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Boston University Arts & Sciences

History News
Newsletter of the BU History Department

Prizes, Prizes, and More PrizesPrizes

History Department faculty brought home numerous prestigious awards during the Fall 2011 semester. Notable among them, Professor Jim Johnson’s new book, Venice Incognito, won the George L. Mosse Award of the American Historical Association. This award honors the year’s “outstanding major work of extraordinary scholarly distinction, creativity, and originality in the intellectual and cultural history of Europe since the Renaissance.” Meanwhile, Professor Arianne Chernock received the 2011 John Ben Snow Prize of the North American Conference on British Studies. Awarded annually for the best book by a North American scholar in any field of British Studies dealing with the period from the Middle Ages through the eighteenth century, the prize committee praised Chernock’s book, Men and the Making of Modern British Feminism, for presenting “a new vision of the Enlightenment adoption of the philosophies of toleration and equality that finally brings the debate on women’s status among eighteenth-century intellectuals out of the shadows.” Also donning top hat and tails is Professor Jonathan Zatlin, the recipient of the Prize for Distinguished Scholarship in German and European Studies awarded by the DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). The prize will be presented on December 13 at a black-tie affair in New York City.

Game On!
Organizational Capabilities and the Rise of the New England Patriots

By Louis A. Ferleger

Harry Agganis

With football season in full swing, we asked the biggest fan on Bay State Road, Economic Historian Louis Ferleger, to apply his insight to his favorite team. . .

During the football season, every day there are hundreds of thousands of print and web articles, blogs, podcasts, and twitter messages that provide information, maybe even insight, and as much trivia about each football team in the National Football League. In addition, every night, and in particular on game days, there are shows that analyze, interview, and predict well in advance as well as during the game [local ESPN stations have their writers respond to chats while the game is being played]. The NFL’s prominence reached new heights a few years ago when it started its own cable network, not only to televise games but to contribute to the flood of information about NFL teams and almost anything else associated with football.

What does all this information mean? Is it important? Who cares? Well, I admit, I care. Not about reading all this info—I don’t. But some of the information is fascinating and it raises interesting historical questions.

Let’s look at one example. Why have the New England Patriots been so successful in winning games since Bill Belichick (BB) took over as head coach? His coaching record is stunning; other than his first year (2000), in every other year the team has won nine or more games. His teams have played in four Super Bowls and won three. Sustaining a high level of success is not easy in the NFL and no other team over this period (2000–2011) has been able to consistently win as many regular season games, though not always making the playoffs or succeeding in post-season play.

Why have BB’s teams won? I think they have won because he is strong believer in the development of organizational capabilities. From the Gilded Age to present, some large business organizations, as well as the United States Department of Agriculture, were able to accumulate organizational capabilities that have contributed to their economic success.

How does this apply to a football team?

A football team would have to plan and coordinate the development and diffusion of players, make important investments when necessary, even admit sometimes that the investment in a particular players was a mistake—that is, sometimes investments yield uncertain results—develop players who are specialists as well as generalists, and generate and accumulate knowledge that enables the team to continually refocus, adjust, and adapt to changing circumstance. The key, of course, is to gain sustained competitive advantage (yes, win games!) and dominate the league (win Super Bowls!). This strategy requires innovation in planning and coordinating complex specialized divisions of labor. In other words, the team (organization) engages in a process to guide highly trainable individuals whose specialist activities sometimes get extended from defense to offense to special teams.

Enough theory. Is there any evidence to support such a notion? Here is my attempt to convince you.

BB stresses over and over again in his interviews that he is a big believer in TEAM. Every year he puts together a staff that believes in his emphasis on TEAM and he looks for players in the draft and free agents who are willing to commit to TEAM. The players must be “all in.” That is, each player must be willing to play according to how their capabilities are developed during practices; how the coaches decide to scheme and approach every game (every game plan is different, though there may be overlapping defense schemes and offensive plays). The players must be committed to the organizational development of skills—skills that may be only called upon infrequently. Over the years BB has made mistakes, but he tries to move on and locate a new player or coach as fast as possible.

