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The Culture Question

How many years does it really take to change/create a culture in big-time college basketball? John Mundy reaches into the coaching and professorial ranks for help with answering some difficult questions.

Kevin O'Neill in happier times
Kevin O'Neill in happier times
Stephen Dunn

Monday, January 14 began with news of the sudden termination of Kevin O'Neill, the University of Southern California's head basketball coach. The owner of a reputation for being a master basketball technician as well as a questionable ability to play well with others, O'Neill entered this season with a prominent place on the coaching "hot seat," and his departure was not much of a surprise. The timing, however, was. After all, the Trojans were coming off a 76-59 road win over Utah during which they had played their best basketball of the season.

Once upon a time, mid-season coaching changes were almost strictly the domain of the professional ranks. Firing a college coach mid-season was an anomaly, normally precipitated by some heinous act that threatened a school's image or staved off an NCAA investigation. Now, with the acceleration of the "McDonald's-izing" of society (We want what we want and we want it NOW), such terminations are becoming more commonplace.

And that's a problem.

The Number Three

Whenever discussion turns to justifying the termination or retention of a coach, inevitably talk turns to, "How long should it take to build a winner?" From eavesdropping on office discussions, engaging in sports bar arguments or listening to television talking heads, that answer appears to be three years. I'm not sure when, but somehow a decision has been made that three is the magic number for coaching success. Granted, my analytical nature appreciates things I can mentally box and wrap up in a nice little bow, but I'm not sure on this topic. I'm unsure mainly because one can't build an organization without building an organizational culture, and I'm not sure that's something that has a set timeline.

Neither are Dan Spainhour and Mike Muse, former college assistants and longitme prep head coaches and administrators. Spainhour, a former assistant at Miami and Florida State to Leonard Hamilton, agreed with my assessment of the "Three-year rule."

I don't think you can rubber stamp any number. A lot of things are included. I look at Leonard Hamilton. Both at Miami and Florida State there were people calling for a coaching change. I know there were talks in Miami before I got there. Year three in Miami he was 0-18 in the league. Then the next year they go to the NIT and he is the Big East Coach of the Year. The year I got there, which was years five and six, we went to the NIT and NCAA. The next year he went to he Sweet Sixteen. Similar things happened in Tallahassee.

Muse, a former assistant and Director of Basketball Operations at Wake Forest under Skip Prosser, agreed thusly:

Three years is the earliest that you can build your own culture. In most cases, it will take four or five years before you can start seeing results unless you are at a place with unlimited resources. Culture, to me, is the biggest part of building a program. Creating a winning attitude and work ethic is part of that culture. In some programs, that attitude has never been established but always expected. A knowledge base has to be built. Relationships inside and outside the program have to be established. Talent has to be developed. Leadership has to be developed. Common goals, values and attitudes have to be formed. All this is done based on making the right decisions, not just the popular ones.

Clarifying Culture

Want to elevate a disgruntled fan's blood pressure? Show him or her a news clipping of a coach or administrator talking about the importance of establishing a culture. To the enthusiastic fan, culture may have its place but it is secondary or tertiary to high school recruiting rankings and talent evaluations. Face it: most of us have said something like this with regard to sports, including me:

"I could coach that team," or, "Even I could win with that kind of talent."

However, my mind began to change after watching North Carolina's teams in the mid-nineties load up on talent like Rasheed Wallace, Jeff McInnis and Vince Carter, only to fall short of a national title despite having multiple McDonald's All-Americans on their team. Maybe, just maybe, there was something more to building a program than I initially thought.

According to Dr. Wes Davenport, chairman of High Point University's Department of Management and Entrepreneurship, culture is explained as,

... an aggregation of the individual differences of all of the members (values, personality, attitudes) and these things are fairly fixed. That is, highly resistant to change (even if you WANT to change). So if you want to change a culture, in many cases you will have to change a majority of the people. This is one reason why there is high attrition and turnover from players following coaching changes.

Additionally, college coaches are not dealing with seasoned professional people. Coaches like Spainhour and Muse are trying to instill value sets onto young men in the 18-20 age range. One could argue that it's easier to create change in the young, but try and remember how much YOU listened to directives from authority figures when YOU were 18. Me? I was invincible and knew everything, as my 'C' average in high school and journeyman 17-year college career certainly attests.

"I heard someone say that 'team chemistry' was the most overused term in sports,' Spainhour said. "They were obviously not a coach."

Where do you start?

Now that we've reached an understanding (hopefully) that coaches in relatively new situations like John Calipari didn't just show up to practice and roll a ball out, the question remains:

Just what, exactly, is involved in changing, creating and installing a coach's desired culture?

