Building a Championship Culture by Mark Jeffrey

Building a Championship Culture by Mark Jeffrey
Reading Time: 12 minutes.

From the football field to the workplace

Last Autumn the Move the Sticks podcast, with Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks, interviewed several Head Coaches of College-level football programmes, past and present, on the subject of building a “Championship Culture”. What resulted was a fascinating insight into the methodologies and approaches both in consistently successful College programmes and where the coaches had been instrumental in turning programmes around.

Listening to the podcasts it was apparent that there were common themes which were a thread through many of the discussions. Although the conversations were focused on football it was also clear that these words of wisdom from leaders in their field could also easily be translated across to any business or industry setting. In this article I wanted to summarise these themes and pick out the key messages which could apply not just on the football field but from the more general perspective of working in management and leadership in any organisation.

The coaches interviewed were: Lou Holtz, James Franklin, Urban Meyer, Matt Rhule, Brian Kelly, Scott Satterfield, Dabo Swinney and Mack Brown, with over 50 College championship titles between them including 8 National Championships. Their CVs are long and littered with excellence in achievement. There was a lot of gold to mine from their interviews on the subject of building “Championship Culture”.

First Impressions and the Vision

The issue of first impressions was a clear touchpoint for many of the coaches interviewed. From Lou Holz through Urban Meyer to Matt Rhule there was an emphasis for any new leader to put across to their new team that, “although you did not choose me, I chose you”. For any group of players (or staff) faced with a change at the top there are bound to be doubts and Rhule noted that he was aware many may have been asking, “does the new coach even want me?” and that there was an initial need to articulate that players were wanted and that he had big plans for them. This was echoed by Holz and James Franklin who described the importance of ensuring the message of “together we can achieve something” was heard early on. Urban Meyer stressed the point that the minute you take the job as the leader of a new team then those are your players, “you’re my guys now”, and that it was important to pay due respect to the previous regime.

James Franklin also spoke about recognising the situation a new leader walks into and that simply trying to replicate what you have done before might not best the best approach. It was not as simple as taking a programme you had developed previously and trying to make it fit the new situation, the plan needed to be specific to the programme. He argued that, of course, lessons could be learned from past experiences but that it was important to have those initial conversations with players and staff and to get to the bottom of who had the institutional and community knowledge in a new situation. Having an awareness of the situation you are walking into is paramount (Franklin was the 4th Head Coach in 27 months at Penn State). It takes time to build up trust with a new team and gaining an understanding of where they are coming from, what things could be carried over from the previous regime and what new ways of working could be usefully adopted would go a long way to helping build in a new situation. Franklin also commented on holding a set of core values and beliefs which don’t change  but that everything is moulded to the personnel you have. You may have to be creative in order to solve problems, particularly if the resources are limited. Urban Meyer related to the point of adapting to the situation in terms of either needing to take a fire hose or a garden hose to an organisation, or that there may simply be the need to fix a couple of things.

A clearly defined mission and a vision for the future was stressed by both Brian Kelly and Scott Satterfield, particularly when looking to turnaround a previously ailing programme. It was noted that it was important the mission was clearly articulated to everyone in the organisation right through from coaches and players through to the cleaning staff. It was thought equally crucial that this was sustained and maintained on a daily basis through the values expected of everyone, leading to a culture which would assist in achieving the overall mission.

Building Relationships

The point which struck a chord for me from multiple interviews was the degree to which coaches talked about the people and their long-term individual development as opposed to the natural skills development to improve the team.

Lou Holtz summarised it in terms of developing good young men, not just good footballers, stating that he never felt like he coached football, he coached life. He felt it was his job to make his players the best they could be. Dabo Swinney went further and commented that he sought to treat all his players like they were his sons, with a relationship that served their heart as well as the talent. Both Swinney and Matt Rhule clearly looked to the future in terms of thinking of a philosophy which looked at the player in 3 or 4 years time (Rhule) and caring about the 30 year old version of the player not the 18 year old version (Swinney). Urban Meyer commented that you should not underestimate the impact you had as a leader in this situation and that every interaction, all the time spent in front of the team, must not be devalued. Meyer stated this should be approached with the thought that today could be the difference, today could be the day you changed someone’s life.

This point was developed by a number of coaches who spoke about the need to develop strong personal relationships with players at the level of the individual. Matt Rhule mentioned learning a lot from Tom Coughlin during his year with the New York Giants as the Assistant Offensive Line Coach in 2012. He spoke about Coughlin’s focus on 1-1 time with his players and how he would meet with players to talk directly to them about the message of the programme. It was a case of needing more than simply team meetings, there was a need to build direct connections with the players. James Franklin also spoke to this point and how, in the move from a position coach to Head Coach, that can create a separation from the players. He liked to identify individuals for 1-1 dinners and to ask them specifically about the programme and how it works for them (or not!) – “What would you change? What do you like about the programme?”.

