All in the Huddle

April 26, 2015

There are many ingredients that go into across-the-board athletic success. We talk with five athletic directors who believe the most important one is culture.

The following article appears in the April/May 2015 issue of Athletic Management.

By Ali Nolan

Ali Nolan is an Asssistant Editor at Athletic Management. She can be reached at: [email protected]

In 2008, seven years into his tenure as Athletic Director at the University of Kentucky, Mitch Barnhart took a rare time out to assess the direction of his program. Since he arrived, the Wildcats had been making small gains, inching their way up the NACDA Directors’ Cup standings, with men’s basketball still the only nationally dominant program. But Barnhart wanted each and every team to excel—he wanted his department’s culture to exude excellence.

“I went hiking to clear my head,” Barnhart says. “And while walking, I came up with this thing called the 15x15x15, which is the idea that we wanted to be a top 15 program and win 15 conference or national championships by the end of 2015.”

With an 11th place finish in the NACDA Cup standings last year and 13 banners hung since Barnhart’s walk in the woods, the Wildcats have clawed their way to across-the-board success. But Barnhart knows reaching these goals wasn’t due to simply devising a catchy slogan. It came from the culture that was built in the process.

“There is a lot of talk in athletics about core covenants and strategic visions, and I’m not sure I buy into all those terms,” says Barnhart. “For me, pointing a program in the right direction starts with establishing a culture with sound values.”

As leaders in the business world often preach, any organization seeking success needs a strong culture. And athletic departments are no exception. But how do you assess your program’s culture? And what are strategies for either changing it or keeping it strong? Here, five athletic directors explain the journeys they took to examine their department’s culture and how doing so led to competitive success.

DEFINING IT

When Erin Quinn went from being Middlebury College’s Head Men’s Lacrosse Coach to its Athletic Director nine years ago, he felt he had a firm grasp of the department’s values. He also believed that ensuring every member of his staff shared his understanding required spelling out these precepts.

“A positive, strong culture had existed in our department for years, so I didn’t think we needed an internal change,” Quinn says. “But I realized there was a need to articulate it. Some of that was due to having new coaches. And we wanted to display what we were about to our external audiences. In that process, we decided to affirm our shared vision—to construct a pact that would guide our day-to-day actions.”

Initiating discussions on culture was the first step. “Over the first year and a half, I hosted brainstorming meetings with everyone in the athletic department,” Quinn says. “We would break into small groups, and I had each person explain to the others what he or she thought our core values were. I’d also ask: ‘What values don’t we share that we should?’ Sometimes, the meetings were weekly, but I also spaced them out at points to allow time for reflection.”

By the end of the sessions, Quinn had a long list of cultural values. “As a department, we started narrowing them down,” he says. “We didn’t want to end up with more than four words. We felt that the list needed to be small enough that it would roll of our student-athletes’ tongues, yet large enough that the discussion around them would be substantive.”

The terms that rose to the surface were: respect, integrity, teamwork, and accountability. “I understand that these sound cliché for an athletic department. But it’s a matter of spending the time discussing what is important, and each of these words take on a deeper meaning for us in conversation,” Quinn says.

The next step was putting the words into action. “It was important that we didn’t simply stick these phrases up on a website and forget about them,” Quinn says. “We developed statements to go along with them, as both an internal reminder and as an external broadcast to student-athletes, prospective students, parents, and faculty. Thanks to these explanations, there is a shared understanding of what the terms mean. And we revisit them from time to time to see if changes should be made and to keep these discussions alive.”

Ingrid Wicker-McCree, Athletic Director at North Carolina Central University, has also put effort into defining her program’s culture. Three years ago, NCCU completed its transition from NCAA Division II to Division I, and she believes that maintaining departmental values was essential to getting through the first tough years.

“Everyone makes goals and sets values, but I knew I needed to be transparent and make sure all of our stakeholders were educated about the direction we were taking,” she says. “In those first years of D-I play, we were losing and it was very difficult, but because our vision was defined, we were able to stay on course.

