The VICTORIOUS HOCKEY COMPANY’s Weekly Newsletter: CHAMPIONSHIP CULTURE: REAL OR OVERHYPED?
CHAMPIONSHIP CULTURE: REAL OR OVERHYPED?
Coaching titans Kerr, Maddon, Arians and Saban weigh in
Joe Smith The Athletic, Jun 24, 2021
Legendary Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski hosts a radio show on SiriusXM called “Basketball and Beyond,” where he often interviews other coaches. Other champions. And in October, “Coach K” had on Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who had just won a Stanley Cup.
Through the 20-minute conversation, there was one consistent topic: culture. How you communicate, how you create an environment. “I’m a big culture guy,” Cooper said.
“Me, too,” Krzyzewski replied.
Devoted sports followers shrug or worse when the word “culture” gets thrown around by coaches, players — and horrors of horrors, the media. Is it a buzzword? What does it actually mean? But when a couple of top-level executives with the New York Rangers were recently fired partly due to “culture,” it raised eyebrows. When Krzyzewski announced his retirement, people wondered if the Blue Devils could maintain the culture he built?
I’ve always been curious about the role culture plays on championship teams, so I decided to go to the sources. I tracked down four titans in their respective sports — Alabama coach Nick Saban, Warriors coach Steve Kerr, Angels manager Joe Maddon and reigning Super Bowl champion coach Bruce Arians — to gain some insight.
Turns out, culture isn’t a buzzword to them. It’s bedrock.
But how do you create a culture? How do you identify it? Maintain it?
The four separate conversations I had with these coaches traveled similar terrain. “Talent is the most important thing,” Kerr said. “But once the talent is in place, you need a goal, you need a journey, you need the means to travel the journey. And culture is crucial, because it builds habits and consistency and builds an environment that lets the players thrive.”
How do you start creating a culture?
Saban: You have to define expectations. (You can’t) just say, “OK, this is the culture,” but don’t define it. For us, we define it from a football perspective as you’ve got to be a team, everyone has got to have respect and trust the principles and values of the program. This is how we do things and everyone has got to buy into it.
Maddon: You have to do everything you possibly can to build relationships with the people you’re working with. There’s no culture that can be formulated or made to thrive unless you know each other and trust each other. It starts right there.
Arians: We talk about loyalty, trust and respect. We start every single season with the same speech and explain what those three words mean. It’s about building a culture of accountability to each other. If you can’t trust anyone, you can’t look yourself in the mirror and make the right decision. You have to be loyal to the cause — the championship. It’s about making the right decisions on and off the field that are going to win us a championship.
Saban: You’ve got to have the work ethic, the discipline, the perseverance and ability to overcome adversity, have that pride in performance. We’re defining the culture, the expectation.
Arians: It’s not just respecting people, it’s about respecting the process of coming to work every day. You have a specific job to get done each day, and we keep hammering it home. We can’t control Sunday on Tuesday. But we can control today.
Who guided your understanding of culture?
Kerr: For Phil Jackson, for example, everything was connected. The triangle offense was part of his philosophy that everyone on the team had to be connected and everybody mattered. Everyone has to feel part of things in order to empower everyone to get the most out of them.
Saban: Bill Belichick … defined the role that everyone had in the organization. He was very specific in how we were going to do things, and even though we worked extremely hard, we knew what the expectation was.
Arians: I was with Bear Bryant, but the most influential coach was Jimmy Sharpe, my coach at Virginia Tech who also coached 10 years under Bryant. I gravitated toward him. He worked us hard, really hard. I learned from him the same thing Bryant told him. “Coach them hard, hug them later.”
Maddon: I talked to a lot of people, Jason Garrett with the Cowboys, Dabo Swinney at Clemson. But one that really struck me was Tom Moore, who is with the Bucs now. I know Bruce (Arians), and Tom was with the Cardinals and came to a Cubs game and we talked behind the batting cage. He gave me the line about focusing on “the relentless execution of fundamentals,” and that’s how you win the NFL.
Kerr: (Gregg) Popovich did something similar to Jackson, though with his own unique personality and background. There was a quote on the wall about a stonecutter hammering away at the stone, and on the 100th blow, the stone breaks. But the stone cutter knew it took the first 99 to break the stone. Not the last one. Pop’s philosophy was we’re going to work every single day, we’re going to pound the rock.
Saban: When we recruit guys, we talk about culture, the program, academics, and the guys that don’t want to do those things and don’t want to compete and be around the best, they probably shouldn’t come here. The guys who do decide to do that, they’re starting out with the mindset that you want to believe in that culture.
Arians: I’m going to get on your ass, and it’s going to be ugly. I’m not taking it to you personally, your football sucks but you’re a hell of a guy. I’ll get on a guy’s ass extremely hard, but I’ll find him in the locker room to make sure he’s OK. They tend to know who I am — you find out quickly — and my door is always open. But don’t come in here and expect anything sugar-coated. You’re going to get the truth.
How do you see culture in an organization?
Kerr: I just felt it every day. When it was happening in Chicago, it felt special, you know? That was important for me as a role player … to feel like I was part of the team. It’s powerful.
