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How College Athletic Programs Have Learned To Win With Less

By Jason Belzer & Bob Walsh
4 min read

All organizations face challenges, and intercollegiate athletics departments are no exception. In a business environment where resources vary dramatically, sustaining a high level of success in college sports depends tremendously on a department’s ability to continuously innovate or face being caught in a spiral of mediocrity.


There is no better example of this strategic outlook than at smaller universities and colleges that must overcome significant challenges to simply stay competitive against far better financed competition. Some of these institutions have managed to find a strategic approach to not only staying competitive, but actually prospering in such a challenging marketplace.


Embrace the Culture


One of the most important elements in building any successful organization is for managers to fully understand and embrace the pre-existing culture of the workplace they are tasked to lead. While some organizations may seem like they have the capability of sustaining a high level of competition over the long term, often reality cannot be further from the truth.


Rhode Island College is an inexpensive, blue-collar state school with a mission to provide affordable, quality education for those who may not otherwise have an opportunity. The school attracts non-traditional, working class, often first-generation college students.  Rather than attempting to recruit a different caliber of student-athlete, instead Rhode Island embraces individuals who fit this precise mold and used their stories of adversity to establish a passionate culture.”


“Our mantra is ‘Entitled to Nothing,” explains Bob Walsh, head basketball coach the Anchormen’s preeminently successful basketball program.  “We never talk about what we don’t have, but rather live by the maxim ‘Win Anyway,” a no-excuses approach that fits well with the hungry, driven players from adverse backgrounds the school attracts. Rhode Island College is proud of its culture, and we feel we can win because of it, not in spite of it,” he adds.


When an organization’s cultural identity is in alignment with the message it communicates to the outside world, it is much easier to attract the talented individuals necessary to propel it towards its goals.


According to Ed McLaughlin, athletic director at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), “You have to embrace who you are [as an organization]. You can’t have delusions of grandeur and think that you’re going to be a top program each year when your competitors have budgets double or triple what you do. The sooner you come to terms with reality, the sooner you can maximize the resources you do have and achieve the greatness you are actually capable of.”


Yet universities like Virginia Commonwealth still operate with budgets in the tens of millions, enough to allow leaders like McLaughlin to have at least some flexibility in how they allocate resources. For smaller schools, like Division III Rhode Island College (RIC), the athletics budget is a fraction of larger institutions. Consequentially, schools like RIC are even more heavily dependent on insuring that they do not stray away from their true organizational identify when it comes to sustaining culture.


Be Creative to Attract and Retain Talent


For the better part of a decade, Rhode Island College has recruited a higher level of basketball talent than most Division III institutions, fueling their run of 8 straight NCAA Tournament appearances. In order to attract athletes without scholarships or much in the way of a recruiting budget, Bob Walsh and his staff had to get comfortable with the unconventional.  The traditional system of recruiting student athletes –have them visit campus, visit with their families, show them a lot of love – simply doesn’t work under the constraints the school must operate under.


According to Walsh, “In the case of small schools who manage to maintain a consistent success, usually the most talented individuals are also the ones that slip through the cracks of the recruiting system. We’ve discovered that best approach when it comes to courting such players is to tell them that while the program recognizes that they are scholarship level athletes, if for some reason their pursuit to play at a higher level doesn’t work out, we’ll be there waiting with open arms.”


The Anchormen simply do not have the resources to travel to see them play more than everyone else, nor do they expect to convince them to pass up on a scholarship.  By “not recruiting” them in the traditional sense of the word, they are able to develop a deep seeded trust with each player because they don’t feel like they are being sold on the school – they are simply being honest with them.  In the end, if the student-athlete doesn’t get the right scholarship, that trust often pays off.  More importantly, when those scholarship level student-athletes finally do reach their campus, it’s easier to make sure they stay because the relationship is based on trust from the very beginning.


Value Toughness       


According to Angela Lee Duckworth, Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, the key predictor of success in many different areas of life can be traced to a single characteristic – grit. Whether it’s inner-city public school kids, cadets at West Point or college athletes, it’s grit – one’s passion and perseverance toward their long-term goals – that will set apart those who thrive and those who don’t.


“In the world of college sports, grit is often equated to toughness. Yet an individual’s toughness isn’t always easy to recognize or evaluate, and inevitably often gets overlooked,” says Walsh. “It is much easier to recruit the skilled athlete or physically imposing player because these attributes are immediately identifiable and easily translate to the building blocks of a winning team. Not surprisingly, it is the higher-level schools, [much like other market leading organizations], which recruit such talent because they can afford to outspend there competitors,” he extrapolates.


It is important to recognize that because toughness is difficult to evaluate and describe in tangible terms, it is inherently undervalued. Searching for characteristics like toughness and grit allow for organizations with smaller resources (like RIC) to find plus-level talent, all the while saving them from wasting what little resources they have on chasing elite prospects.  More importantly, toughness perseveres.  It translates well to any level and it survives.


Just as most organizations do not have the payroll to recruit new talent out of the country’s elite business schools, they can still find highly competent and committed individuals if they are willing to look at the intangibles a bit harder.


“We’ve had plenty of players who didn’t get a shot elsewhere come play at RIC and have long, successful careers. I think you’d be hard pressed to find any leader who would complain that his team has too much toughness and grit,” reflects Walsh.


Open Up Your Organization


When an organization must operate with limited resources, cultivating internal and external support is integral. Managers must do everything in their power to rally those around them to get behind their vision, and part of that process is creating trust between themselves and those they lead.


“It’s the job of athletic directors to make sure their coaches know they’re going to stand behind them in good times and bad,” explains Ed McLaughlin of VCU. “We have to let them focus on doing their jobs, and clear the way of obstacles that would otherwise get in the way. When an athletic director’s relationship with a coach is strong enough that the coach realizes there is a true mutual commitment to winning, then and only then are their programs capable of reaching its full potential.”


Likewise, gaining support of external constituents is equally integral to the success of an organization, and cultivating a culture of transparency facilitates doing so. Giving individuals who touch an organization on the fringes the opportunity to engage in a meaningful way builds a trust and commitment that would otherwise never materialize.


In the case of a college athletics programs, that means making every single element of its operations open for the public to see, including the hiring of new staff, the expenditure of funds, every class, practice and meeting. A programs goal must be to become the role model for the industry when it comes to radical organizational transparency.


Such transparency trickles its way down the local university community and creates a positive atmosphere on campus when the next generation of talent visits.  While a athletics program may not have all of the financial advantages of some of the schools they are competing against, that recruit may also not get the same feeling about another program that they gets when they’re visiting with you.


“You must work to create an atmosphere that people want to be a part of, and it doesn’t take all that much effort – allow people inside of your organization, treat them right and they will feel invested in your success, explains Walsh. “Being a leader can be a lonely job sometimes, especially when things aren’t going as well as they should. By creating transparency within your organization, you’d be surprised how many friends you can make.”