“We started by asking ourselves, ‘What is the culture we want to have once we have finished the transition?’” Wicker-McCree continues. “We decided our goals were to achieve academic and competitive success, maintain institutional control, and ensure student-athlete well-being.”

Wicker-McCree then worked hard to keep those tenets front and center. “I passed out business cards with the goals and their explanations at every staff and student-athlete orientation,” she says. “I include them as the signature on my e-mails. Having them always visible was essential to making them a reality, especially since we went from 25 full-time coaches to 55 in one year.

“Just as important, we wanted to maintain a culture of care,” she continues. “Being a smaller institution and an HBCU, one-on-one interactions and a family attitude have always been our foundation. I make sure to drop by study halls and speak with student-athletes every day, and I encourage other staff members to do the same. By keeping those values in focus from the start, we’ve been able to preserve what we’re about while enjoying competitive success.”

When it came to defining the culture at Kentucky, Barnhart’s goal was to look past the revenue sports—to make the rifle team as important as the basketball squad. “I wanted everyone to know that I valued every sport, and that every team’s success and GPA mattered in our quest to build a healthy, winning culture,” he says. “It’s not about picking and choosing what teams to pay attention to. By expressing that everyone has a responsibility to collectively raise the tide for all the ships, we created a sense of team throughout the department.”  

At Bishop Hendricken High School in Warwick, R.I., Athletic Director Paul Alianiello runs a department that is steeped in pride and tradition, with alumni constituting 50 percent of the coaching staff. But that doesn’t mean he takes the department’s culture for granted. “Our mission is to develop each of our students to their fullest potential in every area,” he says. “So the impetus of all our programs, from academics to athletics, is excellence. Whether we promote that through athletic experiences or great coaching, our focus is on the personal growth of each student, which contributes to the overall success of the entire program.”

Karl Costello faced the opposite situation when he became Athletic Director at Niles North High School in Skokie, Ill., 15 years ago. From day one, the administration challenged him to make big changes in the attitude and direction of the underwhelming athletics department. “Our superintendent told me we needed to stop renting space at the bottom of our league,” says Costello. “But to do that I needed to examine and redefine the culture. For Niles North, that meant making athletics relevant in the school as well as the larger community. I took a close look at the values in our community and focused on building a culture that matched them.”

“It would have been really easy to fall into a mindset of trying to win no matter what,” Costello says. “But that would’ve failed miserably because it would turn off the community. Instead, we started by examining how we could get more students involved, how we could get athletes playing all year long, and how to get kids involved at younger ages. We knew if we could show the students and parents how much fun they would have, we could create a thriving program.”

ALL ABOARD

Once a culture is defined, the next step is getting buy in from every coach. Costello says this was especially important at Niles North, where several coaches he inherited were content with the status quo. His strategy, which proved successful, was to balance supporting his coaches while pushing them to embrace the new culture.

“I was tempted, at first, to make drastic staffing changes,” Costello says. “For example, I knew a great outside candidate for one of our open coaching positions. But an assistant coach from the existing staff also applied for the job. By giving him the opportunity, I demonstrated that I was willing to work with and support the personnel in place. I found that was critical to getting everyone to be receptive to my ideas.”

From there, he began the process of mentoring coaches toward change. “I did a lot of walking around and listening,” he says. “I didn’t show up at practices with the attitude that I was judging them. In fact, I was always supportive and would pull the coach aside to tell him or her what drills I liked. But I was looking for things that weren’t going to fly—like inattention, negative language, or kids standing around too much.”

Costello then carved out time for regular meetings with each coach. “Having discussions with coaches was pivotal in changing the direction of the program,” he says. “I would reinforce the positive aspects of their coaching, and then ask them to explain why they were doing the things I perceived to be negative.

“After spending a full year guiding them, the majority of my staff met my expectations and adapted,” Costello continues. “For those coaches who couldn’t adjust and whose contracts I was considering not renewing, I knew it wasn’t based on a knee jerk reaction. It was based on data and observations. Most of these coaches resigned. They realized they didn’t share my vision and didn’t fit in.”

