Bill Kramer's unwavering commitment to excellence offers lessons for executives and entrepreneurs.
Under Head Coach Bill Kramer, the Naples High School football team began each season on a players’ retreat. Long before for the first snap of the first game, Kramer and his coaches picked six players to form a players-only leadership committee. One major task for the appointed high schoolers on the retreat: create a theme for the season. “It’s important to find out who you are and own it,” Kramer would tell his players.
“They didn’t talk about running a better 40-yard dash or who can lift 300 pounds or who’s going jump over six feet,” Kramer adds, in a recent Zoom interview. “Those were not the parameters. It was always about a commitment to being excellent.”
In 2001, the six Naples High Golden Eagles chose “Begin With the End in Mind” as their team theme. Borrowed from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” by Stephen Covey, the phrase proved prescient: Naples High won a state championship in 2001. It was the first of two state titles the team won under Kramer, part of a 20-year tenure that saw the school become one of the top high school football programs in Florida. (Kramer also boasts that more 90% of his players went on to college, served in the military or became first responders.)
Kramer was named head coach at Naples High in 1998. Back then, to compare it to a business, the Naples High football team, was, at best, a firm mired in a major sales slump with few prospects for a quick turnaround. Kramer had been the head coach at American High School in Miami-Dade County, an up-and-comer in the insular world of high school football coaching. Kramer nearly balked at the Naples gig, he writes in his recent book, “Great Day…Today: A True Story of Faith, Family and Football,” written with Naples Daily News sports columnist Brent Batten.
The school’s facilities and other components coaches look for in a new job were subpar, he says. He also worried he would not have support, the necessary buy-in from teachers, administrators, parents, and most importantly, players.
Back in Miami, Kramer, a devout Christian, says he prayed on the potential opportunity he had waiting across Alligator Alley at Naples High. After that, and many chats with his wife, Sue, he took the job. His success over two decades — his 216-51 record ranks No. 1 at Naples High in wins and winning percentage — offers several important leadership lessons for any executive or entrepreneur.
• Standard formation: Kramer says Naples High running back Carlos Hyde, part of the 2007 State Championship team, represented a lesson in always raising the bar. Hyde, recalls Kramer, would consistently hit whatever mark the coaches set for him in drills. It looked so easy, the assistant coaches, at first, thought Hyde wasn’t giving full effort.
So Kramer told his assistants: raise the bar. Hyde, who went on to play at Ohio State and has been in the NFL now for seven years, would meet those new goals, too. To Kramer, the lesson was you’re a players will rise to the opportunities you give them. And they will set an example for others. “If you don’t meet the standard you’re going to work harder and longer,” Kramer says, “and you’re not going to get more compensation because you didn’t reach the bar.”
• Trap game: Kramer talks often about the need for radical transparency in coaching — and leading others. Don’t, he cautions, fall trap to the lure of making decisions just to be liked. “If you’re going to be a leader, don’t be a liar,” he says. “If you have employees and you tell them ‘this is the standard’ and you allow anything less, then you have lied to them. You always have to correct inappropriate behavior.”
“If you have employees and you tell them ‘this is the standard’ and you allow anything less, then you have lied to them. You always have to correct inappropriate behavior." Bill Kramer
• Go for two: In addition to themes, the Naples High football team players all received a catch-phrase T-shirt for each season. (Long before former Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon gave his new team, the Chicago Cubs, a shirt that said ‘Try Not to Suck” in 2016.) One of Kramer’s favorite shirts? The year it had the word Mediocre stamped out. It reminds Kramer of one of his favorite quotes from legendary University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, that “mediocre people don’t like high achievers and high achievers don’t like mediocre people.”
• Call an audible: As football playbooks got thicker and ever-more complicated, Kramer says he took a business lesson from Chick-fil-A, the fast-food titan that’s long stuck to chicken. “That’s what they do,” he says, “and they are great at it.”
Kramer says in the off-season his assistant coaches would flock to football seminars and upon returning would eagerly have new plays at the ready. “I would say, ‘that’s great. What are you going to take out?’ You can’t just keep adding to the playbook.”
• Forward pass: Like a too-thick playbook, Kramer sometimes would bristle at phony adversity coaches use to pump up players. For an object lesson in resiliency, and a life lesson to be grateful — and graceful — Kramer took teams to Golisano Children’s Hospital in Naples to visit kids with cancer or burn victims. “All of a sudden,” he says, “working hard in the weight room or in the classroom began to seem much more attractive.”
Kramer writes about how his faith guided him in many decisions at Naples High. That faith remains paramount in his life today, in his role as area director of the Southwest Florida region for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He left Naples High at the end of 2019 season.
Within his faith, Kramer tells a story about humility and its impact on his mission to become a servant leader — something he pushed for all his coaches and players to strive for. One of his coaching role models was Ken Sparks, who holds the record for most wins in NCAA Division II history. Sparks, who, like Kramer, was active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and upfront about his faith, coached the Carson-Newman University football team in Jefferson City, Tennessee from 1980 to 2016. His tenure a included five NAIA Championships. Sparks died, from cancer, in 2017.
Kramer sat next to former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dungy, another admirer of Sparks, at a memorial event after the revered coach died. Kramer told Dungy how Sparks took a then-young Kramer in 30 years ago, let him stay in his house for a few nights. They talked faith and football for hours. “I said to Tony, ‘I don’t know why he did that. He didn’t know me and he didn’t have to do that,’” Kramer says. “Tony’s response was very humbling. He said, ‘Bill, he would’ve done that for anyone. That had nothing to do with you.”