crossed my mind as I entered a Columbus Convention Center ballroom to hear former NFL running back Earnest Byner address a sizable crowd gathered for the 50th annual Ohio Turfgrass Foundation Conference & Show. Byner played 14 seasons, a spectacular feat when you consider the beatings running backs absorb. Byner won a Super Bowl with the 1992 Washington Redskins, but he’s best known in Ohio for a play simply known as “The Fumble,” a jarring moment when he lost the ball on the 3-yard line in the closing moments of the 1987 AFC Championship game. The Denver Broncos defeated Byner’s Cleveland Browns 38-33. The Browns have yet to sniff many victories, let alone a Super Bowl appearance since the play.
It’s the type of play central figures are asked to describe 99 times per week. To his credit, Byner openly discusses his worst professional moment. But Byner alluded to the play just twice in his OTF keynote address, once by displaying a photograph in his first slide and again in his closing thoughts.
The first inkling Byner’s speech was different from other keynotes arrived when he used his search for professional perfection to introduce team-building. “It was maddening,” he said. “I’m still pushing, still striving for perfection.”
Heads quickly rose from smartphones. What golf course superintendent, sports turf manager or landscape contractor can’t relate to the quest for perfection?
It’s driven plenty of professionals in our industry, well, mad. We all know somebody who is no longer in the industry because of this quest. We all know somebody who is likely to leave the industry because of the stress associated with perfection.
The search for perfection, according to Byner, begins with leaders and mentors. The people responsible for gathering the talent on the teams Byner played for created cultures where internal competition and camaraderie fostered external success.
Byner played for teams where younger players tried to win jobs from veterans. Who in the golf industry hasn’t seen young assistant superintendents push for jobs? Because he was speaking in Ohio, most of Byner’s speech offered examples of his first stint with the Browns from 1984-88, arguably the franchise’s most successful stretch in the Super Bowl era. The teams excelled because veterans mentored younger players and healthy competitions emerged at key positions.
“Find yourself a competitor, even if that competition is from within,” Byner said. “Find something that can drive you, challenge you, motivate you to take you to the next level.”
One of the greatest motivators Byner encountered was Eddie Johnson, a menacing linebacker who tested teammates. Every crew has a Johnson-like figure, a foreman, mechanic or technician with intrinsic abilities to help others. Johnson died of colon cancer in 2003, and Byner became solemn when discussing his former teammate’s impact on others. Although he never met Darian Daily, the Cincinnati Bengals head groundskeeper and ardent OTF supporter who died unexpectedly earlier this year, Byner said the stories he heard from Daily’s colleagues sparked memories of Johnson.
“Darian Daily … sounds like he was a hell of a guy,” Byner said. “Like Eddie, gone too soon. Magnificent job of passing on the wealth of information that he accrued. Most people don’t want to do that. Most people want to horde it, keep it for themselves. He was a good man. We’re blessed to have good men like Eddie Johnson and Darian Daily that have blessed our lives. You should use the information, use the energy that they shared with us.”
An increasing number of managers in the industry also are straying from connecting with employees on a personal level, whether it’s because of increased family demands or language barriers. Byner says the Browns of the mid- and late-1980s excelled because players clicked on personal levels through team gatherings and dinners. “Part of that team mentality is growing to love each other,” Byner said.
Byner seemed to love his time on the OTF stage. After meeting industry leaders at a welcome reception, he adjusted slides to include anecdotes from the previous night’s turf-related conversations. Byner, an avid golfer who lives in Tennessee, addressed the most important topic in the industry: managing people.
Keynotes don’t get much better. A football player who experienced a flawed moment offered guidance to help turfgrass managers handle the biggest obstacles they face in achieving perfection. Byner even stuck around for selfies and autographs.
He certainly flipped this skeptic.
Guy Cipriano is GCI’s associate editor.