Both Franklin and Scott Satterfield commented on the benefits of an “open door” policy to the Head Coach’s office, particularly if taking over a programme where this was not in evidence previously. There was the double benefit of the information gained and it demonstrated that you cared and were able to be open and listen. He reiterated Franklin’s point on the move from position coach to Head Coach and that, as a leader, it can feel as though there is never get enough time to build relationships with individuals. This, in turn, can be in conflict with the best way to make decisions as leader, which is based on information from all sides (staff, administrators, the community and of course the players). Satterfield expanded this into his principle of creating a family-like culture at Appalachian State. In doing this it showed his players that the coaches cared about the players lives as well as the football and he suggested this assisted in building trust in the early days between a new programme and the players. Franklin also summarised it simply as, to his mind, everything started and ended with relationships, every decision made needed to help build and strengthen relationships.

Dabo Swinney brought up the point that “rules without relationship leads to rebellion” and that the relationships he sought to foster were led with love and wisdom and that it was respect between all involved, players and coaches, which built a genuine family atmosphere. He noted that they teach “servant leadership” with everyone having a role to play with a simple mantra of “how can you brighten someone’s day”. Matt Rhule came back on this point reiterating that the best teams are player-led where everyone knows they can believe in each other and that as team mates players would put others first, “do extra” and have each others’ backs.

A key phrase used by Brian Kelly on relationships was “be demanding not demeaning” in order to ensure a tough but respectful relationship was maintained. He stated that coaches should never allow things to get personal but that by being appropriately demanding of players this helped to set the standard about the required expectations. Circling back round to Franklin, he backed this point up in commenting that you can be challenging and demanding of the players if they know it comes from a place of caring about them, their progress and the programme.

Establishing the Culture

A common theme which emerged here was that institutions needed to be careful in throwing around the word ‘culture’ without a clear definition which players (and coaches) could understand. It cannot be assumed that everyone knows what you and your programme are all about. The culture needs to be built upon a set of core values or a philosophy which you maintain and communicate consistently.

The importance of culture was touched upon time and again in defining how an organisation looked, felt and acted like, particularly in tough situations. In game terms what does it look like versus your nearest rival with the game on the line. In broader terms the coaches were stressing how your culture as an organisation helps you to survive adversity, change and transition.

Urban Meyer was very clear on his perspective around building culture.  Meyer stated how important it was for leaders to own the culture of the organisation and the need to believe in it, sell it and demand it. He called it his “objective truth” which was bought into to such a degree that if a coach says “do this” to a player they do it without question, because they knew the instruction was for the good of the organisation and the programme. If a player was not able to live the culture of the organisation then they would have to leave. Meyer spoke about the “power of the unit” and how this togetherness, love and care brought about the best forms of motivation. He also commented on the need to inspire, as inspiration is long-lived as opposed to more shorter term motivations.

Lou Holtz put the emphasis on developing a culture where it was embedded that players worked for each other – “don’t let your team mates down”. He gave simple statements such as “trust one another,  be committed to excellence, care about each other and no-one is going to out work us”. He stressed the need for an organisation’s culture to define the players obligations and responsibilities over their rights and privileges. He also stated my favourite quote from any of these interviews, “If you want to achieve something you’ll find a way; if you don’t you’ll find an excuse”. Holz noted the tough decisions you may need to take in order to establish the culture you are looking for, with the example of needing to suspend a key player over a violation of rules despite the fact it may hurt the team’s chances in the next game; demonstrating the need for short-term decisions in order not to sacrifice long-term goals. Dabo Swinney also picked up on the point of not taking short cuts in order to to make short-term gains. He gave the example that he did not believe in taking in transfers at College-level because he wanted to maintain accountability in his recruitment and evaluation procedures.

Other notable contributions on the subject of establishing the culture came from James Franklin and Matt Rhule with respect to communicating the message. Franklin spoked about the communication of the culture as a mantra, “We are” as a way of building trust as a unit, stressing that together they could take the programme to a level they could not do on their own. From that trust and respect then they could achieve significant things. Rhule commented that in order to assist in getting the message across it was a case whereby you would tell your players it is “our message, your words”. If this is done then it demonstrates buy-in from the players about the message and the culture of the programme, and it would be a way of disseminating this throughout the organisation.

In turning around an organisation, Rhule also spoke about personnel changes (improving the roster) in terms of either developing the players you already have, maybe by placing them in different positions, or by getting new players in. Whichever method is adopted the players needed to be able to be moulded into the identity of the team. For Rhule’s teams this was players with a track background who possessed the speed and explosiveness with the right athletic traits (length, size etc.) as he believed the process, culture and staff would develop the necessary skill set.

