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Creating A Foundation Of Excellence In College Athletics

By Bob Walsh

My first head coaching job was at Rhode Island College, where I took over a very talented team that had no history of success. When I left to become the head coach at the University of Maine, I similarly inherited a program that needed a major infusion of talent and had a deeply imbedded losing mentality.  Both situations taught me great lessons about change management and taking over organizations in desperate need of a cultural shift.


They Are Your People


As soon as you accept a new job, the players in the locker room or employees with your organization become “your” people.  This must be your mindset from the first hour of the first day. Often new leaders are faced with a talent deficit, and have to go out and recruit new players or employees that fit their system. But it’s a common mistake to take assume that you have to wait until you get your own people into the organization before you can make any progress. The sooner you can connect with the individuals that are already there, the quicker your culture will start to take hold.


What’s more, if you and your leadership staff distinguish between new hires and those who were holdovers, both sets of individuals will eventually recognize this bias and your credibility will be undermined with everyone. It doesn’t matter how talented someone is or whether or not they are the type of person you envision being in your organization long term; you must embrace them as your people immediately and you’ll start making progress.


A great example of this approach was Chris Holtmann, who took over an Ohio State program last June that had just nine total players on its roster, and lead them to the NCAA Tournament as a #5 seed.  The turnaround was unexpected and widely celebrated. On the day of the press conference announcing Holtmann as the Buckeye’s new coach, he quietly snuck over to the locker room and met with his players before meeting the media. He embraced his players immediately.


According to assistant coach Terry Johnson, “[Holtmann] wanted to let them know, ‘I’m here with you guys..‘I want to be here. You want to be here. This is the way we should do things. I want to get to know you guys and I want you to get to know me.’ He asked for their input. ‘Why did this happen?’ They were on the inside, and he took their input, wrote it down, had thoughts about it, and took it to heart.”


When you get a new job, you’ll be pulled in so many different directions for the first few months, your head will be spinning with all there is to do.. I experienced this many times in my career. But those you are tasked to lead – whether you picked them or not – are the most important people in your organization, and they yours now.  Embrace them as such. They will respond to you based more on the time you spend getting to know them in those first few weeks than anything you could say to them over the next few years.


Create Safety


In Daniel Coyle’s book “The Culture Code,” he studies a number of different highly successful groups from the inside out.  One of his main takeaways is the need to create emotional safety. “We don’t normally think of safety as being so important.  But safety is not mere emotional weather, it is the foundation on which strong culture is built.”


What does safety have to do with taking over a basketball program or athletics department?  In every situation where there is a change in leadership – particularly in the world of coaching  – there is some emotional trauma. Often the program has been struggling and a new coach was brought in to turn things around.  Even if it’s a successful program, there is still the emotion of a team now playing for a coach who didn’t recruit them, perhaps losing a coach they had a great relationship with.  Despite what people within that program show you outwardly when you first show up, they are all dealing with a lot on the inside. This is particularly so for young student-athletes who do not have experience dealing with such transitions.


This is a lesson I learned the hard way at the University of Maine.  We came in and established good relationships with our players right from the start.  We were very clear and honest about who we were going to be and what the standards were.  We were transparent with everything and received positive feedback and buy-in from the players. We had an elite championship culture at Rhode Island College, and we were laying the groundwork for the same thing at the University of Maine.


But what I didn’t do was think enough about the empathy I needed to show and the emotional environment the players had been in. They had been part of a losing program for a long time, they had lost their coaching staff and expectations around them were very low.  They had seen nothing but bad results. Emotionally, they weren’t in a safe place to commit everything they had.  Nothing had gone the way they hoped or expected, and now everything was being turned upside down.  How could you blame them?


When taking the reins for the first time, it’s easy to forget about the emotions of those you are tasked to lead. You are so focused on establishing new approach, wanting them to see that things are going to be different. But no matter what process you put in place and how often you talk to your people, if you want them to lay it all on the line for you every day, you have to establish an emotionally safe environment.  You do this by showing your own vulnerabilities, by being authentic with them and making genuine connections away from the workplace. You have to understand the emotions they are experiencing and show them that it’s okay, that you are all going to work together to handle them.


As Coyle puts it, “Words are noise. Group performance depends on behavior that communicates one powerful overarching idea: We are safe and connected.


Define Values In Behavioral Terms


Core values are important to any organization.  When you are establishing your expectations for those you are leading, you must be clear from the onset on exactly what your core values will be. This isn’t a novel concept by any means, but where we often miss our mark is whether or not we define those values for every individual in the organization.  We can put up inspirational pictures in the office or paint words on the locker room wall, but to get your people to live and breathe those values you have to be specific in how you define them, which can only be done through behavior.


Jack Welch famously turned around the culture at General Electric by introducing a culture based on performance and values.  But he was also very direct in laying out what those values meant in the day to day operation.


According to Welch, “An organization’s culture is not about words at all. It’s about behavior — and consequences. It’s about every single individual who manages people knowing that his or her key role is that of chief values officer.”


The values are extremely important, but only in the way they translate into behavior that can lead to success.  Which is why it’s crucial to define those values in behavioral terms, especially early on when you are laying the groundwork for your program. If you don’t, they simply become words on the wall.  Your people will hear them, but they won’t know how to live them.


Case in point – If toughness is one of your core values, you can’t just tell your student-athletes to be tough, you have to show them what it means.  We had an extremely tight culture at Rhode Island College and it translated into sustained excellence – we won six conference championships and went to eight straight NCAA Tournaments.  We translated our core values into behaviors for our players so they knew exactly what was expected of them.


Toughness was a core value, and we were constantly celebrating toughness plays on film and in practice.  Guys taking charges, first on the floor for loose balls, keeping rebounds alive. Competing was another core value, so when players brought great energy to a drill at 8 AM on a Sunday morning, we made sure the whole team knew, “that’s what it means to compete.”  The ethos of our team was about tangible action that defined our values, and we made sure our people understood that on a daily basis. This was the foundation of our culture that led to elite success.




Change management is a challenge for any leader, but in world of college athletics, everything moves a lot faster.  You take over a new job on a treadmill, and you can’t get off. You don’t get two months to settle in and plan your approach. Particularly when you’re a coach, your work never stops. Understanding the culture of your institution and its specific programs  is essential so you can put together the right game plan.


Embrace your people right away, create a safe environment for them to compete in, and define your core values in behavioral terms. This will give your culture a foundation that can lead to elite and sustainable success.