From Super Bowl Champ To IE-Brown MBA: The Journey of Jacques McClendon

Jacques taking in the National Anthem pregame

P&Q: What inspired you to pursue an MBA?

JM: “To be completely honest, it was something I wanted to do while I was in my undergrad. I graduated in three years and got my Master’s degree in my fourth while I was playing college football for the University of Tennessee. I wanted to get my MBA — my undergrad was in Economics. It was the next step for me to double down on my Economics degree. At the time, the business school only offered MBA classes while we were in football. I couldn’t take MBA classes at the school, so I pivoted to getting my Masters in Sports Administration. That was very fruitful. It gave me a great understanding of the sports business side, while I was able to receive some sports internships within the athletic department as well.

For me, [an MBA] was a missing piece of an education that I wanted. I started my research and eventually got it down to talking to recruiters from Wharton, Ross, and UCLA. With my schedule and how things worked, it came down to UCLA, Brown, and Wharton. What happened is that Brown gave me an unbelievable scholarship to attend. Plus, their flexibility of schedule and unique way of delivering an MBA experience was something that I found very valuable. I’m not an ordinary MBA student, quote-unquote. For me, getting with an institution like Brown University made a lot of sense. I got support from the Trust, which is an arm of the NFLPA (Player’s Union). They were able to supplement most of the rest that Brown didn’t cover with the scholarship they gave me. The Los Angeles Rams supported me with the scholarship as well. So there was no out-of-pocket money for me. When you add that up, it made sense for me to go down that road at Brown.

Jacques McClendon pregame to start the 2021 season at Sofi Stadium

As I look back, someone was always helping me. Here is this single parent kid who has received, from 9th grade to now, over a half million dollars to pay for his expenses This has uplifted me to see things I otherwise wouldn’t have seen given my circumstances growing up. I’ve been extremely blessed in the realm of having opportunity and I always want to make sure I am taking advantage of those opportunities that are given.

What excited me about IE is that I am a small country guy from Cleveland, Tennessee — a small town in Eastern Tennessee. As I grew up, my lens was whatever I saw in Cleveland. It was an unbelievable place to grow up and I am thankful for it. From there, I went to Knoxville for college and got drafted by the Indianapolis Colts and played for a couple of different NFL teams. Now, I am in Los Angeles. Your scope gets bigger by the ecosystems that you are privy to. So being in a program like IE-Brown that’s global, I’m in class with someone from Africa who is reading the same text, But because of where we’re from, it makes a difference. What I’ve learned is you get a lot more context the more you can open your eyes and have the depth to see where the world is going globally. That really appealed to me: attending a school that not only delivered from a global point of view, but also had a global cohort that you can learn from.

Going back to how I was raised, it was great — but that’s all I saw. It didn’t have resources to go out of the lines of Bradley County. Now, I’m a guy who lives in LA who and is having class with someone in London. What’s happening in London and what’s happening in Los Angeles are very different, but that context can help you see things from a bigger lens. That’s what excited me the most about an MBA: It was the big lens that the IE-Brown program is able to deliver with such a dynamite approach. You definitely learn so much from the educational piece, but also who you are on the journey with. There are so many different people from so many different places and there is so much to be learned from these interactions.”

P&Q: Tell me about a couple of your classmates. Also, how did your background as a football player and administrator enrich the experience of your classmates?

JM: “Herb Courtney is the CEO of Renaissance Search and Consulting in Los Angeles. He runs an actual executive search firm for professionals in the sports space. Here is a guy who will one day hopefully be the same person who’ll interview me as I look to move up. With his friendship from day one in this program, we’ve learned so much from each other. I’ve learned what a team may be looking for in a candidate when you go looking to procure jobs. What boxes do they want checked? What actual experiences do you need to come dominate this opening? In turn, I’ve been able to give him a peek on what goes on in the daily team operation side. How do we operate? What does the football and business sides look like? What are the dynamics of the president, the GM and the head coach? With the coaching staff, how do we procure candidates? What does the employment side look like with us? So we’re talking about two symbiotically, intertwined industries that provide services to each other. We’ve just clicked since day one. I consider him a dear friend. Just as much as we professionally develop each other, we have a friendship outside of the job realm as well. To me, that has been a very dynamic relationship and something I’ll be able to build past graduation.