Costello made it a point to hold all the coaches accountable for their efforts, regardless of the popularity of their sport. “One coach had low participation rates and a lack of outstanding performance in a low-profile program, and I went through the mentorship process with him,” he says. “Unfortunately, he was extremely contentious and reluctant to change. But I knew if I didn’t address it, his attitude would eventually erode the culture we were trying to build. I decided to bring in new blood and that program is now thriving.

“I had other coaches tell me that when they saw me address this issue, they knew that no stone would be left unturned,” he continues. “Seeing that I cared about every program made them buy in even more.”

At Kentucky, Barnhart has gotten coaches on board by tapping into their competitive spirit. “Last year, we were five points away from the top 10 of the Directors’ Cup,” he says. “There was a lot of pride because we made it to the top 15, but we wanted to be in the top 10. Each coach knows he or she has a responsibility to get us to that top spot.

“At a meeting, I’ll ask them which coach I should confront as to why they didn’t do just a little bit better,” Barnhart continues. “Who could’ve gone one step further in the NCAA tournaments? My coaches want to be the person who says, ‘I made the difference to get us to the next spot.’”

PAST TO PRESENT

With coaches all pulling together, another group that must adopt the department’s culture is the student-athletes. Bishop Hendricken does this by tapping its history. For example, this past October members of its eminent cross country team reenacted the school’s first-ever athletic activity—running a mile-and-a-half loop around two baseball fields, through a cow pasture, and to a tree—as part of a celebration with alumni.

“That was an important event to commemorate, both for the school and for the former students who ran that first race,” says Alianiello. “And we do these kinds of things all the time.”

Another way Alianiello gets current student-athletes to appreciate the school’s legacy is by continuously celebrating remarkable alumni. “We just retired two jersey numbers at a ceremony this past January,” he says. “One is Jeff Beliveau, who is a pitcher for the Tampa Bay Rays. The other is Colin Briggs, who played on the University of Virginia’s national championship men’s lacrosse team. We do this to honor them, but also so that our current students understand our continued success and what a special culture they are a part of.”

Wicker-McCree makes sure to talk about NCCU’s past heroes with her current student-athletes. “Legendary coach John McLendon, who studied under James Naismith, both played and coached at NCCU,” she says. “Mentioning that when talking to a recruit or a student-athlete makes them realize that we value our history and have always been in the process of building something great.When you understand your past, you are more apt to build on it.”

This fall, NCCU will take its history-culture piece even further. “We will assign summer reading to our incoming student-athletes that has either been authored by past legends or details the history of our athletic program,” Wicker-McCree says. “It is important that they know their legacy and the individuals who laid the foundation for where the program is today.”

Some of the most effective programs give students an up close look at those who have preceded them. “Every year, we have an alumni swim meet,” Alianiello says. “This year we had 25 graduates come and compete against our current team. We also have an annual alumni soccer game the night before Thanksgiving. The former student-athletes have a great time and enjoy reconnecting with each other, but it also allows a sharing of stories of past success with our current athletes.”

At Niles North, alumni events are just starting to gain traction, which Costello sees as a testament to a blossoming culture. “We recently had an alumni wrestling meet featuring 38 former student-athletes as well as a retired coach,” he says. “There was a lot of pride in the gymnasium, seeing these guys come back and their desire to stay involved with the school. It was a great experience for our student-athletes.”

“Creating more events like these is the next phase in building our culture,” Costello continues. “We can now start traditions because our student-athletes are proud of their time here and want to come back. They see we are making great strides and understand that they are part of that history.”

PROPER ALIGNMENT

The final piece of maintaining a strong culture is ensuring it fits in, and is understood by, the school and community. Wicker-McCree does this by continually examining how the athletic department’s vision matches the institution’s plans.

“Our chancellor, Dr. Deborah Saunders-White, set the standard, called ‘Eagle Excellence,’ which ensures we are developing our students and our services with greatness in mind,” says Wicker-McCree, who sits on the school’s administrative board. “This is what guides our weekly senior staff meetings. Then, when I meet with the athletics staff, we center our conversations on it as well. So our culture isn’t just the athletics culture, it’s the university’s culture.”