BB also states that statistics “are for losers.” What I think he means is that if you are looking at the statistics and not the team effort—or how to generate high effort—you are unlikely to succeed. There are no excuses for losing, sometimes a little praise for winning, but mostly BB states: “we have a lot of work to do.”

The Pats lead the league in personnel turnover. You can divide the roster into three segments: a) untouchables [Brady, Wilfork, etc], organizational specialists who are critical to the development of capabilities across the organization (these players make other players more valuable to the organization than they would be by themselves), and whose role and activities are clearly defined and tend not to vary much over time and space; b) aspiring untouchables (Spikes, Mayo), those players who have shown enough potential to warrant more playing time than others—while their contributions may vary, many have moved from being general contributors to making more specialized contributions, even when their roles are tweaked week to week; and c) work-in-progress generalists—this last category is critical to the organization, since these players need to be able to move from position a to b, or even c (Julian Edelman usually plays two positions, receiver, return man; he now also plays cornerback and has even lined up as a defensive end).

Category c is where the team leads the league in turnovers—that is, the Pats turn over more players than anyone else. This year, they cut players whose salaries are substantial in order to maintain organizational coherence. They have drafted players such as Marcus Cannon, who has recovered from cancer and was recently added to the roster, because: “Cannon mostly played tackle in college, but coach BB said last week that he doesn’t see any reason why he can’t play anywhere on the line. ‘I think he’s athletic enough, he’s certainly big enough, he has enough power and enough quickness, so ultimately what is his best position? Left tackle, right tackle, left guard, right guard? I’m not sure.’” [source: Mike Reiss, ESPN Boston]

The key here to understanding BB’s comment is that he has measurable variables (strength, size, athleticism) in which he first evaluates a player; next, he asks if the player is capable of fitting into the organization, strategy-wise; and finally, how well does the player fit compared with other work-in-progress players. In the last category, players are shuffled around repeatedly, dropped from the practice squad, added to the roster, added on Wednesday, dropped on Saturday, etc. The key Pats fumble recovery in one game this year was made by a player added to the roster the Thursday before the game—thanks Niko!

Every week since the final cuts were made, BB and his organization, especially the director of player personnel, bring 3–5 players into Foxboro to see if they are worth including in the “work-in-progress” category. These include players such as Kyle Arrington, who started out as a “work-in-progress” player but is probably now in the untouchable category.

One last point. BB gets too much credit. He admits this. He repeatedly thanks his staff but hardly anyone notices. He does not do all the work that is necessary to prepare for a game. He will, of course, take charge when necessary. But he is a strong believer in organizational integration and he doesn’t pretend that he can do everything.

I have no doubt that other teams that are successful use some variant of this model. On the other hand, sometimes teams just lose. No matter. So the next time you sit in front of your TV or attend an NFL game, ask yourself whether the team you are watching is developing organizational capabilities. Alternatively, just enjoy the game!

Introducing Department Secretary Justin Schreiber Justin Schreiber

“I am delighted to be joining the History Department. I graduated from Boston University in May 2010 with a BA in Business Management from SMG and a concentration in Marketing. In my previous job, I was a Junior Processor for a mortgage bank in Brookline, MA. I grew up in Danbury, CT, a small city about an hour from New York. I love watching hockey, especially the New York Rangers. I enjoy biking on the numerous paths in the Boston area, as well as learning how to cook and traveling whenever possible. While working for BU, I plan on exploring graduate-level courses, possibly working towards a degree in City Planning. I am very excited to be here in the History Department and I look forward to working with everyone!”

Senior Alyssa Winter at British Studies Conference Alyssa Winter and Professor Chernock

