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What It Means To Be A Michigan State Spartan

By Mark Hollis, Jason Belzer
9 min read

I will never forget the look of panic in Mark Dantonio’s eyes.


Here stood a man of great resolve – one that thrived under pressure and considered adversity to be a privilege – who had seemingly been confronted with his greatest nemesis. And yet as the patient who lay on the stretcher before him lapsed in and out of consciousness, that very same terror had ever so slowly begun to seep into the minds of all those within the confines of the operating room. Indeed, as Tom Izzo frantically tried to insert a breathing tube into the patient’s mouth – a final, desperate attempt at saving the young man’s life – his trembling hands revealed that he too was not immune to the unyielding infection of fear.


Alas, the patient’s breathing shallowed, and for a brief moment the slow blip of the heart monitor became ever so rapid before the sharp piercing sound of the flatline engulfed the room. As a wave of morbid relief washed over the faces of those gathered under the bright lights, Mark somberly turned to Tom and motioned to the operating room doors, signaling that their difficult task had not yet been completed. Tom nodded – not a word exchanged, nor an emotion shed, just a quiet understanding among battle hardened friends.


The two of them stepped through the swinging doors and out into the dimly lit hallway of the hospital, where they were greeted by the anxiously awaiting wife of their patient. But as these things sometimes go, the grave look on both men’s faces could not hide the tragedy that had just befallen them all. It was in that instant – as the widow’s eye burst into tears, her body collapsing lifelessly into their arms – that both men looked at each other with a solemn clarity; a mutual appreciation that no adversity experienced on the football field or the basketball court could ever equal the darkest depths of what they had just experienced.


Every day in emergency rooms around the country, these events play themselves out like a terrifying déjà vu. Doctors perform under immense pressures, struggling to save their patients’ lives, and often have to push aside their own inner demons long enough to convey devastating news to the very people that have entrusted them to deliver their loved ones to health. These are but a few of the humbling lessons that Mark Dantonio, Tom Izzo and the seventeen other Michigan State coaches experienced first-hand in an all too real simulation at the University’s College of Human Medicine. And as each sat around the post-op conference table listening to physicians and hospital personnel give invaluable feedback on their performances, what did they agree was the most important lesson from the simulation?



Without trust, communication breaks.


In complex human interactions where consensus is essential and time is of the highest essence, the slightest indecision can lead to catastrophic results. It is in these types of situations that a profound lesson becomes evident – if there is no trust, than there is no communication. To understand, take it to the extreme: if I have total trust and faith in your decision making, than I require no justification or explanations for your actions because I know you have my best interest in mind. Conversely, if there is no trust between us, then nothing you do will convince me to follow you because I do not believe you are telling the truth. Without faith, there is only silence.


The disastrous results of lack of communication are obvious in the operating room, but are they really that different on the court or pitch? If a coach does not trust his players to execute, if they hesitate for even a moment, than they have condemned their team down a path of self-manifested failure. These consequences are no different when a lack of trust exists between teammates in any organizational setting.


These types of simulations are not a unique occurrence at Michigan State. From producing shows for the Big Ten network, to building cars on the production line at General Motors, we take every opportunity we can to provide our coaches with a different point of view, to demonstrate to them what it really means to work like a team in critical situations, and to impart on them life’s most difficult lessons, so they can teach those very same learnings to all Spartan student-athletes.


As an athletic director, I have come to recognize that there is no higher return on investment in executive leadership than training your employees. While I am acutely aware of how incredibly busy our coaches are, and that they would rather spend any free time they might have with their families, the value proposition created by even the most condensed professional development session is too high to ignore. The equation is simple – if our coaches participate in just one training simulation every year, it will take up a single eight hour work day. Our nineteen head coaches will work well over 60,000 hours for us this year. Therefore, if our training efforts result in just a 1% increase in their overall performance, our program has gained the equivalent of 600 hours of productivity. And this number doesn’t even factor in all the intangible benefits our coaches will gain from the experience. Not a bad payoff for a one day commitment.


Here in East Lansing, we believe that great coaches and administrators should be capable of not only acknowledging the things that they do not know, but also making room to learn whatever is necessary to become world class. Not just because humility is a virtue, but because it is not until someone realizes how little they actually know that they allow themselves to break the chains of fear and doubt that hold them back from greatness. We want them to embrace risk, to trust and take faith in the people around them and to create a culture in which great ideas flourish and the fear of failure is eradicated.


That being said, training and development is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to running a successful organization, and that piece only fits if your employees have the capacity to scale. This is precisely why I’ve made a policy to always try and hire people smarter than me, and in-turn, most of our coaches have done the same with their own staffs. The obvious benefit is that truly exceptional people are far likelier to excel and make your organization – and by extension, you – look good. Unfortunately, too many executives (and especially coaches) have an irrational fear that by hiring someone more intelligent than themselves they are putting their own job at risk. These fears are not only totally groundless, but worse yet can handicap your ability to find and hire the absolute best people for your organization.