"The best place to start is making sure everyone in the organization understands individual and collective responsibility. I'm a big believer in collective responsibility. That is, if someone screws up then we all screw up. If you can develop a culture where everyone in it feels responsible for everyone else, then you have a chance to reduce the times you need to get rid of people to improve the situation," says Spainhour.

There is, however, one additional aspect of culture that is crucial to any organization. That aspect is the difference between the "formal" and "informal" culture surrounding the team. Dr. Davenport explains:

Keep in mind that in all areas of life (romance, family, work, sports, etc.) we know that the informal culture is more influential in determining behavior than the formal culture. So, while a company may have a formal mission statement that says, 'X,Y and Z is what matters,' it is the informal rules and norms established by the people of the organization that really determine how we choose to behave.

As an outsider looking in, the sentiments of both coach and professor make thing profoundly clear: no matter what kind of organization is being constructed, there is going to be a lot of individual hand-holding involved. Additionally, we've yet to mention the "clean-up" involved when one is inheriting another coach's culture. Is it better to inherit a young group to start building your organization, or do you need veteran leadership?

As Mike Muse related, "It all depends on the culture that was left behind by the previous coaching staff. If work ethic and discipline are in place then an older group is better. If not, then a younger group that can be molded into your ways of doing things is better."

Spainhour adds, "The absolute best situation would be to have some mature leadership who buys in completely to the new system and are willing to teach the young guys the ropes."

What Would You Do?

I took the liberty of asking both Coach Muse and Coach Spainhour a hypothetical question based on an imaginary scenario. Namely, if I were an AD and offered them a job at State Tech, how long of a contract would they need to get the program up and running? The caveats were that the team is facing a loss of scholarships for the first two years of the contract, a postseason ban for one, and there are rumors of looming APR penalties. What do they need to build their organization?

Coach Mike Muse:

I'm asking for a five-year contract plus an extra year for each year of reduced scholarships. What needs to happen to be successful will depend on the support you have and the people you surround yourself with. Look at what the Penn State football coach was able to do this past year. People and the relationships you form are the difference makers. Scheduling and recruiting also go a long way in rebuilding. Changing habits is the hardest part of taking over a new program. Realistic goals have to be set.

Coach Dan Spainhour also wants five years, but there is more to it:

Most important to me would be the support of the President and AD. I would have to know that I am supported in any tough decisions we may need to make. Secondly, I would need to be able to hire my own people for my staff. Everyone on the staff may not be someone I have worked with but my associate coach, my right-hand man, would be someone I have worked with and who I have a relationship with. That person must be someone who knows our system, our standards, and our expectations. I would not want to spend time training and getting to know everyone on my staff.

Spainhour also indicated the need for facilities up to par with other league members, a loyal fan base, and the need to be able to recruit talent that was comparable with the talent level in the league. He cited Indiana as an example of all of this, specifically mentioning how the fan base was able to sustain the program as Tom Crean rebuilt the team from scratch.

What Am I, the Fan, Entitled To?

The simple answer? Technically, nothing.

Donors large and small may believe that they are entitled to a winning product by volition of their financial contributions, and because individual money is spent on tickets, merchandise and booster club membership fees one can understand if there is a feeling of entitlement. However, the fact remains that a donation is an act of goodwill and an investment- a choice with hope of a positive return. The economist Milton Friedman is famous for saying, among other things, that the social responsibility of any business (and a college is indeed a business first) is, "to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game."

Taking that view, according to Davenport, one could argue that the college or university should leverage the sport to accumulate as much profit of possible. Except, he says, for two small problems:

One, universities are "not-for-profit" so there's that. Second, it has been argued by others that all stakeholders should be considered and not only the shareholders. If you take this view then you would consider the alumni, students, coaches, faculty, etc. So, you would still argue that you should maximize revenues, but then use those revenues to benefit all stakeholders of the university and thereby share the wealth (improve academic programs, support non-revenue sports, improve the reputation of the university, AND do it at a price that allows alumni and fans to participate in the process.

So does Dr. Davenport's quote mean that, say, my hometown Wake Forest Demon Deacons owe me something? If Wake Forest doesn't win after two or three years does the university have an obligation to terminate the head coach to appease me and other like-minded folks? From his quote, it seems that maybe they do (to a degree), considering the money I've invested in season tickets over the last 30 or so years.

However, I'm not a Wake Forest alumnus. I'm not a member of its booster club. More importantly, I buy my season football tickets so that I can have an escape, or a "happy place," so to speak. As do my friends. I'm guessing that if most fans took time to do so, they would find a motive similar to my own. So why, then, is there so much angst and impatience when it comes to our favorite teams?

Perhaps it's time for a change in culture, and I'm not talking about sports at all.