I would say that Jarvis Sam, the Vice President of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Nike, is a second classmate I deeply respect. He is an absolute force to handle with everything he has done with Nike and Snapchat. He helped me think through a lens of equity and make sure the playing fields are level in organizations. He challenged me — as someone who comes from a male-dominated, hyper-masculine football environment — to ask this question: What are you doing to make sure others can enter that ecosystem? I have been very thankful for giving me his lens of being more open to what the world has. He is an unbelievably dynamic individual who is factually-based and grounded in the way he thinks.

I’ve been exposed to so much and I am learning so much from the MBA experience. As I mentioned, when you pick a school, know you are going to learn more from the people you are on the journey with. I am so thankful for the MBAs who’ve shared my journey.

Something I provide is that I am [one of the few] people in the cohort who is working for a professional sports team. We actually have someone who works as counsel for the San Francisco Giants too. I also work on both business and football operations: I have meetings where I talk about KPIs, but I also could be in a strategy meeting for coaching and scouting. Because I have such a global view of the sports world, the way I look at things could amplify what we are doing from a teamwork and culture standpoint. Football is the ultimate team sports on the field, and it is no different off the field as well.

That’s because everything we are doing is competition. We’re always trying to find ways to do better. We can’t rest on our laurels. So when I attack education, it may seem like sometimes these situations may not fit directly into what we do as an NFL football club. That’s when I have to take the player or NFL lens off. I need to make myself uncomfortable by stepping into my classmates’ shoes. Hopefully, we’ve created that kind of back-and-forth where people may stop and look at how I think of things and I remove myself to focus on how they think of things as well. That dynamic has hopefully been healthy as I share my perspective in some of these classes.”

McClendon on sideline pregame with fellow Knight Commission member and mentor Dr. Christopher Howard.

P&Q: What stood out about IE-Brown’s MBA program?

JM: “It was the challenge of thinking differently. When you’re working, you can get stuck in your ways. If that’s what helps you execute, you continue to do the same thing. One of the reasons I joined the program — let’s call it what it is — as an African American ex-NFL athlete, I have to do more to put myself in the pipeline to procure more. I thought an MBA was an important step to be able to show people that not only am I capable, but I’m willing to step up, learn, and do better and professionally develop myself. That’s what education is, right? Pushing yourself to new limits.

I came full circle because my first class was a slavery class with Professor Rockman: The Shared History of Slavery and Capitalism. Again, this was a full circle moment because it was such a sensitive topic for the Black students in the cohort. Whether in the sports world or in the business world, there are things that have happened in our history of this country that still serve as barriers of entry for African-Americans today. There is a lack of representation of black executives in the C-Suite or top sports position and this class reminded that these barriers to entry are from a long time ago and still trying to overcome. I really commend Brown for tastefully leaning into their past to change the future. I thought it was a route that a lot of schools shy away from and don’t talk about. As one of three African Americans in the cohort, the transatlantic slave trade discussions hit us a lot differently than it hit everybody else and we leaned on each other through the journey. The capitalism that still exists in our society today is based around principles that were built in early American times. For me, I am trying to take away as many barriers to entry as I can by taking steps to make myself the best person I can be. For the first class to be about this subject — considering the main reason I came to business school was to limit my barrier to entry to leadership — was like, ‘Wow! You’re right where you need to be.’ It was one of those aha moments. I had a lot of favorite classes, but that was probably my favorite moment because I was thinking, ‘You’re not thinking crazy. They’re teaching classes on this.’ It makes you want to push the needle, get better, educate yourself, and put your best foot forward and give yourself some opportunities.”

