Pro Football Hall of Famer and entrepreneur Fran Tarkenton can recount the exact moment when his future was a blank slate that needed paint, and fast. He was a college backup quarterback at the University of Georgia, standing beside coach Wally Butts and watching the Bulldogs losing to Texas. Tarkenton noticed his team’s starting quarterback was slow to get up from the bench after Georgia’s defense had stopped Texas. What he chose to do next changed his life forever.
“I saw him sitting there, so I ran on the field and joined the huddle,” Tarkenton said in a recent episode of Corporate Competitor Podcast. “My teammates said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I told them I was there to win the game. I went on to march us 95 yards down the field and score our first points of the game. If I didn’t make that move at that time, I might never have played college football. That moment was transformational for my life.”
Georgia lost the game, but Tarkenton kept his football dream alive and went on to have a College Football Hall of Fame career at Georgia, followed by an 18-year professional career, mostly with the Minnesota Vikings, a trip to three Super Bowls and induction into the NFL Hall of Fame. But he is best known for practically inventing the art of scrambling in the backfield, which changed the position of quarterback forever.
Tarkenton was of that generation of professional football players who didn’t make a lot of money playing the game and worked odd jobs to supplement their income in the offseason. The happy result of this necessity was that Tarkenton developed a sharp business mind—a mind shaped by lessons learned on the field. After retiring from football after the 1978 season, Tarkenton created numerous businesses, including Tarkenton Financial, which offers annuity products, Tarkenton Companies, which provides a wide range of consulting services to small businesses, and GoSmallBiz.com, which provides marketing solutions to small companies.
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Tarkenton recalls an occasion when, as the CEO of GoSmallBiz.com, he wanted to partner with hardware giant IBM to develop software targeted for small businesses. Using his celebrity as a lever to get a meeting, he got an appointment for himself and his young chief technology officer to meet an IBM team.
“So, we walk into this meeting and there’s just the two of us and all these IBM guys wearing their blue suits,” Tarkenton began. “I know you guys don’t want to be here and are probably wondering what this jock has to say about technology,” Tarkenton told them. When nobody objected to this premise, he continued, “I have a stopwatch, and it’s set to go off in 30 minutes. That’s how long my CTO is going to take to explain what we do. After that, I have 25 footballs I’m prepared to sign and personalize for you, so the time won’t be a complete waste.”
Thirty minutes later, the blue suits happily settled in for what would be four more hours of discussion, culminating in a partnership that would help “Scramblin’ Fran Tarkenton” and his small team scale their business from $2 million a year to $125 million. The “win” still stands out for Tarkenton as an example of successful leadership, based in preparation but also unafraid to scramble when the situation calls for it.
In the podcast, the 81-year old leader discusses how he keeps himself relevant and competitive today, offering a number of colorfully illustrated lessons. These include:
- Refusing the status quo: Most college athletes at highly competitive programs grudgingly comply with the intercollegiate practice of “redshirting” freshmen. At Georgia, Tarkenton bucked the system by refusing to sit on the bench and grumble. “We all feel like victims at some time,” he said. “ I didn’t accept I was a victim at Georgia, and what I did there by running into the game defines my life.”
- Being prepared: Tarkenton chalks up his three Super Bowl losses to his teams’ “lack of preparation.” While the losses “irritate” him to this day, he has turned them into powerful fuel to keep him and his team sharp and up-to-date on knowledge and technology they need to compete.
- Cultivating curiosity: Listeners to the podcast will quickly sense Tarkenton’s intense pride at having surrounded himself with people not only young enough to be his grandchildren but also able to run circles around him when it comes to applying technology to business problems. “Business and sports are the same,” he averred. “Offensive and defensive systems keep changing, business communication keeps changing, and it’s up to leaders to ask questions, listen to the answers and learn something.”
When the pandemic flushed Tarkenton out of the pocket of interacting in person with people, he scrambled by turning himself into a Zoom aficionado. “I must do seven or eight Zoom meetings a day,” he admitted. “And you know what? I love ‘em! We’re building businesses and doing great things. I want to learn something every day.”