When Alyssa Winter (CAS’12) received an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program grant last summer to pursue independent research with Professor Chernock, she was not entirely sure where her work on UK higher education funding might lead her. Yet as she immersed herself in the literature on this subject, Alyssa became passionate about the debates surrounding higher education funding and developed a paper that explored its fraught history from 1945 to the present. Of her experience as a UROP grantee, Alyssa writes, “One of my favorite [aspects of the experience was] the sense of accomplishment gained from building my project out of what was once just a casual topic of interest to then being able to see it through to its completion…Performing research as an undergraduate is an excellent way to get that initial exposure to the world of academic research.” At summer’s end, Alyssa realized that there were still questions that she wanted to answer, so she decided to continue to develop her inquiry in the form of an honors thesis. She is now continuing to work with Professor Chernock on this project and has added a comparative dimension to her research by bringing the U.S. model of higher education funding into her analysis. In late October, Alyssa and Professor Chernock traveled together to the Northeast Conference on British Studies in Worcester, MA, where Professor Chernock chaired a panel and Alyssa gained a better sense of the historical profession. As Alyssa heads into her final semester at BU, she is looking forward to seeing her honors project come to fruition, and hopes to present her work at a conference, or perhaps even publish her findings in an undergraduate academic journal. Students interested in the UROP program should consult the UROP website. The deadline for summer applications typically falls in the late spring. Students interested in pursuing honors work as seniors should also note the History Department’s launch of a new honors program. As of Fall 2012, all history majors pursuing honors work will be able to enroll in History 401/402, a two-semester seminar that will guide students through the research and writing of an honors thesis. Please visit http://www.bu.edu/history/2011/10/05/history-announces-new-departmental-honors-program-for-2012-13/ for more information about this exciting new program.


From October 22 to 23, the Boston University International History Institute (IHI) held its first annual faculty/graduate student retreat at the BU Sargent Center Outdoor Camp in New Hampshire. While enjoying lovely fall scenery at the lakeside facility, faculty and advanced graduate students met for four unscripted and stimulating discussions exploring this year’s theme: “Empires.”

The newly refurbished Graduate Student lounge has now opened on the second floor of 226 Bay State Road.

History Concentrator Jacob Slutsky was recently elected to Phi Beta Kappa.

Graduate student Jonathan Koefoed chaired and commented on a panel titled “Religion and the Intellect in the Revolutionary Era” at the New England Historical Association’s Fall Conference.

Professor Jim Schmidt was selected as a Bogliasco Fellow and will be in residence in at the Liguria Study Center for the Arts and Humanities in Italy this coming February. He will use the residency to make the final revisions on a book, tentatively titled The Question of Enlightenment, that traces the history of debates about the nature, purpose, and implications of the Enlightenment between 1784 (the date of Immanuel Kant’s famous response to the question “What is enlightenment?”) and 1984 (the date of influential reflections on Kant’s answer by Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault). For more on Schmidt’s project, visit http://www.bu.edu/history/2011/11/02/prof-jim-schmidt-named-bogliasco-fellow-at-the-liguria-center-for-the-arts-and-humanities/.

Graduate Student David Mislin’s article, “‘Never Mind the Dead Men’: The Damnation of Theron Ware and the Salvation of American Protestantism,” has been accepted for publication in The Journal of the Historical Society. It is scheduled to appear in the journal’s December issue.

This semester also marked some important personal landmarks. On October 16, PhD student Stephen Argueta married Dr. Eric Perkins of Google Inc. The ceremony was held at Boston’s historic Church of the Covenant. Two weeks later, Robyn and Chris Seely announced the birth of their first daughter, Clara Emmy Seely. She was born at 1:47 p.m. on Sunday October 30, 2011. She weighed in at 7 pounds 3 ounces and was 19 and 3/4 inches long.

In November, the department organized the Global 1970s conference (http://www.bu.edu/history/2011/10/05/bu-to-host-global-1970s-conference/). Among the presenters was our own Jeffrey Rubin, who a delivered paper on Latin America: “From Che Guevara to Subcomandante Marcos: How Radical Priests, Indians, Feminists and Workers Transformed the Latin American Left in the 1970s.” Professor Rubin has also been awarded a Mellon-LASA grant from the Latin American Studies Association for his project, “Religion, Social Movements, and Zones of Crisis in Latin America.”

Come join us in the spring when we will host conferences on “Food and the City”(February 10–11) and “Religion and American Politics” (March 22–23).

Keep Us in the Loop

Let us know about news or upcoming events. Please send news items to megmay@bu.edu, or call Megan Maynard Winderbaum at 617-353-2540.

Boston University

Boston University
Department of History
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Boston, MA 02215
Telephone: 617-353-2551
Fax: 617-353-2556
E-mail: history@bu.edu