At Middlebury, Quinn works on integrating academics and athletics by showing faculty members the athletics culture first-hand. “We provide all of our teams with a faculty affiliate,” he says. “They act as a liaison and help to bridge any gaps between academics and athletics. Our faculty members might eat lunch with their team or have the players over to their home for dinner. It gives our student-athletes someone to talk if they need advice about time management or classess. In addition, the faculty members get to see the value of athletics.”

The program has had great success in getting the campus behind athletics. “We had a physics professor write a letter to our president after he attended an away game with one of our teams,” Quinn says. “He was impressed that the student-athletes were studying on the bus and in their hotel rooms. And he loved the coach’s speech before the game. Usually, faculty just see the on-the-field performance. This gives them a complete picture of how athletics fits in with the overall culture of the institution.”

At the same time, athletic directors need to be ready for shifting institution-wide strategies, which is when culture may be most important. “In education, you’re always going to be tweaking and changing,” Wicker-McCree says. “Whether that change is driven by new leadership or our governing structure, we have to adapt. But I know that as long as I educate my staff and coaches about what is coming down the line, we can stay flexible and true to our core goals.”

 

Sidebar: AWARDS NIGHT

Sometimes, just a taste of success can ignite a revolution. That’s what University of Kentucky Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart had in mind when he introduced the CATSPYs, an intra-departmental awards night based on the ESPYs, which aims to showcase the department’s culture of excellence.

“This one event helped us a lot in our current success,” Barnhart says. “It’s our end-of-year celebration, and has become a great tradition that epitomizes our culture.”

When Barnhart introduced the CATSPYs, he commissioned ESPN personality Jay Crawford as the host. “We wanted everything to be special so it would have a high level of credibility,” he says. “We decorate the Coliseum and everyone gets dressed up.”

Barnhart also wanted the awards to be meaningful. “This wasn’t about giving student-athletes certificates for participation,” he says. “I wanted everyone in attendance to notice the winners and, in turn, be motivated to win an award. I figured if I could get the students to want to be up on the stage, it would change their thought processes about the program, and encourage them to improve.

“I believe that’s where our desire to win came from,” Barnhart continues. “Winners want to be around winners. Soon after our first CATSPYs, we started seeing more athletes earning All-American honors and more of our coaches being nationally recognized.”

At the end of the evening, every student-athlete leaves with a gift from the department. “We give them a Wildcats shirt to train in for the summer or something like that,” Barnhart says. “With that token, they walk out excited for the next season. We want them to leave feeling fortunate to be part of the bigger picture.”

 

Sidebar: OFF-CAMPUS EFFORTS

To build a thriving culture at Niles North High School in Skokie, Ill., Athletic Director Karl Costello began by reaching out to those beyond school walls. “We have an extremely diverse community, with many families coming from other countries,” he says. “Some of our parents didn’t understand why their sons and daughters should spend so much time at sports practice.

“The key was to build trust, which took some time and patience,” Costello continues. “My staff and I knocked on our student-athletes’ doors to explain the importance of practices to their families and invite them to games. Eventually, parents started to attend meetings at the school, and I tried to talk with them as much as possible. I did little things to show them that I cared and how our program was benefitting their child.”

Costello also partnered with sports programs at lower levels. “Too often in youth leagues, coaches are very results oriented, which turns the kids and parents off,” he says. “We decided to take the lead and offer those teams the use of our facilities. We also gave them access to some of our coaches who would evaluate students and work with the parent volunteers.”

By collaborating with the youth programs, Costello was able to reduce the emphasis on winning and increase participation. “Once there was some trust and a comfort level, we could have the courageous conversations with parent-coaches about how it wasn’t productive to focus so much on winning,” he says. “Now, our youth program is solely about having a good experience.”

Today, Costello employs coaches who act as liaisons between the high school and junior high, helping the players transition into high school competition. “Keeping everyone invested is a major priority,” he says. “The enrollment at Niles North is 2,200. When I first got here, we only had 600 student-athletes. Now we have 50 percent of our students participating. I think focusing on youth programs was an important part of getting to this level.

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