Almost two thousand years ago, in a moment of critical decision, Pliny the Elder, who had the distinction of being both a philosopher and a military commander in the early Roman Empire, observed that, “Fortune favors the bold.” He meant that one should recognize the opportunities posed by problems, mistakes and bad luck, and then take decisive action to benefit in situations when others would hesitate.
It is a long way from Pliny the Elder to this year’s National Championship college football game. But even if you are not a follower of college football, the thrilling Jan. 8 game provided an example of fortune favoring the bold. The teaching moment was provided by Alabama coach Nick Saban, acknowledged by many as the top coach in college football. With Alabama trailing Georgia 13-0 at halftime, Saban made a decision that few, if any, other coaches would have made, resulting in a victory for Alabama.
In the first half, the vaunted Alabama rushing attack was stymied by the Georgia defense. Saban, sensing that his team would have to pass in the second half, replaced his starting quarterback. This decision was particularly radical in the National Championship game because his starting quarterback, a former conference player of the year, had won 25 of 27 games (and one loss was in the last second, through no fault of his own). Moreover, Saban replaced him with a freshman who had not thrown a pass in a Football Bowl Subdivision major college game since October.
The freshman performed heroically, leading Alabama to an overtime victory on the strength of three touchdown passes — one on fourth down late in the fourth quarter as well as the game-winner in overtime. To say Saban’s unconventional gamble and strategic thinking paid off would be an understatement.
To his credit, Saban was willing to accept the consequences of his decision and was unconcerned with public opinion. Had he “played it safe” by staying with his starting quarterback and lost the game, in all likelihood he would not have been harshly criticized or second-guessed. By the same token, had his team lost with the freshman replacement making an inopportune mistake, Saban would have been pilloried. In the words of sports author Sheldon Hirsch, Saban eschewed “the cowardly risk-aversion approach most coaches take because of their perceived self-interest.”
In modern medicine, one of the most famous examples of fortune favoring the bold was the case of Dr. Barry Marshall, a young Australian doctor with virtually no research experience. In 1984, he purposely swallowed a cocktail containing a large dose of bacteria isolated from the stomach of a patient suffering from ulcer symptoms (self-experimentation was part of a long tradition in medicine that, for good or ill, has died out).
Shortly afterward, Marshall exhibited stomach symptoms similar to those of his patient. He hypothesized that stomach ulcers were caused by bacteria, even though the prevailing belief was that the strong acid environment of the stomach prevented bacteria from multiplying. Marshall took a short course of antibiotics, and his symptoms disappeared. Eventually, his stunning hypothesis was confirmed. For this remarkably simple finding he was awarded a Nobel Prize in 2005.
In an interview with Discover Magazine, Marshall recalled his experience disregarding conventional medical wisdom. “I presented that work at the annual meeting of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians in Perth. That was my first experience of people being totally skeptical. To gastroenterologists, the concept of a germ causing ulcers was like saying that the Earth is flat.” For their willingness to try radically unconventional approaches, groundbreakers like Barry Marshall and Nick Saban are recognized with Nobel Prizes and football championships.
This is not to say that radically unconventional moves will always work out. In fact, most times they do not. The Cubs began last season without a leadoff hitter. Based on statistics the team collects, manager Joe Maddon made slow-footed, power-hitting outfielder Kyle Schwarber his leadoff hitter — a baseball strategy rarely, if ever, tried before. It turned out to be an abject failure — the experiment was over after a quarter of the season, and poor Schwarber was sent to the minor leagues for several weeks.
Pliny the Elder was also a victim of his boldness. He died during a particularly dangerous rescue mission he attempted during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Despite this, his words live on today: Fortune favors the bold. Innovative strategic thinking often produces its greatest rewards when risk is greatest. That’s why Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide are national champions.