Toughness & Adversity

The subjects of toughness and adversity were discussed time and again during the interviews. James Franklin spoke about the usefulness of adversity in bringing out toughness in his players and how this, in turn, supports building a strong, lasting culture. He said that “everything is fuel” in that respect, whether it was winning or losing. Franklin also commented that, in his opinion, it was harder than ever before to build toughness so in recruiting to the programme there was a need to go out and find it as a personality trait. He stated that, “this generation gets more and does less than any time in history of football”, and highlighted regulations players now work to, with limited time in practices cited as an example. Franklin thought it was harder than ever to demonstrate how adversity, through activity such as extra practice and 5am runs, would give that positive shared mental and physical experience for the team. Nowadays there was an additional focus on the science and analytics but coaches did not want to lose those the shared experiences that helped build toughness in a team.

Matt Rhule picked up on the theme of adversity leading to a maturity in players which in turn helped the programme. He gave examples of players coming back from injuries or being forced to change positions as building that maturity. Rhule also related to his programmes where the turnaournd had not been instant and that the adversity of losses during the first year (Temple 2-10, Baylor 1-11) brought the comfort of shared adversity and toughness through the hard times. He said it had been brutal but in those moments he had returned to talking about the culture with the message of “staying the course” and believing in the process. It was a position where although results did not go their way he stressed to the players that they could improve during that time even in defeat. This adversity had, in his opinion, helped to build the core traits of a championship programme of being tough, hardworking and competitive. He went one step further stating that if he was to give a young Matt Rhule some advice it would be to not worry about winning as it can eat you alive. He felt it was better to focus on the players with the thought that on the team today there was a player who needs you to help them. If you are only worried about winning then a smaller proportion of the organisation benefit, whereas by helping all the players then they all have hope, and that will help to build team. The winning and losing then takes care of itself.

Urban Meyer spoke about the need for his teams to play tough and fearless, without being afraid of making mistakes getting from A to B during a play. He wanted his players to play “as hard as you can”. He called it competitive excellence; the need to work harder and to embrace that principle. By doing this he felt that competitive spirit would come to the fore during the toughest games and his players would be better prepared for the biggest moments in games. This was picked up by Lou Holz who stated that he wanted teams to be tough and physical and that as a result, at Notre Dame in particular, he felt the team were able to rise to the occasion in those big moments.

Honesty, Consistency and Details

Mack Brown spoke about honesty helping to build trust in the programme. He stated the importance of following through on whatever he told the team the was going to do, as a sign of his commitment to them. It was the little things which developed a trust which in turn was a huge benefit to getting buy-in to the culture an organisation is trying to build.

Dabo Swinney emphasised the need for consistency and fairness and that decisions should not display any form of previous entitlement. His decisions were always based on today and what was needed next for the team and not last year’s glories. He related it to why the rear view mirror in a car is small whereas the windscreen is big and to think about where you are going not where you have been. By doing this it also helped to stamp out any possible thoughts of complacency and re-emphasised the need to stay focused on the right beliefs and the clear vision of the programme.

Lou Holz touched on the subject of attention to detail during his interview. He gave the great quote along the lines of, “the nail was lost, so the shoe was lost, so the horse was lost, so the rider was lost, so the message was lost, so the battle was lost, so the war was lost”. He spoke about this in relation to how an organisation can go through the four stages from good to great: learning to be competitive, learning how to win, learning how to handle winning (with the credit, accolades and jealousy that brings), and finally learning to win a championship. Finally Holz echoed Swinney’s comments on always looking forward by stating “if what you did yesterday looks big to you, then you haven’t done much today”.

Final Takeaways

In summarising these interviews the following messages resonated as themes which could be carried through to any organisation wishing to build their equivalent of a “championship culture”:

  • The importance of a new leader stressing they will build the culture together with the staff inherited;
  • The need to understand the starting place and background to an organisation, not assuming previous experiences can necessarily be directly translated to the new situation;
  • Establish a clearly defined vision which is communicated throughout the organisation;
  • The culture should be built on a clear set of core values / philosophy;
  • It is everyone’s responsibility to carry the message and adhere to the culture;
  • Culture is developed and strengthened through situations which rely on trust and honesty;
  • Build relationships through a person-centred approach, making time for personal interactions to continually learn about your team and the organisation;
  • Look to develop the people in your organisation, think about their future, and whether the right people are in the right roles;
  • It is acceptable to have a challenging, demanding culture but not one that tips over into demeaning;
  • Adversity can have its uses in terms of shared experience building resilience, which can help in future key situations;
  • Base decisions on consistency, fairness and thinking of the future not on history and previous experiences;

I would encourage anyone interested in team building, in any organisation, to look back over these podcasts and listen to these great leaders and their ideas on building “Championship Culture”.

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