Recruiting – A Lesson from Bo Jackson

Intangible benefits play a big part in recruiting.

There are the obvious aspects of employee recruitment: salary, location, benefits, workplace culture and other enticements.

But there are also the intangible elements of employee recruitment. These are the less obvious things in recruiting efforts that can still make or break a deal.

Do You Know Bo?

Bo Jackson.

Heisman Trophy winner. Multi-sport superstar (football and baseball). The only athlete to be voted an All-Star in both the National Football League (NFL) and Major League Baseball (MLB). And icon of the 1990s through Nike’s “Bo Knows” marketing campaign.

Ring a bell?

Widely considered a great athlete, Jackson was actually a stunningly gifted athlete – even more so than the average sports fan was aware of at the time.

Everyone saw the highlights on ESPN during Jackson’s reign of terror. We all saw The Wall Walk, The Throw, the long touchdown runs, the gigantic home runs and, of course, the Brian Bosworth Incident (Google Bo Jackson highlights if you need a refresher).

But then there were the rumors. That he never lifted a weight and was naturally Hulk strong. That he just walked onto the football field after baseball was over without any training camp or special work. That he once jumped over a Volkswagen Beetle (again, Google away).

Well…it turns out the rumors were true. Jackson was even more monumentally gifted athletically than we saw during his collegiate career and unfortunately brief professional career (Google Bo Jackson hip injury).

Yes, the guy whose unofficial 4.12-second 40-year dash time at the NFL combine – the camp where top recruits drill for NFL scouts – is still the fastest ever recorded. Again, Google away. And if you haven’t seen ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on Jackson, You Don’t Know Bo, and you’re a sports fan, it’s well worth it.

But we’re not talking about sports; we’re talking about recruiting.

Jackson has three recruiting stories attached to his name that serve as cautionary tales for not only athletic organizations but companies as well. And they’re all about the intangibles.

‘No’ to the Yankees

A star athlete in three sports (football, baseball, track), Jackson was attracting a lot of attention while still in high school. And not just from colleges.

In the 1982 MLB draft, the New York Yankees drafted Jackson and included a six-figure signing bonus in the offer.

Jackson declined. Why? Because he’d promised his mother to go to college – to be the first in the family to do so.

With the decision, Jackson gave us a hint about his character. If there’s anything you should know about Bo Jackson, other than the athleticism, it’s that Jackson does what he wants (and what he knows he can do, like play professional baseball and football at the same time), regardless of what other people think.

The lesson for employee recruitment: people don’t always choose a job based on salary or prestige (remember, it was the New York Yankees) or other obvious tangibles.

Auburn Over Alabama

An Alabama native and Alabama Crimson Tide fan growing up, according to reports, Jackson should have, by all rights, chosen Alabama for college.

However, when meeting with Alabama officials, one of them allegedly told Jackson that he might not play until his junior year.

Now, Alabama wasn’t the only school recruiting the star high school athlete – Auburn was calling, too.

And when Jackson met with Auburn officials, they reportedly told him he’d have a chance to play as a freshman – he just had to prove he deserved it.

Despite being an Alabama fan, Jackson chose Auburn.

The lesson for employee recruitment: opportunity – the chance to make an impact – is a huge motivation for applicants.

Baseball Over Football

Everyone assumed Jackson would play professional football, seeing how he was the Heisman Trophy winner and considered a better football player than baseball player.

Also, there was the fact that Jackson didn’t even play baseball the last half of his senior year season – he was ruled ineligible by the NCAA for accepting a plane flight from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were recruiting him for the NFL.

According to Tampa Bay, the team checked with the NCAA to make sure the flight wouldn’t violate any rules for amateur athletes – which it clearly did.

According to Jackson’s baseball and football coaches at Auburn, no one at the Bucs organization ever checked with them before flying him to Tampa.

Jackson was (and still is) convinced that the move was a calculated one to make him ineligible for his final baseball season and, therefore, ensure he would choose the NFL over MLB when he graduated.

It didn’t work.

“He became very disenchanted with the [Tampa Bay] operation,” Jackson’s Auburn baseball coach Hal Baird told the Tampa Bay Times in a 2015 article. “If you know Bo Jackson, he’s nothing if not a man of principle. Once it got in his mind that that might have been calculated, he was never playing a snap for them.”

And so he didn’t.

“I told (owner) Hugh Culverhouse, ‘You draft me if you want,'” Jackson told ESPN. “‘You’re going to waste a draft pick. I promise you that.'”

The 1986 draft came. Tampa Bay, perhaps thinking Jackson would change his mind and play football after all, took him as the number one overall pick.

It was a waste. Jackson skipped football altogether and signed to play baseball with the Kansas City Royals, who drafted him in the fourth round of the MLB draft on the off chance he might choose baseball – for a lot less money than Tampa was offering.

The lesson for employee recruitment: don’t underestimate your applicants or make assumptions about them.

The Bo Jackson Case Study

Jackson would, of course, go on to play in the NFL as well (he was drafted a year later by the Oakland Raiders after Tampa Bay’s rights to him expired) before a freak hip injury ended his football career (and diminished his baseball career) after only four years in the NFL.

During his playing time, Jackson showed himself to be every bit the athlete he promised to be – and more.

Now, he continues to serve as a cautionary tale for sports and business recruiters everywhere – about the intangibles, and just how important they actually are.

By Charlie Smith

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