P&Q: What are the two biggest lessons that you’ve gained from your courses as an MBA?

JM: “The first is EQ is just as important (if not more important) as IQ. I say this because being an MBA student, there is a lot of group coursework. You’re running parallel with a lot of people and everyone has different working styles and different ways of thinking. So how do you make it all come together? The biggest lesson I learned is that to be a great leader and a good employee, you need to have the EQ to understand the people you’re working with and how they work — and accommodate and adapt so that you can work in parallel together. For me, business school was a very good time to work though ambiguity in that space because you can’t escape it. I’ve always worked with football-minded people, even from the business side. In business school, my classmates have nothing to do with sports. What may make sense to me in my industry may not make sense for their industry. In our Leading people and Teams class taught by Professor Paine, we had to establish a charter for our teams. Through this process, we set expectations for one another, meeting cadences and also class leads for each subject we were taking. I thought this was a valuable lesion cross collaboration and how you can create alignment through conversation and processes.

You can think you are the smartest person in the room at all times, whatever. But if you don’t have the emotional intelligence to sit back, read the room, and figure out what that room needs at the time, you’re not going to get where you need to go. I like to call this the difference between being a thermostat and being a thermometer. The thermometer is always affected by what the external temperature is. It races up or down depending on what affects it.  A thermostat is always setting the temperature. If the room is cold, it can warm it up. If the room is warm, it can cool it down. It really shows that all this education and all your knowledge can only take you so far. You still need to be able to be relational and adapt. Coming to business school for education and momentum, from an EQ perspective, I thought, I was broadened and challenged in ways I would never have imagined. I found that highly valuable for me. You’re always going to be dealing with so many different and dynamic people from so many places. You have to be ready to adjust to that.

McClendon speaking on a panel for the Global Sport Institute Arizona State at their campus in Washington, DC.

The second lesson comes from my Financial Management Cost Control class. Why? This is one of the main reasons you get an MBA: You want to understand the books. Coming out of this experience means being more financially savvy and understanding this: whatever decision you make in the moment from a line item or expense standpoint, you have to understand the bigger picture, specifically in cost control from an accounting standpoint. How do you understand the overall pie financially, so you not only make decisions that increase your vertical but also include the whole umbrella?

I think Financial Management Cost Control made me think in ways that were not just subjective emotional, but objective and financial. Now, when I am in meetings, I am carrying these lessons into how I practice. That’s the great thing about this experience: you’re working alongside your studies. I remember an aha moment: Not only did a certain expense make sense for us now, it also moved the needle in another vertical. What does that do? That builds the momentum towards a ‘Yes.’ You’re not only thinking of you, but you’re thinking of that entire pie and how a decision moves that forward. What I’ve been so appreciative of this class is that you understand there is a financial objective that we are trying to accomplish as an organization at all times. When you’re working, whatever you think has to make sense for the whole pie and not just the vertical. You can’t be selfish. You have to understand the entirety of the operation.

I’ll also go to my Globalization class, which is basically a business strategy class that dealt solely with globalization. My first instinct was to discuss the current state of the NFL, which is expanding its footprint globally to other countries like Mexico, Australia, Germany, Canada and Brazil amongst others.

It was very interesting to have a conversation with a classmate from London who had attended an international NFL game. Her experience and view of the game are completely different angles. This classmate talked about the most exciting moment on game day was the kicking.  Why? That directly correlates with soccer, which they play heavily in England. That’s what they relate to. I think it codified that people take things differently than I do based upon the cultural norms that person is used to. I thought it was cool in that moment to have those conversations and stretch myself to think about how other countries might interpret a sport that I look at in a certain way. Why? Football is in the infancy stages internationally and the NFL is looking to grow the grassroots programs and marketing activations over time. It is a long-term strategy that will pay dividends overtime and give great opportunity for people across the globe to view the game I know and love.

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