The bigger question, of course, is how do you hire the right people in the first place? Bringing senior leadership into your organization can be a process fraught with peril. In particular, because of the unique financial structure of college athletic departments (98.7% of Michigan State athletic revenues come football and basketball) the hiring of a coach for these sports can be the single most important decision an athletic director makes during their tenure. Executives must not only have a clear way to evaluate potential candidates, but should also understand the skillsets those individuals need to excel in their roles, as well as how their performance will affect the overall direction of the organization.


Case-in-point, the process we undertook when hiring of Mark Dantonio to be our head football coach in 2007. When we began to outline the characteristics we wanted in a coach, we had to come to terms with the fact that rebuilding a football program from the ground up, just like starting a major corporation, requires a different set of competences than running one that is already well established. For example, coaches who are tasked with taking over a successful sports program must be very good at things like: prioritization, complex decision-making, process improvement and communication, among a host of other abilities. Conversely, when your program needs a complete overhaul, these skills are not nearly as relevant early on. There is no design, there are no processes to improve and communication is relatively straightforward. Instead, a coach must be proficient at hiring and retaining a first-class staff, initiating organizational processes from scratch, as well as being highly inventive when it comes to introducing new directions and tasks.


Subsequent to understanding the necessary qualifications of the role we were trying to fill was determining exactly what we wanted our hiring process to produce and how we could insure that outcome. Would we be able to get enough qualified candidates? Would the interview process be rigorous enough to filter out the wrong ones? When we found our desired candidate, what would they need to accept the job? Lastly, once our coach became successful, how would we insure that they remained at Michigan State? So many organizations fail at hiring the right people because they become too distracted worrying about A and Z to realize they should be focused on what needs to happen between B and Y.


Create a process; trust your process.


When we finally started our search, we identified an initial pool of approximately fifty candidates that we felt were capable of becoming the head football coach at Michigan State. We then analyzed every single coaching transition during the previous twenty years, and how each program performed six years before and six years after a coach arrived. We measured our results against forty different variables including, among others: whether the coach was an alumnus of the institution, grew up in the region, was a head coach or coordinator, as well as their offensive and/or defensive statistics.


Eventually our list was dwindled down to just a handful of candidates; all who on the surface were – based on the metrics and proficiencies we outlined – qualified for the job. But we were also aware of how tempting it is to make a hiring decision based solely on the candidate’s skillset and intelligence rather than whether they fit our organizational culture. Which is why when evaluating each candidate, we committed ourselves to giving their cultural fit and value congruence with Michigan State the same weight as their actual coaching qualifications.


In the end, only one candidate was left standing – Mark Dantonio. Not only did he have exactly the type of background and credentials we were seeking, but he was also in perfect alignment with our core values and department ethos. Indeed, within just the first few minutes of sitting with Mark, I was certain that he was our guy. He had this amazing aura of confidence around him; he made you want to do better, to be better just because you were in his presence. I remember thinking that I had only met one other person during my life that was like that, and that was Tom Izzo.


Mark Dantonio and Tom Izzo don’t just fit Michigan State culture, they are Michigan State culture.


The uniqueness of that culture cannot be understated. When a student-athlete walks on our campus for the first time, they are not isolated to their sport. All of them will have as much opportunity to spend time learning from the coach of another team as they will from their own. Which is why on any given day, it’s not uncommon to find golfers sitting in on basketball practice, or volleyball players standing on the sidelines during football drills. This is the type of culture that attracts and develops individuals like Draymond Green and Kirk Cousins, who have done everything in their power to help the entirety of the athletics program from the minute they arrived in East Lansing.


More importantly, we never force our coaches to spend time with student-athletes from other teams; we hire them specifically because they want to spend time with them. Michigan State is living proof that getting the people right is far more important than getting the ideas right. Everyone says they want talented people, and while that’s important, it’s not nearly as essential as how people within your organization fit together. You can take the smartest people in the world and they will be hopelessly unproductive if they don’t fit. Getting the right people with the right chemistry is more important than anything else you can do as a leader.


When all is said and done, it is I who will be held accountable for the athletics program. Every day I receive dozens of letters, emails and calls from fans, alumni, faculty and the media. Each one demands answers for some loss or shortcoming, each one searching for a response that I sometimes do not have. And while wins and losses matter, they are not the only measure of accomplishment in East Lansing. Success and failure are short lived in college athletics, and it is my job to keep our coaches grounded when things are going well, and to help them forge ahead when things are going badly. But above all is else, I must insure the preservation of all that Michigan State athletics stands for to so many people.


Over two millennia ago, King Agesilaus of Sparta would sometimes be asked why his city-state lacked fortifications of any kind. His response was almost always the same, “These are the Spartans’ walls.” Eventually, as if to save his breath, King Agesilaus stopped saying anything, but instead would simply point to his men whenever someone asked him where Sparta’s walls were. And so when someone questions me as to why Michigan State is so meticulous when it comes to picking every one of our coaches, administrators and student-athletes, or why we spend so much time and resources investing into our talent, my answer is always the same:


These are the Spartans’ walls.