Maddon: When you just walk into a room, you can see how a group gets together. You can see that everyone trusts one another. The conversation flows more easily. There’s probably more sincere laughter. Everyone is pulling for each other.
Arians: Our team worked extremely hard, but we had a tendency to beat ourselves. Penalties, bad plays costing you. Finding ways to lose instead of finding ways to win. … Adding Tom Brady this year changed that. We set the culture to another level.
Maddon: We were in our second year (in Tampa), in 2007; 2006 was so difficult because it was an unprofessional group. They had a bunch of guys that shouldn’t have been in the big leagues. There was entitlement all over the place. And in 2007, we started to make some progress.
We were losing because the bullpen wasn’t good enough, and a lot of the reason they weren’t good enough is because their preparation wasn’t good. At midseason, we traded Ty Wigginton for Dan Wheeler. The moment Wheels walked into the door, I’m telling you, things started to change. He showed these guys how to be a professional relief pitcher.
Arians: One guy can make a big difference. With Tom Brady coming in, the way he comes to work, every single day he takes care of himself, the way he prepares, his intensity. The attention to detail. It’s like having another coach on the field. I tried to get a guy pumping his arms coming out of his breaks at receiver, I had been telling him for a month. Tom said the same thing, “Pump your arms,” and he goes, “OK, Tom.”
How do you create synergy with your leadership?
Saban: The first thing we do is have some leadership seminars here. We try to develop leadership in our players, not just anointing them when they come in as a leader. But by creating this awareness of what leadership takes, how to be a leader.
Arians: You have to give them responsibility. You have to give them ownership in making decisions.
Maddon: What I try to do is gather who I perceive to be the most influential guys on the team. You get together with them during spring training and go over policies for the year. How do we do things here? How does this locker room operate? What does travel look like? What is permitted on our plane? You empower the group to make those kinds of decisions.
Kerr: The players have to be accepting of coaching, accepting of partnership. Michael Jordan really respected Phil. Maybe it was because he played for Dean Smith and recognized the power of a great coach. Phil recognized the power of an alliance between them and had a great respect. Tim Duncan was to ‘Pop’ what Steph Curry is for me. It’s an amazing, generational talent who also happens to be unbelievably humble and amenable to coaching and, if necessary, criticism. Those players in many cases determine whether that culture is going to form, whether they’re really going to allow the coach to implement things he’s looking to do.
Arians: Lavonte David, Jason Pierre-Paul, I lean on a lot of players in our locker room to make decisions on what is in our best interest. How we practice, how we’re traveling, whether or not to have a full OTA or not. If you give them ownership, just like a player or quarterback getting to script his first 20 passes, you want players to feel involved. It’s their culture, too.
Maddon: If you’re going to try to dictate to a group of professionals all the time, it’s going to go sideways.
Saban: I tell guys they have to reinforce the values of the organization to be a leader, have to set a good example and have to help somebody win. You have to care enough about other people to help them for their benefit, not yours. If they’re not willing to do that, this is not a role for them. You can’t be on the leadership group and walk into meetings late or miss class. That won’t work.
How do you implement the culture?
Saban: We don’t have any signs up that say, “Win a National Championship” or “Win the SEC Championship.” … I tell the players that outcomes are distortions. Let’s just focus on the details. As soon as you worry about winning as opposed to the next play, that’s when you get in trouble.
Arians: You have to have some type of relationship with the guys so they know you care about them. And you have to create accountability. We start every meeting with our accountability board. Every mental error and penalty made in practice goes up in front of the group. Guys don’t like seeing their name up there. If you’re up here too much, either your give-a-shit-meter isn’t running high enough or you’re not smart enough to play for us. That gets a strong message quickly.
Maddon: It’s about attention to detail. With the Cubs in 2015, we were doing a relay drill in spring training and it was awful. I had to stop it. I got really upset because the attention to detail was absolutely lacking. I brought out an old A-ball drill that we utilized in instructional league for years, and made them go through this rudimentary drill that some guys thought was beneath them, because they’re major league players. But they weren’t going to win that way.
Saban: Just because you won last year, doesn’t mean you don’t have to go earn it next time. Success is momentary. If you don’t do the things you always did, you’re going to be disappointed when you have to play people in the next tier. It’s really about the standard, regardless of what happened yesterday — win, lose or draw. You win a championship, it still comes back to what the standards are.
Kerr: I had great advice from Pete Carroll, who I visited before starting coaching the Warriors. His advice was, ‘What are the most important values in your life, what were you built on? Pick the four most important values in your life that make up who you are and implement them every day.’ Mine were competitiveness, joy, mindfulness and compassion. Those became our core values.
Saban: We bring in speakers all the time. Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley. I think the guys really see them as star players, but they always talk about what they did to get there. Process. One of the players asked Kobe Bryant, “How did you score 60 points when you were in your 20th year and last game?” He said he worked out eight hours a day for 365 days a year,
and they don’t put that on ESPN.
That just reinforces that, “You think I’m a star player, but there’s all the stuff I did that made me what I was. I worked to become the perfection I can never reach.”
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