Why did Steve Jobs make Tim Cook watch Remember the Titans?


Remember the Titans is a movie starring Denzel Washington as a shouty coach who turns a disorganized football into a crack, disciplined outfit. Credit: Disney
Remember the Titans stars Denzel Washington as a shouty coach who turns a disorganized football team into a disciplined outfit. Photo: Disney

A few days before he died, Steve Jobs asked Tim Cook over to his house to watch a movie together.

The movie he selected was Remember the Titans, a football drama starring Denzel Washington. It’s set in the South, and concerns the struggles of integrating a racially mixed team during the civil rights’ era. Cook was surprised by Jobs’ choice of movie — Jobs had little interest in sports — but he said they talked about it afterward.

Why would Jobs, who had recently stepped down as Apple CEO and appointed Cook in his place, want to watch this movie with his successor just a few days before he died? Was he trying to pass on some crucial knowledge?

I re-watched the movie last night and have a pretty good idea.

Cook’s movie story is recounted in a Fast Company excerpt of Becoming Steve Jobs, a new book coming at the end of the month.

Unfortunately, Cook doesn’t explain why Jobs wanted him to watch the movie or what they discussed afterward. He mentions only that he was really surprised by Jobs’ choice:

“I watched a movie with him the Friday before he passed away,” Cook remembers. “We watched Remember the Titans [a sentimental football story about an underdog]. I was so surprised he wanted to watch that movie. I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ Steve was not interested in sports at all. And we watched and we talked about a number of things and I left thinking that he was pretty happy. And then all of a sudden things went to hell that weekend.”

After reading that anecdote, I was intrigued about what they might have talked about. I enjoyed re-watching the movie, which isn’t high art but is skillfully made. It pushes every predictable button and manipulates every emotion. It’s supposedly based on a true story, but the facts have obviously been rearranged to create a neat, tidy Hollywood tale. There’s a bit of conflict, but no real suffering. Nonetheless, the actors are great and its heart is in the right place.

Parallels with Steve Jobs’ career

It was quickly pretty obvious — at least to me — why Jobs’ liked it.

In the movie, a new coach, played by Washington, is reluctantly put in charge of a football team at a freshly integrated high school. He’s the school’s first black coach, and finds himself suddenly in charge of black players as well as white — and the white players are predictably hostile. There’s lots of resistance to his way of doing things, and he’ll be instantly fired if he fails. It’s a high-wire act of will in a high-pressure situation — football is bigger than Christmas in Virginia, as an opening voiceover explains.

This is exactly what happened to Jobs when he returned to Apple in 1996, four years before Remember the Titans was released. The company was failing and in internal disarray. Jobs streamlined the company, cutting both products and staff. He revamped the org chart and more or less scrapped the product lineup and started over. But Apple was just six months from bankruptcy, and he was afraid he could very publicly fail to turn the company around.

In the movie, Washington quickly asserts his authority by desegregating the buses taking the team to summer camp. It’s his first act of authority, and the beginning of his breaking down the entrenched way of doing things. He quickly changes the way the team does everything — blocking, tackling, running and passing — and relentlessly drills the team in the new way of doing things.

Likewise at Apple, Jobs had to assert his authority (firing people in elevators!) and set to work reorganizing people and products. He shook up everything, from design to engineering to marketing and sales.

Washington is a hard-ass who pushes the players hard and tolerates no slack. He wants nothing short of perfection. “We will be perfect in every aspect of the game,” he says, “Perfection. Let’s go to work.”

This needs no explanation — it’s classic Jobs.

In the movie, Washington is hard-driving but also analytical. He studies the other teams and makes careful plans, but keeps it simple. He has a limited book of plays. Likewise, Jobs aligned Apple around a simplified matrix of just four products. It was a very risky strategy, because if any one product failed it could bring the whole company down.

About that quiet coach

The movie also introduces another coach whose quiet, friendly style is contrasted with Washington’s. Where Washington yells and screams, the other coach is quiet and reasonable. It might be a bit much too see the two coaches as Jobs and Cook — one brash, the other not — but perhaps not. In the film, they are initially distrustful of each other, but eventually their contrasting styles serve them well. In the final scene (spoiler alert!), the quiet coach advises Washington to make a tricky, unexpected play that wins the championship game.

Jobs may possibly have seen Cook in the second coach. At one point in the movie, the quiet coach upbraids Washington for publicly humiliating the players in front of the whole team. Sound familiar?

Washington counters that it’s for their own good; it’s essential to building character. The team members won’t be mollycoddled in real life — especially the black kids — and being nice is counterproductive. “You’re crippling them,” he says. “You’re crippling them for life.”

Overall, the movie is about teamwork and leadership. It’s about creating a disciplined organization. It’s about studying the plays, making plans and executing. It’s about forcing individuals to overcome their prejudices and hostility to work as a team. Through leadership, the Bad News Bears are transformed into the Undefeated Titans.

It reflects Jobs’ feelings about corporations and what makes them so successful. At one point, he said companies were one of civilization’s best ways of getting a lot of people to move in the same direction, to achieve things together.

At end of the movie, the quiet coaches sacrifices an award — a place in the Hall of Fame — for the team.

“You’re Hall of Fame in my book,” Washington tells him.

The quiet coach did the right thing and earned the highest honor: his teammates’ esteem. Perhaps this was Jobs’ message to Cook.